Former VP Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders met for the first one-on-one presidential debate of the election season, and coronavirus loomed heavy over the preceding.
The two candidates sounded off on a number of issues, including health care, the vice-presidential nomination, and the federal government’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. Overall, the debate was much more civil than the previous Democratic free-for-alls, which were characterized by sound-bite worthy slogans and personal attacks. This debate sounded more like a long conversation, and both candidates took it relatively easy on their opponents.
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Unsurprisingly, coronavirus was one of the night’s most discussed issues. In fact, even the debate itself was turned upsidedown by the outbreak. It was originally scheduled to take place in Phoenix in front of a live audience, but coronavirus fears led organizers to relocate the event to D.C. and keep the audience at home in order to reduce the chance of an outbreak. The candidates even refrained from the handshake tradition and opted for conservative elbow bumps instead. Both men are in their 70s, so they’re at high risk of complications if they come into contact with the virus.
The outbreak has severely disrupted campaign operations for both candidates. Both campaigns have stopped holding rallies and other public events, and most of their staff members are working from home. Debate organizers even put the podiums farther apart than usual.
The candidates were not shy about criticizing the White House’s response to the pandemic. Both sides said the federal response has been woefully inadequate. Sanders used the issue as a pulpit for pushing his Medicare-for-all agenda “Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system,” said Sanders. However, Biden was quick to point out that Italy has a single-payer system that’s remarkably similar to Sanders’ model, and it’s been one of the countries hardest-hit by the global outbreak.
Biden said that Sander’s cries for Medicare-for-all are irrelevant to the current situation, and he said his healthcare plan would be up to challenge. “That [Medicaid-for-all] has nothing to do when you’re in a national crisis. The national crisis says we’re responding. It’s all free. You don’t have to pay for a thing.” Biden said, defending his healthcare plan against Sanders’ criticisms, “We just pass a law saying that you do not have to pay for any of this, period.”
The coronavirus debate was among the night’s diciest exchanges, but it wasn’t the only issue that got the candidates fired up. Biden answered questions about his $1.7 trillion climate change plan, which includes funding for EV charging stations, investments in public transportation infrastructure, and a plan to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Sanders attacked the former vice president’s plan, calling it “nowhere near enough”.
Sanders’s plan is much more radical. He said he would hold Exxon Mobile and other major oil companies “criminally accountable” for causing climate change. He also said that he will continue to fight to implement the “Green New Deal”, a package of extremist legislation that includes restrictions on everything from beef consumption to fracking.
Immigration was also a hot topic. Biden said that, if elected, he would immediately put forward a bill that requires citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and promised that no one would be deported for his first 100 days in office. He said the only immigrants who commit felonies in the U.S. would be at risk of deportation after that. Both candidates said they would send judges to the border to expedite immigration hearings and allow more immigrants into the country.
Both men also discussed their nomination for vice president. Neither candidate mentioned any names, but Biden committed to choosing a woman as his running mate. Sanders said his “very strong tendency is to move in that direction,” by stopped short of making a commitment.
Ultimately, the debate did little to upset the status quo. Biden was the distant front-runner coming into the evening, and he’s still the favorite to win the nomination. Sanders needed a knock-out blow at the debate in order to cool Biden’s hot streak, and he didn’t get it. At times, Sanders almost seemed desperate to attack Biden on every possible juncture, but Biden came off as calm and confident.
Biden is still in the lead, and Sanders doesn’t seem to be doing anything new to try to improve his chances. The debate didn’t score Sanders any points with moderate voters and, with only a handful of major primaries remaining, Sanders is running out of time. Biden’s campaign is running strong and, at this point, it looks like Sanders will need a small miracle to overtake him.