WASHINGTON ― Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) squared off in a one-on-one presidential primary debate in the nation’s capital Sunday night, trading jabs for two hours over their records on health care, the economy, immigration and climate change.
But the event felt more than a little surreal as the two candidates went through the motions in a race that is effectively over, sparring over bread-and-butter issues ― even as the national conversation has been consumed by talk of a global recession and rising mortality rates due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Apart from the first 30 minutes, during which both candidates spelled out what they would do to address the virus and took shots at how President Donald Trump is handling the crisis, the debate sounded a lot like those that preceded it.
“The first thing we have got to do, whether or not I’m president, is to shut this president up right now,” Sanders said, accusing Trump of “undermining the doctors and the scientists trying to help the American people.”
U.S. officials on Sunday announced the closures of many schools, bars and restaurants across the country, as well as severe limitations on public gatherings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no gatherings with 50 people or more take place for the next eight weeks. The agency also announced there were at least 3,482 total coronavirus cases in the U.S., with at least 65 deaths attributed to the illness.
The outbreak forced organizers to move Sunday’s debate from a university campus in Arizona to a CNN studio in Washington, where it was held without a live audience. The Democratic presidential contenders emerged on stage and greeted each other by touching elbows ― one of the methods public health officials have advised to curb the spread of the virus.
“I wash my hands God knows how many times a day with hot water and soap,” Biden said when moderators asked how the candidates were managing their personal hygiene and routines in the wake of the outbreak.
“Joe and I did not shake hands,” Sanders noted. “I am very careful about the people I’m interacting with.”
Their answers about how the U.S. should proceed with dealing with the coronavirus outbreak also put on display how the two septuagenarians would govern. Sanders, for example, argued the crisis revealed the deep systemic flaws that exist in American society, especially when it comes to the nation’s health care and financial systems. He said his proposals like “Medicare for All” and free college were needed now more than ever to address them.
“In the midst of this crisis, if you’re a multimillionaire, you’re going to get through it. You’re not worried about income or health care,” Sanders said. “We’ve got to move aggressively right now to address economic crisis. ... What we have got to do also is understand the fragility of the economy and how unjust and unfair it is and so many have so little.”
Biden, meanwhile, focused more on responding to this specific outbreak, calling for free testing and for using the military to expand availability of beds in the nation’s hospitals.
“People are looking for solution, not a revolution,” Biden said. “They want to deal with what we can do right now. We can do that. We can make them whole ― now. That has nothing to do with a legitimate concern about income inequality in this country.”
But the debate quickly shifted to other topics as Sanders repeatedly pressed Biden on his past stances over Social Security funding, the Iraq War and bankruptcy laws, attempting to force the former vice president to adopt a more progressive agenda before he clinches the Democratic nomination.
Biden’s biggest challenge going forward in the race will be unifying the party against Trump. To that end, prior to the debate, his campaign announced that he was endorsing two ideas offered by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the other progressive in the race who dropped out earlier this month. The proposals, which he previously opposed, would make it easier for some to afford college and would make key changes to the nation’s bankruptcy laws.
But it won’t be easy, as Biden acknowledged during a debate that featured several sharp exchanges that were likely welcomed by Trump’s campaign.
“He’s making it hard for me right now,” Biden said at one point when a moderator asked how he planned to appeal to Sanders’ supporters. “I’ve been trying to give him credit for things and he won’t even take the credit!”
Nevertheless, the former vice president tried to bridge their divides later in the night. “We disagree on the detail of how we do it, but we don’t disagree on the principle,” he said. “We fundamentally disagree with this president. This is much bigger whether I’m the nominee or Bernie’s the nominee.”