The global coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the entire country, shutting down travel, large gatherings, sports events, bars, and restaurants. The effects of the crisis were immediately apparent to anyone tuning in to last night’s Democratic presidential debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and United States Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Instead of a packed auditorium in Arizona, the two men met in a sterile-looking CNN studio in Washington D.C. with only each other and the moderators for company (the risk of infection in a live audience was deemed to be too high).
And instead of shaking each other’s hands, they opted for a friendly elbow bump.
The debate itself was overwhelmingly focused on the pandemic, with the candidates being asked about their plans to deal with the emergency, their own personal practices to avoid infection, and how they would reassure Americans suffering from the illness or afraid of contracting it.
Both candidates went into the debate with clear objectives.
Biden holds a convincing lead in delegates and will likely cruise to a majority through a sheer sense of inevitability. All he had to do in the debate was stay calm, appear presidential, and not fall into some disastrous gaffe (as he has a habit of doing in debates). Sanders’ task was much harder; he had to knock the aura of invincibility off of Biden and persuade Biden’s key base – African Americans and older voters – to abandon the former Vice President.
The debate began with how each candidate would respond to the coronavirus if they were president. Biden, drawing on his experience as Vice President, summarized a wide variety of measures he would have pursued, emphasizing the importance of national leadership from the White House.
Sanders took a slightly different approach.
While laying out similar emergency measures he would take, he used the crisis to expose the U.S. healthcare system’s many weaknesses – one of which is the fact that “we don’t have a system, we’ve got thousands of private insurance plans.”
He used the pandemic crisis to persuasively argue for publicly-funded healthcare, because right now the fear of costs is causing people to avoid treatment.
However, Biden argued that Medicare for All had “nothing to do with” this national emergency. Instead of looking at the broader problems of U.S. healthcare, Biden simplified the issue, saying “we’re at war with the virus.”
This was the first in a series of disingenuous moments for Biden.
Whilst declaring that Medicare for All was not a solution to the pandemic, Biden proclaimed that he would “pass a law saying you do not have to pay for [COVID-19 treatment], period.” He seemed not to realize that his proposal to deal with COVID-19 is akin to Sanders’ proposals for universal single payer healthcare.
The discussion moved on to the pandemic’s economic fallout. Both candidates argued for dramatic federal intervention in the economy to protect ordinary Americans, but had very different emphases. Sanders repeatedly asked the question, “how did we get here?” He pointed to the vast economic inequality that has been simply exacerbated by the pandemic crisis. Biden, in contrast, sought to divorce the crisis from its context, saying that “people are looking for results, not a revolution.” Biden repeatedly went back to the idea of “making people whole.”
From then on, the debate got testier as the candidates harshly scrutinized each other’s voting records. Biden admonished Sanders for his votes against the 2008 Wall Street bailout bill and gun responsibility, but Sanders got in far more hits on a wide range of issues. He and Biden were on different sides of votes on marriage equality, the disastrous bankruptcy bill, the invasion of Iraq, trade deals like NAFTA and PNT, and the anti-reproductive health Hyde Amendment. Sanders’ mantra through all these points was that “it takes courage to do the right thing.
Biden can’t match Sanders’ progressive record, so he sought to muddy the waters by taking a series of disingenuous positions, and fibbing on the stage.
He criticized Sanders’ nuanced positions on authoritarian regimes (“look at the world the way it is!”) with blunt refusal to see nuance. He said looking at China’s poverty-reduction programs was like praising Jack the Ripper.
Biden also took a disingenuous stance on the Iraq occupation.
He said that he voted for Bush’s AUMF because “they assured me they would not use force.” In fact, Biden supported an invasion of Iraq as far back as 1998, as well as after U.S. troops were on the ground in Iraq.
Biden went even further on the issue of protecting Social Security.
When Sanders pressed him about speeches he had made arguing for the “need” to cut Social Security (which he did as early as 1984 and as recently as 2018), Biden simply denied that he had ever made such comments. This led to an increasingly exasperated Sanders pushing the point, bit to no avail.
Biden also distorted his involvement in the Bush error bankruptcy bill, claiming he wasn’t for the proposal and only worked to make it less awful despite having voted for it on final passage, and spoken in favor of it.
Especially considering that Biden had to resort to fibs to defend his position, Sanders undoubtedly won the argument in Sunday night’s debate.
Additionally, in advance of the debate, Biden promised to adopt a number of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s progressive plans.
However, Sanders didn’t do enough.
The debate was Sanders’ last opportunity to turn the tables on the former Vice President before voting in Florida, Illinois, Arizona and Ohio on Tuesday.
Sanders did his best, but he failed in his main objectives. He didn’t go after Biden over Biden’s positions on issues like busing, as Kamala Harris did last summer.
His attempts to shake Biden’s hold on older voters over Social Security were negated by Biden’s fibs. And he failed to goad Biden into making a major gaffe – although Biden did have some word-salad moments.
Coming out of the debate, Biden seems likely to increase his lead in delegates in the coming states, and Sanders’ campaign is unlikely to be able to catch up. The question is increasingly becoming not who will win, but how the Democratic Party can even hold nominating events amidst an unprecedented pandemic.