There were so many weird moments in Thursday night's critical, 10-candidate Democratic presidential debate in Houston that this one largely flew under the radar, even though it was quite revealing. It happened during a back-and-forth between ex-veep Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders drove home one of the main points of his second quest for the White House: Residents of most industrialized nations - even one that looks a lot like us, on our northern border - don't struggle with medical costs in the bizarre way that Americans do.
"Let us be clear, Joe, in the United States of America, we are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on earth," the Vermonter said.
"This is America!" Biden shot back.
I mean, Biden's right - this is America, which happens to be a nation where as many as 500,000 citizens declare medical bankruptcy every year (the comparable number in other developed countries is ... zero) and where a 50-year-old roofer who loses his job also loses his insurance and thus dies needlessly from cancer. Is this Biden's version of Hillary Clinton's doomed 2016 mantra that America is already great ... because we tough out our serious illnesses, unlike those wusses in Canada who run crying to a doctor?
Just 24 hours after Biden's strange defense of the American Way of not-doing-health care, his rival Sanders was back on the campaign trail in Carson City, Nev., where he heard from a 20-year Navy veteran with Huntington's disease, a fatal degenerative illness - and nearly $140,000 in doctors' bills. When the candidate asked the man how he plans to pay off that debt, the veteran replied: "I can't, I can't, I'm gonna kill myself."
This is America.
The thing is, Biden's strange retort on health care - emblematic of his broader approach to tinker with the Obamacare enacted during his vice presidency but shun the radical change backed by Sanders or his closest rival, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren - didn't get much press because other moments were even odder. Most notably, the Delawarean's rambling response to a question about America finally addressing the legacy of slavery that suggested parents play words to their kids on "a record player" and which, far worse, seemed to embrace the kind of racist tropes about black parenting that were in vogue when Thin Lizzy and Foghat were spinning at 33 1/3.
In other words, it was the kind of performance that your typical elite insider Beltway pundit could ... rave about? CNN's Chris Cillizza - whose picture is in the dictionary when you look up "clueless inside-the-Beltway talking head" (I'm guessing) - focused largely on the 76-year-old's performance earlier in the night (before he queued by the ol' Victrola), saying he "looked strong and presidential although it wasn't perfect" and listing Biden first as a "winner" of the debate.
But Cillizza's four-star review was hardly unique. The Washington Post's always-spot-on media columnist Margaret Sullivan noted the wide disparity between some of those paid big bucks to opine on politics and the regular folks on social media who seemed to see through the ex-vice-emperor's new clothes. Sullivan quoted pundits like the New York Times' Frank Bruni, who wrote: "Nothing on Thursday night broke his stride, such as it is." (Which sounds like a Matthew Wilder song you would have heard in 1983, on a record player ... but I digress.)
It felt like a loud, collective "Whew!" from TV's talking heads mindful of Biden's reputation as a human gaffe machine. His moments of OK clarity were elevated, his weird ramblings noted but dismissed as not harmful or relevant, and real breakout moments of the Houston debate - like Texan Beto O'Rourke's blunt, passionate and hugely controversial assault on assault weapons - were given a back seat to the matter that seems to concern them most: whether Biden hangs on as front-runner.
You have free articles remaining.
If you've been paying attention since Biden launched his campaign here in Philadelphia last spring, this is nothing new. The cable TV news show that both channels and is most revered by Washington's elites - MSNBC's "Morning Joe" - is at times so over the top in its bias toward Barack Obama's former wingman that it could be renamed "Morning Joe Biden." The former vice president is also by far the favorite of the so-called Never Trumpers - Republicans who think nothing is more important for America than getting rid of Trump ... until they hear what Sanders and Warren want to do about income inequality. "Joe Biden," beseeched conservative Mona Charon, "is one candidate who seems to understand voters' longing for political quiet after the upheaval we've lived through."
What's really happening here? For one thing, elite pundits who love to brag about their journalistic objectivity have an innate bias that's so baked in that they can't see it - a bias toward centrism. Generations of "on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" analysis that rejects political solutions of both the left and the right have morphed into a sense that only a bipartisanship-seeking "unity" candidate can save America - which requires blinders to the messy political realities of the Trump era.
What's more, a Washington-based political commentator is typically in the top 1 or 2% of American earners - and exactly the type of person who would likely pay higher taxes under a President Sanders or a President Warren. Most would tell you they don't think in such crass, personal terms - but these pundits are beneficiaries of an American status quo a) who want to keep the status quo b) just without the embarrassment of Trump leading their America. Oh, and they all have great health insurance. So the struggles of that Navy vet in Carson City - shared by millions of working-class Americans - are simply hard for the so-called Gang of 500 to easily relate to.
So, too, is the fierce urgency of a candidate like Warren. In fact, she - a skilled, poised campaigner who's been steadily rising and has proposed an annual 2% tax on wealth over $50 million (Fox News' Sean Hannity is worth an estimated $80 million ... just sayin') - is scaring the living bejeezus out of this same pundit class so eager to crown sometimes-incoherent Uncle Joe as a debate winner.
The other day, Wall Street whisperer Jim Cramer of CNBC said the prospect of a Warren presidency has his sources petrified. "When you get off the desk and talk to executives, they're more fearful of her winning," Cramer said, echoing their opinion that, "She's got to be stopped." It was another sign that Warren is doing something right, and indeed she reveled in Cramer's attack on her with a brio not seen since FDR's famous 1936 broadside against America's "economic royalists," that "I welcome their hatred." (Cramer was also a pundit who praised Biden's debate performance and said Wall Street would be relieved.)
To be clear, the problem with the D.C. pundits so eager to shape public opinion about the 2020 race isn't just that they're rich, but also that they're also predominantly white. That meant the job of discussing the reality that Biden's late-debate "record player" rant - in which he suggested that parents in poor (and mostly nonwhite) neighborhoods need home visits from teachers who could give them pointers on raising their kids and exposing them to more words - was more than a little racist was left largely to African American voices like Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone's Jamil Smith, who righteously called on the ex-veep to quit the race.
"Nowhere in that answer is a prescription for making the poor families less so, nor for improving the schools," Smith wrote. "It's the kind of paternalistic racism that has so long existed in both liberal and conservative circles, and was on Thursday night spilling out of the mouth of the former vice president on the campus of an HBCU. It was all quite a sight to behold."
Smith's commentary is exactly the kind of take we miss in our mostly bone-white world of political punditry - but so is the voice of the struggling middle-class citizen like our ailing and now-suicidal Navy vet from Nevada. TV's elite talking heads want a United States where we can quickly forget Donald Trump, but where we can also display a willful amnesia about the inequality and structural unfairness that brought the nation to this screwed-up flash point in the first place. This is America - but whose America will it be in 2021? You don't need a TV bloviator to know which way the wind blows.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is a national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com