5 takeaways from the first head-to-head debate of the 2020 race

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders squared off amid the growing coronavirus crisis.

March 15, 2020, 10:50 PM

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has essentially paused the 2020 presidential campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders faced off Sunday night in the first one-on-one debate of the race, pitting two drastically different visions for the Democratic Party against each other ahead of a general election clash with President Donald Trump.

Podiums six feet apart, an elbow bump instead of a handshake, and no live audience to wave to, Sunday’s debate was a stark reminder of the uncharted territory the 2020 race has now entered.

But the distance between the two candidates did not stop them from vigorously litigating their past records and present shortcomings in a contentious clash that will likely lengthen a sometime-chaotic primary.

Sanders repeatedly pressed Biden, who defended himself with equal measure, on issues from health care to climate change to social security, spawning numerous extended arguments that offered a sharp contrast between the two fundamentally different candidates.

Throw in a pledge from Biden to pick a female running mate, and a near-pledge from Sanders as well, and Sunday night delivered plenty of intrigue beyond the current crisis gripping the nation and the world.

Here are the five takeaways from the 11th Democratic debate:

Biden, Sanders pitch their leadership in a new normal

As the country grapples with growing anxiety over the global COVID-19 pandemic, and with the candidates sidelined from the trail, both Biden and Sanders outlined their visions for dealing with the unprecedented crisis.

"This is bigger than any one of us," Biden began, before taking aim at Trump for shedding any responsibility over the testing shortage.

"The World Health Organization offered -- offered the testing kits that they have available and to give it to us now. We refused them. We did not want to buy them. We did not want to get them from them. We wanted to make sure we had our own," Biden said, blaming the lack of action squarely on Trump. "I think he said something like, ‘We have the best scientists in America,’ or something to that effect."

Biden ultimately turned to his newly unveiled plan for dealing with the crisis, including expanding access to testing and health care facilities, eliminating all cost barriers associated with treatment and prevention, and sweeping economic measures to stimulate the economy.

But it was Sanders who more harshly condemned the president over his handling of the coronavirus response, saying, "The first thing we have got to do, whether or not I’m president, is to shut this president up right now. Because he is undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people. It is unacceptable for him to be blabbering with unfactual information, which is confusing the general public."

Sticking to his script, Sanders then made his case for Medicare for All, saying, "Now I obviously believe in Medicare for All. I will fight for that as president. 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. Do not worry about the cost right now, because we’re in the middle of a national emergency."

Coronavirus reopens health care rift

It’s one of the key issues that has defined the battle lines between the party’s left and the center from the onset of the race, and on Sunday, Biden and Sanders once again sparred on well-trodden territory over health care.

In the latest dust up, during an extended back-and-forth over whether embracing Medicare for All is the best path forward to address the crisis, Biden argued that Sanders’ signature policy of Medicare for All is a separate issue that does not necessarily tackle the immediate challenges of the coronavirus national emergency.

"With all due respect to Medicare for All, you have a single payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there. It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That would not solve the problem at all," Biden said.

But Sanders persisted, contending that the pandemic exposes the "incredible weakness and dysfunctionality" of the current health care system, which is not prepared to "provide health care for all people" -- a shortcoming that exacerbates the crisis.

"The bottom line here is, in terms of Medicare for All -- despite what the vice president is saying -- what the experts tell us, there is -- one of the reasons, that we are unprepared and have been unprepared, is we don’t have a system. We got thousands of private insurance plans. That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people," Sanders said.

Biden pushed back, insisting that in these unique times, the country is at "war" with the coronavirus.

"That has nothing to do with whether or not you have an insurance policy. This is a crisis. We’re at war with a virus. We’re at war with a virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything. We just pass the laws saying that you do not have to pay for any of this. Period," he said.

"I don’t want to get this into a back-and-forth in terms of our politics here," Biden later added, seeking to put politics aside to lay out how to deal with the outbreak.

An olive branch extended, and promptly swatted away

Biden came into Sunday’s debate clearly looking to extend an olive branch to Sanders’ supporters, but by his own admission, it wasn’t easy.

"He's making it hard for me right now," Biden said when asked how he would appeal to Sanders' supporters tonight.

Time and again, on current issues and past records, Sanders pressed Biden to the point of clear agitation, even as he committed to supporting the former vice president if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

“Of course!” Sanders said when asked if he’ll support Biden, who pledged to do the same of Sanders.

“Sure!” he offered when asked if he would campaign for him.

While Biden's campaign clearly viewed tonight as an opportunity to offer Sanders’ supporters space to eventually make their way over to their campaign, it was an opportunity largely missed, instead spent litigating past votes and present shortcomings in Biden’s platforms.

“I want to hear Joe's position on this -- this is not a middle of the ground thing,” Sanders said, pressing Biden on climate change.

Sanders' dissatisfaction with Biden’s answers almost assures his supporters will continue to forge ahead with their fight to pull the party, and its likely nominee, leftward as the November election nears.

Biden and Sanders spar over long-standing records

In one of the most heated clashes of the night, the two candidates pitched two different visions by turning to the past.

While Sanders often riffs about a political revolution, Biden argued from the two-podium stage that people "want results, not a revolution," before later adding, "We have problems we have to solve now. What's the revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?"

Sanders shot back by arguing that real change to the system will only come from confronting Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.

But the debate over their separate visions devolved into a spat over the two elder statesmen’s long-standing records over entitlement cuts and a 2005 bankruptcy bill.

"Let me ask you a question, Joe," Sanders said directly to Biden. "Have you been on the floor of the Senate, you were in the Senate for a few year -- time and time again talking about the necessity, with pride, about cutting social security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans' programs."

"No," Biden responded.

Sanders, still questioning Biden’s stance, later said, "All right, America. Go to the website right now, go to the YouTube right now. Time after time, you were not a fan of Bowles-Simpson?"

"I was not a fan of Bowles-Simpson," Biden said.

"You were not a fan of the balanced budget amendment, which called for cuts in social security? Come on, Joe. You were," Sanders pressed.

Sanders and Biden also tangled over a bankruptcy bill from 2005, a piece of legislation that made it more difficult to file for bankruptcy, for which Biden was a leading advocate when he was a senator from Delaware. Biden shifted his position this week, announcing his support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, which would undo the law.

"I don't have to rethink my position because that's what leadership is about -- having the guts to take an unpopular vote," Sanders said of his vote against the now-unpopular bankruptcy law. "But it’s not just bankruptcy. The difference between Joe and I on higher education is four years ago, it was not a popular idea, Joe. Glad you're coming around now."

In a two-man race, both (somewhat) commit to sharing ticket with a woman

The 2020 campaign may have been halted by the coronavirus, but that didn’t stop the two presidential hopefuls from keeping their focus on the long road ahead.

In a key moment in the two-person race, both men were asked if they would commit to picking a female running mate if they were the Democratic nominee.

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

After Biden concluded his answer, moderator Dana Bash followed up with Biden to confirm that he was indeed pledging to share the ticket with a woman, asking the former vice president, "If I could just follow up. Just to be clear, you just committed here tonight that your running mate, if you get the nomination, will be a woman."

"Yes," Biden firmly replied.

When posed the same question, Sanders gave a less definitive answer.

"In all likelihood, I -- I will. For me, it's not just nominating a woman. It is making sure that we have a progressive woman and there are progressive women out there. So my very strong tendency is to move in that direction," he answered.

Nevertheless, both candidates vowed to support the other at the end of the primary.

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