Editor’s note: This article is from the Democratic primary debate on March 15, 2020. Click here for winners and losers of the September 29 presidential debate.
The March 15 Democratic debate, the long-anticipated one-on-one showdown between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, turned out to be something of a weird one. There was no live audience, the candidates’ podiums were spaced unusually far apart, and it was held in Washington, DC, rather than (as originally planned) Arizona — a state holding one of the primaries this coming Tuesday.
The reason, of course, is the coronavirus. The pandemic dominated the debate, both taking up the most time of any single issue and making discussions of other policy areas seem kind of like sideshows.
But despite the coronavirus threat hanging over the nation’s head, we did end up getting a fairly revealing night. The one-on-one format allowed for more substantive and direct exchanges between the candidates, giving us a picture of how they might fare against President Donald Trump in the general election.
What follows is our sense of who and what came out of this evening ahead — and who lost ground.
Winner: Joe Biden
This was by no means a perfect night for the frontrunner. Sanders hit Biden hard when it came to his past votes on issues including same-sex marriage and bankruptcy; Biden seemed to have lied in defending his record, most notably on Social Security (more on that later).
Yet Biden should be pretty happy with how the night went.
Part of the reason why derives from the race’s fundamentals. Sanders is behind in the delegate race and down in the polls; the remaining states are demographically much friendlier to Biden than they are to Sanders. For the Vermont senator to have a real shot at turning this around, he needs something dramatic. That didn’t happen tonight.
But another big reason is that Biden outperformed expectations. In past debates, he’d seemed hesitant or out of it — leading many pundits, including a lot of Sanders supporters, to publicly speculate about his mental acuity. Lots of people thought, as a result, that a one-on-one debate, where Biden would have to talk all night, would only highlight that vulnerability.
That’s not what happened, though. Biden was about as sharp as he’s been throughout the entire primary.
It’s absolutely nowhere near the stuff people were claiming / hoping would become apparent in a 2-person debate https://t.co/PNaLzvw6ah— Tom Gara (@tomgara) March 16, 2020
He projected confidence and competence on the coronavirus pandemic, arguably beating Bernie on points when it came to Medicare-for-all’s relevance to the crisis. He got in some solid hits on Sanders’s record, particularly on guns and immigration, and offered up one of the night’s most memorable lines about the primary during an exchange on campaign finance: “I didn’t have any money and I still won.”
There were blemishes on an otherwise good night. Sanders’s hits on Biden’s lengthy record foreshadow coming general election attacks in the likely event that Biden becomes the nominee. But there’s no denying that the performance all but extinguished Sanders’s hope to gain any momentum from this debate — and should quiet at least some of the worry about whether he can withstand the rigors of a campaign and the presidency.
Loser: Donald Trump
During the first half of the debate, we got an idea of what it would be like if a President Biden or President Sanders was in charge during the coronavirus pandemic. For anyone who has been following how President Trump is handling the crisis, it was refreshing.
By and large, Biden and Sanders stuck to the advice of experts: encouraging hygiene and social distancing, building up health care capacity, and boosting pandemic preparedness. Biden repeatedly pointed to his plan, which experts have praised for checking a bunch of the points that one would in expect such a proposal.
By comparison, Trump’s public comments about the Covid-19 crisis have been disastrous. His Oval Office address on Wednesday was riddled with errors, quickly forcing Trump’s team and others to issue corrections about his travel restrictions for Europe and how health insurers are expanding access to testing and treatment. Even as he declared an emergency, and after, Trump repeatedly downplayed the crisis, at one point claiming, “I doubt we’ll need anywhere near that,” when announcing that his administration will roll out 5 million more tests.
Trump’s performance has been downright dangerous. His comments have not only been misleading; by trying to suggest that everything’s totally under control, he risks pushing the public away from doing what needs to be done. That’s one reason Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, described Trump’s messaging as “deeply disturbing,” adding that it’s “left the country far less prepared than it needs to be for what is a very substantial challenge ahead.”
Given that context, watching Biden and Sanders simply speak coherently about what they would do about the pandemic made them look far more presidential than Trump.
Now, Biden and Sanders did make flubs — at times calling the current virus “Ebola,” “SARS,” and “N1H1” (which is not a real disease; H1N1 is). But that kind of misstatement pales in comparison to Trump’s performance, which has left the US in a precarious position as the virus continues to spread throughout the country.
Winner: Social Security
In an otherwise rough debate for Bernie Sanders, he got in one clean hit against Joe Biden — Biden has, indeed, supported efforts to limit Social Security benefits, and he spent much of the debate scrambling to defend his record.
It feels hard to believe now, but for much of the Obama administration’s tenure, the Democrats in the White House were trying to strike a “grand bargain” that would include at least some cuts to Social Security.
Obama and his team were always more focused on controlling costs for Medicare, as part of their central goal of “bending the cost curve” and lowering spending on health care overall. But they also openly supported modest cuts to Social Security spending, notably including a move to “chained CPI,” an alternate, more accurate inflation measure that, because it grows more slowly, would amount to a reduction in benefits for seniors.
As Matt Yglesias recounts, in the aftermath of Republicans taking the House in the 2010 midterms, the Obama administration sought to reach an accommodation wherein taxes would rise somewhat on top earners, and spending — especially “entitlement” spending as opposed to discretionary funding for government agencies — would decline somewhat. It was a goal that inspired the creation of the “Simpson-Bowles” commission, which proposed a big grand bargain plan in late 2010, and that animated their debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011 and in the “fiscal cliff” talks of late 2012.
Ultimately, the grand bargain did not come to pass. But the effort has made a big comeback in the 2020 primary, as Sanders has used it to attack Biden, who played a key role in those negotiations as vice president, and who had a long record of supporting similar deficit reduction efforts during his time in the Senate.
Sanders’s Social Security hits were by far his most successful moments of the debate. While that probably won’t be enough to halt his campaign’s slide, it underlines something significant that’s changed since the grand bargain era: Social Security has become untouchable. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders alike supported expanding, not contracting, benefits. Biden has called for benefit hikes for older Americans, and a new, higher “minimum benefit” for seniors with low incomes during their working lives.
It’s a real change to the politics around the issue, and one that bodes well for the program’s future.
When the Democratic primary began, diversity seemed like a winner. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and other prominent women were running. People of color like former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Cory Booker were contenders, and two women of color, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, were in the mix. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg became the most successful openly gay presidential candidate to date — and a millennial, adding a bit of diversity in age, too.
Yet on Sunday, the debate stage was winnowed to two straight white men in their 70s. And they’re running against another straight white man also in his 70s.
This sends a sad message to the country about the chances of women and people of color in presidential politics. But the loss of diverse perspectives also made the debate worse in terms of substance: We heard little to nothing about systemic racism, even as the criminal justice system came up at times. The discussion about women’s health care and abortion suffered from the lack of women talking about an issue that personally impacts them. The same was true for immigration and a lack of representation for brown people.
One bright spot in this area came when Biden promised that his running mate will be a woman, and Sanders indicated he’d likely do the same. But this speaks directly to the problem: The race is so obviously homogeneous now that the candidates have to signal that their running mates will be a bit more diverse. It’s a very far place from the start of this primary election.
Winner: Social distancing
The entire visual structure of this debate seemed designed to remind us that there’s a pandemic on. It began with an elbow bump, not a handshake. The podiums were about a million feet apart. There was no audience.
Odd as it seemed, it was a model for viewers on the importance of “social distancing” — a concept that’s become ubiquitous in the time of Covid-19. We all need to stop attending crowded events, stay as far away from each other as possible when we do interact, and ideally stay at home for as many hours a day as humanly possible. Only with this kind of extreme self-isolation can we truly prevent this extremely contagious disease from spreading to society’s most vulnerable.
In addition to practicing it onstage, the candidates talked about how their campaigns were applying it day-to-day. “Last night we had a fireside chat, not a rally. I love doing rallies and we bring thousands of people out to the rallies. We’re not doing that right now,” Sanders said. “In fact, our entire staff is working from home.”
Biden, too, said he wasn’t doing rallies and was telling his campaign to work from home, adding, “I wash my hands god knows how many times a day.”
This was all to the good. In a crisis like this, it’s important to have political leaders talking about this stuff — even if it was admittedly weird to see the candidates go at it across an abnormally wide gulf, a striking reminder of just how strange and dangerous our current times are.
Winner: The Green New Deal
Both Sanders and Biden tried to draw distinctions between their approaches to climate change. But as tonight’s debate made clear, both candidates have adopted the framework of the Green New Deal, which calls for a massive set of government-led investments to cut US greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring a just transition for workers and communities toward a clean energy economy.
While some Democrats questioned the initial resolution when it was introduced last year by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Biden and Sanders have adopted its branding. “We both agree that we have a New Green Deal to deal with the existential threat [of climate change] that faces humanity,” Biden said. “We disagree on the detail of how we do it, but we don’t disagree on the principle.”
That the two would endorse such an agenda is a huge shift from just a few months ago, when some candidates criticized its cost and scope. And it’s a massive change from the last presidential election cycle, when climate change scarcely came up at all.
Sanders and Biden still stand apart on some of the particulars. “We talk about the Green New Deal and all of these things in general terms, but details make a difference,” Sanders said. For instance, Sanders wants $16.3 trillion in federal spending in his plan. Biden wants $1.7 trillion. Sanders has called for a wholesale ban on fracking, while Biden called for a halt to new fracking on public land.
But at this point, whoever wins the Democratic nomination for president will have the most ambitious plan to tackle climate change a major party nominee has ever had.