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6 key moments from Sunday’s debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

The coronavirus outbreak hung over every moment of the debate, right from the start.

Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus crisis on a live broadcast, in a nearly empty restaurant/bar in Los Angeles during the Democratic debate on March 15, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders stepped on the debate stage Sunday night, they bumped elbows. It was the first of many moments reminding viewers that this debate was not by any measure normal.

Biden and Sanders met without an audience in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop them from taking digs at one another. Sanders attacked Biden from the left over Social Security; Biden portrayed Sanders’s agenda as unrealistic, arguing that people are looking for “results, not a revolution” in a moment of crisis. The differences between the two candidates was as clear as it’s ever been.

After an opening 30 minutes on coronavirus, the debate shifted to more familiar ground: health care, climate change, foreign policy, and immigration. With four big states voting on Tuesday despite the outbreak, Sanders has limited time to make up his gap with Biden, who has established himself as the frontrunner since Super Tuesday. These may be the moments that dictate whether he’ll succeed.

The elbow bump

In case you hadn’t heard: you shouldn’t be shaking people’s hands right now. Fortunately, Biden and Sanders got the memo.

Ideally, these two 70-something men would not have left their homes. Alas, the demand for a televised presidential primary debate trumped public health considerations. So Biden and Sanders did the best they could to flatten the curve.

Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders greet each other with an elbow bump instead of a handshake at the Democratic debate on March 15, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Right now, one of the most important things any of us can do is practice social distancing. Avoid crowds and public establishments, stay home if possible, etc. As Vox has explained:

The speed at which the outbreak plays out matters hugely for its consequences. What epidemiologists fear most is the health care system becoming overwhelmed by a sudden explosion of illness that requires more people to be hospitalized than it can handle. In that scenario, more people will die because there won’t be enough hospital beds or ventilators to keep them alive.

A disastrous inundation of hospitals can likely be averted with protective measures we’re now seeing more of — closing schools, canceling mass gatherings, working from home, self-quarantine, self-isolation, avoiding crowds — to keep the virus from spreading fast.

Epidemiologists call this strategy of preventing a huge spike in cases “flattening the curve.”

The CDC just encouraged Americans to cancel or postpone gatherings of 50 people for eight weeks. These are desperate times. So a gentle elbow bump was, in this moment, what Biden and Sanders could do to lead by example.

The Sanders/Biden Medicare-for-all debate meets coronavirus

Sunday’s debate didn’t feature another argument about whether Sanders’s signature Medicare-for-all plan would raise middle class taxes. But it did feature a substantial debate about whether it would help out during a pandemic.

Nodding to public concerns about whether testing would be free, Sanders launched into a pitch about Medicare-for-all, saying if he were elected president he would transform America’s complicated private insurance into a single-payer system.

“We’re spending so much money and we’re not even prepared for this pandemic,” Sanders said. “In the midst of this epidemic, you have people in the pharmaceutical industry are saying, wow, what an opportunity to make a fortune. I certainly would do this as president: People of America, do not worry about the cost of prescription drugs. Do not worry about the cost of the health care that you’re going to get.”

Biden hit back with a simple argument: single-payer didn’t save Italy, which is currently grappling with over 27,000 cases of coronavirus. A country’s public health response is different than its insurance system; a government enforcing social distancing and ensuring hospitals are stocked with masks and ventilators isn’t necessarily dependent on whether a county has a single-payer system or private insurance.

“With all due respect for Medicare-for-all, you have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden said. “It has nothing to do with Medicare-for-all. That would not solve the problem at all. We’re at war with the virus. We’re at war with the virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything.”

Biden is in some sense correct; Italy has a single-payer system similar to Canada’s, but if a country does not take public health measures to reduce the spread of a virus, many more people will get infected.

But Sanders also spoke to a serious concern in the US: that people who are sick won’t seek medical care because they are afraid of how much it will cost.

Bernie bats down a coronavirus question about punishing China

With the debate opening on the coronavirus (because what else?), CNN’s Dana Bash turned to Sanders with a slightly unexpected question: “What consequences should China face for its role in this global crisis?”

It was not entirely without basis. The Chinese government has been criticized internationally for withholding information about the crisis while it was still contained within their borders; the World Health Organization was not notified until late December, though the virus had first appeared in November. As Bash noted in her question, China punished a doctor who tried to issue warnings about the virus.

But it felt like a strange question when solidarity and cooperation are the buzzwords of the moment. And Sanders responded in that spirit:

“I don’t think this is the time for reparations. Now is the time to be working with China,” he said. “They are learning a lot about this crisis. And in fact, we have to work with them.”

He continued on the need for camaraderie as the world tries to stem one of the worst pandemics in recent memory. He urged the United States to work with the World Health Organization, Italy and all the other countries confronting this crisis. For a candidate who often asks crowds to look around, find somebody they don’t know, and ask what they would be willing to do to help that person, it was a natural and very effective message.

“If there was ever a moment when the entire world is in this together, got to support each other, this is that moment,” Sanders said. “Every country on Earth is going to be affected. Every country on Earth has got to work together.”

Biden makes the clearest pitch for his candidacy

Biden — now the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination — delivered his first coherent campaign message on Sunday night: “People are looking for results, not a revolution.”

From the start of the 2020 primary campaign, Biden has pitched himself as a return to normalcy after the Trump era. But that message has become especially salient during the coronavirus crisis, exacerbated by Trump’s own bluster and unwillingness to take things seriously.

Joe Biden has pitched himself as a return to normalcy. “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” he said during the debate.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

After Sanders launched into his stump speech about how coronavirus is exposing existing income inequality in the country, Biden countered with a pitch for swift action and leadership to deal with the current crisis.

“They want to deal with the results they need, right now,” Biden said. “And we can do that by making sure that we make everybody whole who has been so badly hurt — in terms of when they lose a job, in terms of not having the ability to care for children, in terms of the health care costs they have relating to this crisis. We can make them whole, now.”

We’ve heard this “results, not revolution” line before from other moderate candidates who have since dropped out, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But Biden’s pitch for pragmatic ideas and tried and tested leadership is especially effective as Americans are looking for guidance from the president — and finding little with Trump.

There was a big throwdown over Social Security

For a while now, it’s been clear the Sanders campaign sees Social Security as a big vulnerability for Biden.

They have portrayed him as a lifelong crusader for Social Security cuts. They have cited primarily his support for various bills in the 1980s to freeze Social Security payments and raise the retirement age when there was a deficit panic, as well as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission that was convened during the Obama administration. The near-grand bargain the Obama White House tried to negotiate with Republicans in Congress would have included cuts to Social Security benefits.

At the debate on Sunday, Biden actually brought the issue up first, citing media fact-checkers who have found Sanders’s attacks on Biden over Social Security to be misleading or lacking important context. (The Washington Post and FactCheck.org have good overviews of the controversy.)

Sanders honed in on comments Biden made in the 1990s, in support of a balanced budget amendment that would have led to spending cuts for the program. (The Biden campaign would point out he had actually proposed an amendment to exempt Social Security from cuts; it didn’t pass, however, and Biden voted for the final bill anyway.)

“Let me ask you a question. You’re right here with me,” Sanders said to Biden. “Have you been on the floor of the Senate ... time and time again talking about the necessity — with pride — about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans programs.”

“No,” Biden said. “You never said that?” Sanders asked. “No,” Biden said again. Sanders encouraged viewers to “go to the YouTube” and check for themselves. (He likely meant these clips of a Biden speech on the Senate floor and an interview with NBC’s Tim Russert.)

To be clear, in the 2020 campaign, Biden is now proposing increasing Social Security benefits. But the exchange revealed some of the important differences between the two candidates.

For Sanders, it’s simple: he would never vote to cut Social Security.

For Biden, he sees himself as a pragmatic progressive, tangling with conservatives who hold power and want serious Social Security cuts. During negotiations with Republicans to reduce the deficit, he acknowledged, “everything was on the table.”

However, he added, “I did not support any of those cuts.” Sanders was shocked: “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Nothing was resolved.

Sanders may be hoping highlighting this part of Biden’s record will loosen the vice president’s grip on the older voting bloc. But with such a muddled exchange, it might be too little, too late.

Biden commits to picking a woman as vice president

The former vice president made some significant news when he publicly committed to picking a woman to be his vice president. He also promised again to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court (which he said at the last debate).

“If I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a woman to be vice president,” Biden said. “There are a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow; I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”

In doing so, Biden is making a promise many Democrats have been looking for since Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) exited the Democratic primary field and the campaign ostensibly became a race between two older white men (it should be noted Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is still in the race, but is polling at low single digits).

Sanders was also asked whether he would pick a woman as his running mate if elected. His answer? Probably, as long as that woman shared his ideals.

“In all likelihood, I will,” Sanders said. “To me, it’s not just nominating a woman. It is making sure that we have a progressive woman, and there are progressive women.”

There’s another reason it would be politically smart for both Biden and Sanders to pick a woman for a running mate; moderate, suburban women helped Democrats flip the US House in the 2018 midterms — including in Congressional districts that were Republican strongholds. A January poll found a 19-point gender gap in Trump’s approval rating, with women far more likely to disapprove of the president.

What remains to be seen is whether Biden or Sanders picks a woman running mate from the Midwest (like Sens. Klobuchar or Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin), or a woman of color (Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, or Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts).

But one thing is clear: To be successful in the November 2020 election, Biden or Sanders will need to appeal to these women voters. Picking a woman running mate is a very good start.