Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders convened yesterday for the most somber debate of the 2020 primary, appearing in a quiet television studio rather than a rowdy auditorium and refraining from the customary handshake in nods to the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing it necessitates. The rivals agreed that President Donald Trump has performed poorly during this global crisis, that he ought to defer more to public-health experts, and that the federal government rather than individual patients should foot the bill for 100 percent of coronavirus testing and treatments.

Then they rehashed many familiar disagreements. In broad strokes, Biden favors a return to normalcy and incremental expansions of the Obama administration’s agenda, such as expanding the Affordable Care Act by adding an option to get insurance from the government, while Sanders favors more sweeping changes––he calls it a democratic-socialist revolution––such as abolishing medical insurance that people get through their employer in favor of a government-run system, as in Canada.

If Sanders were winning more primaries, breaking turnout records, and demonstrating an ability to stride into the White House with democratic-socialist members of Congress on his coattails, Democratic voters would have a reason to look more closely at what would happen if his most ambitious plans became law. But there is no reason to believe that Sanders could get his agenda through the Senate or the House when he can’t beat a centrist in many Democratic primaries. Indeed, I suspect that Biden would fail to get some of his more centrist agenda items through Congress. So I’m less interested in the policy differences between these men than in their respective characters. And it’s apparent that both would be more morally upstanding, less cruel, more inclined to heed good advice from public-health experts, and less likely to lie about a crisis than Trump.

Each raised the issue of the competence and character of the incumbent. Sanders declared it unacceptable for Trump to be “blabbering with unfactual information which is confusing the general public.” In his telling, Trump is the most dangerous president in the modern history of the country. “The United States cannot deal with a president who is a pathological liar, who is running a corrupt administration, who obviously doesn’t know the Constitution, who believes he is above the law, who is a racist and a sexist and a homophobe,” he said.

Biden asserted that in 2020, “the character of the nation is on the ballot,” adding that four more years of Trump “will fundamentally change who we are as a nation. We’ve got to restore this country’s soul.”

Of course, yesterday’s debate wasn’t all high-minded laments about Trump. The candidates criticized each other, sharply at times; litigated past votes in Congress; and participated in the familiar game of regarding their own words and actions with more charity than given to those of their opponent.

In a bygone era, their debate might have seemed typical. “Biden is full of empty platitudes tonight,” the former George W. Bush–administration official Ari Fleischer observed. “‘Leadership. International leadership. Send experts to China. Send experts to the Situation Room.’ No answers. Just platitudes.” To which David Frum, who also served in the Bush White House, retorted, “They *were* platitudes. But when the present policy is ‘Sociopathy. Steal Germany’s vaccine industry. Blame China. Send crooks and hacks to the Situation Room’—the platitudes become bold, brave, and refreshing change.”

I suspect that voters will value showmanship and contempt for expertise less, and virtue and trustworthiness more, in 2020. In a moment of crisis, both Biden and Sanders came across as more unifying and less mendacious than the GOP’s alternative. I don’t know if Democratic voters will judge Biden or Sanders the winner. But with the field winnowed, the crowd gone, and the stakes so much higher than before, both men met the moment, substantively and stylistically. They are both better suited to the times than is the incumbent, who never stops tweeting for long and who has spent more time trolling every week of his presidency than trying to unite Americans. The Democratic nominee, whomever it is, won last night’s debate.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.