WASHINGTON — They started the evening with an elbow bump. But from that moment on, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders tried to turn their responses to the coronavirus pandemic into the core argument for their candidacies: steady hand vs. political revolution.
During the first head-to-head Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, the former vice president said the pandemic cries out for experienced leadership. For the Vermont senator, the crisis proves the need for a fundamental transformation of society to meet the needs of working people.
“Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system,” Sanders said. “And the [coronavirus] crisis is also, I think, exposing the cruelty and injustice of our economy today.”
“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden retorted.
The exchange, as cities across the country are shutting down schools, libraries, and businesses, and the global coronavirus body count grows by the day, made clear the choice Democrats have ahead of them as states vote on Tuesday and beyond. Should they choose someone who has been in the room before in times of crisis? Or should they choose someone promising a different path?
Biden has pitched himself as the experienced leader capable of returning the country to normalcy. In the section of the debate dealing with coronavirus he drilled into that theme, referencing things he has done during his time as vice president to address crises.
“We’ve been through this before,” he said, referencing the Obama administration’s work on H1N1 and Ebola. “I would call into the Situation Room all of the experts in America dealing with the crisis. I would sit them down and do exactly what we did then: What is it that we need? Listen to the experts.”
Send in the military
Biden said he’d bring in the military and FEMA to help with temporary hospitals and other operational concerns, while looking to the World Health Organization and other countries to address the shortage in available testing. Then he’d address the economic fallout individuals are facing from loss of work or high medical bills.
Sanders, by contrast, said he would focus on alleviating citizens' fears that they wouldn’t be able to afford testing if they suspect they’re sick or health care if they are sick. Then he would focus on making sure hospitals have the supplies they need to treat people, and reassure the public that they will be made whole if they face loss of income due to the virus.
“I obviously agree with Medicare for All. I will fight for that as president,” he said. “But right now, in this emergency, I want every person in this country to understand that when you get sick, you go to the doctor. When you get sick, if you have the virus, that will be paid for.”
Sanders, however, has campaigned as a revolutionary, as always. He said it’s important to use the coronavirus crisis as an entry point to talk about economic inequality and lack of health care, while Biden wanted to focus mostly on the task at hand.
“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. “How does it happen that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, half of our people are scared to death?”
Biden, however, denied the notion that a single payer health care system would have addressed the issues the country is having containing the virus and treating people stricken with disease as a result of the virus. He pointed to Italy, one of the worst-hit countries, to show a government-run health care system is not the answer.
Sanders disagreed, pointing to how much America is paying into the health care system compared to how little it is getting in return in a time of crisis.
“The reason we are unprepared and have been unprepared is we don’t have a system; we’ve got thousands of private insurance plans,” Sanders said. “That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care for all people in a good year, without the epidemic.”
Biden, however, didn’t want to talk about that.
“Look, this is a national crisis. I don't want to get this into a back and forth in terms of politics,” he said. “I've laid out a plan building on Obamacare. Providing a public option of Medicare would cover everyone the same way. This idea that this is his only answer is a mistaken notion.”
“But regardless of whether my plan is in place or his, this is a crisis, this is like we are being attacked from abroad. This is something that is of great consequences like a war. And in a war, you do whatever is needed to be done to take care of your people,” he said.
Cover: Democratic presidential hopefuls former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders point fingers at each other as they take part in the 11th Democratic Party presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)