Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stood behind lecterns 6 feet apart in CNN’s Washington, D.C., studio. Instead of shaking hands as they walked on stage, the two Democratic presidential candidates bumped elbows. There was no audience to cheer them on.
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden and Sanders participated in a somewhat surreal 11th presidential primary debate — and the first in which the two Democratic front-runners were able to go head-to-head.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which has the potential to infect millions of Americans, has completely upended presidential politics; both campaigns have told staff to work from home and have canceled all public appearances, opting to do virtual rallies and town halls instead.
But despite this national emergency, voters in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona are scheduled to go to the polls on Tuesday, the day that will in all likelihood determine the outcome of the presidential primary.
Everything is looking in Biden’s favor. Sanders has had a series of bad election nights, starting with the South Carolina primary, and Tuesday looks like it could be another sweep for the former vice president. Sanders won California, the state with the primary’s biggest delegate haul, but still lags behind Biden in the tally by more than 150 delegates.
The Sanders team was hoping a spectacularly good debate performance on the senator’s part ― or a disastrous one on Biden’s ― could potentially turn the tides. But Sunday night didn’t deliver on either front, and the debate was completely overshadowed by a global public health crisis. Here are four takeaways.
Sanders and Biden largely agree on how to address the coronavirus pandemic in the short-term. They don’t agree on whether it’s time to talk about the long-term.
Rightly so, the first half hour of the debate was spent on the coronavirus outbreak. Although the candidates were addressing the same topic, it was like watching two separate conversations in tandem.
Biden and Sanders have each laid out plans to address the pandemic, and they look very similar: Both are calling for free medical testing and treatment, establishing mobile testing sites, expanding hospital capacity, ensuring paid time off and expanded benefits.
During the debate, Biden was focused on the short-term. Sanders wanted to talk more about the future. Specifically, he wanted to make the case for his signature “Medicare for All” health insurance system, which would guarantee government-sponsored health insurance for all Americans.
So over and over again, the two candidates essentially debated what they should be debating.
“People are looking for results, not a revolution. They want to deal with the results they need right now,” Biden said. “That has nothing to do with the legitimate concern about income inequality in America. That’s real. That’s real. But that does not affect the need for us to act swiftly and very thoroughly and in concert with all of the forces that we need to bring to bear to deal with the crisis now so no one is thrown out of their home. No one loses their mortgage. No one is kicked out of their house. No one loses their paycheck. No one is in a position where they have a significant financial disability as a consequence of this.”
Sanders didn’t necessarily disagree. But he was also trying to make a different point.
“Well, I think it goes without saying that as a nation we have to respond as forcefully as we can to the current crisis, but it is not good enough not to be understanding how we got here and where we want to go into the future,” Sanders said. “So how does it happen that today in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, half of our people are scared to death?”
Sanders finally got the Social Security debate he had been hoping for.
A highlight of the debate for Sanders was a prolonged exchange with Biden over the former vice president’s history of supporting Social Security cuts. It’s a vulnerability that Sanders has sought to expose for some time, but he previously hadn’t had the chance to have an uninterrupted back-and-forth with Biden on the subject.
Biden actually brought up the topic while claiming that one of Sanders’ television advertisements, which blasts Biden for previously supporting Social Security cuts, is inaccurate.
But in the conversation that followed, Sanders managed to catch Biden flat-footed. Even as he denied calling for the cuts, Biden admitted that “everything was on the table” ― including Social Security cuts ― when he participated in bipartisan budget talks as part of the Obama administration.
Biden tried to claim that the talks did not constitute support for Social Security cuts because he and the Obama administration discussed them “in order to get the kinds of changes we need on other things.”
But Sanders argued the reason didn’t matter ― the conversation had still occurred. “Maybe it’s a good reason, maybe it’s not,” he said. “All that I am saying is you were prepared to cut and advocated for the cuts.”
Biden outright denied doing a lot of things that he has done ― and the moderators did not correct him.
Sanders wanted to get Biden to address his record, repeatedly asking him about his history with welfare reform, consumer finance and environmental policy. But instead of admitting past errors in judgment, Biden gave blanket denials about his past record.
At multiple junctures during the debate, Biden either misrepresented or outright lied about his record without any objection from the moderators.
Biden denied calling for Social Security cuts on the floor of the Senate. But in a Senate floor speech in January 1995, Biden boasted about a vote to freeze federal spending that would have effectively cut Social Security and other social programs. Later that year, he voted for a narrowly defeated constitutional amendment that would have jeopardized Social Security benefits with automatic cuts in the event that Congress did not offset budget deficits.
Sanders pressed Biden about helping craft the 2005 Republican bankruptcy bill, a piece of legislation that made it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy. Biden denied having a major role in the bill’s development, claiming the bill’s passage was inevitable and that he had sought to lessen its negative impact by, among other things, protecting women and children in need of alimony money.
In fact, Biden was a proponent of making it harder for households declare bankruptcy throughout the 1990s. He promoted it even when Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy law professor at the time, pushed then-first lady Hillary Clinton to convince President Bill Clinton to veto it. When the bill passed under President George W. Bush in 2005, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) singled out Biden, praising him and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) for “doing their best” over the years to get the bill passed.
President Barack Obama and Biden even disagreed on the issue. Obama, who voted against the law in 2005, attacked then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the presidential campaign trail in 2008 for supporting the legislation and “siding with banking industry lobbyists.”
And in an exchange on environmental policy Sunday night, Biden, under pressure from Sanders to adopt a bigger climate plan, appeared to say he supported a ban on fracking — even though his own campaign’s platform does not support such a policy.
Sanders pointed out the discrepancy, but there was little followup.
After the debate, the Biden campaign clarified that Biden was referring to his proposal to forbid new oil and gas fracking on public lands, rather than in the country at large.
If a Democrat wins the presidential election, the vice president will likely be a woman.
Biden made a commitment on stage Sunday night: If he is made the nominee, his pick for vice president will be a woman.
Sanders said that “in all likelihood” he would pick a woman to join him on the ticket.
“To me, it’s not just nominating a woman,” Sanders said. “It is making sure that we have a progressive woman, and there are progressive women out there.”
This Democratic field for the presidential nomination started out as the most diverse in U.S. history, featuring a record number of women and several people of color. But as the race went on, only Biden and Sanders ― two white men in their 70s ― gained traction.