Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders preparing to debate Sunday night in Washington, D.C.
They greeted each other with an elbow bump and discussed their personal hygiene strategies. They were asked whether they would order a national lockdown or deploy the military to fight a disease. Their every cough and face-swipe drew notice.
For a time at Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate — broadcast from an audience-free studio in Washington, D.C. — nothing seemed normal. With a global pandemic sweeping through the United States, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sought to meet the gravity of the moment and offer a contrast to President Donald Trump, whose response to the spread of coronavirus they criticized.
“We need unprecedented action right now to deal with the unprecedented crisis,” Sanders said.
“We're at war with a virus,” Biden said. “In a war, you do whatever is needed to be done to take care of your people.”
It didn’t take long, however, for the candidates to return to more familiar terrain, with Sanders arguing that, under his "Medicare for All" plan, Americans would be better prepared to fight the outbreak. “Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health care system,” he said.
“With all due respect to Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there,” Biden countered, referring to one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus. “It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That would not solve the problem at all.”
When Sanders questioned whether Biden had “the guts” to take on the health care and pharmaceutical industries — both of which he said had donated to the former vice president’s campaign — Biden sought to appear as if he were taking the high road. “This is a national crisis,” he said. “I don’t want to get this into a back and forth in terms of our politics here.”
Of course, that’s the very definition of a debate — and for the next hour and 45 minutes, both candidates did just that. They parried over the 2008 Wall Street bailout, abortion rights, gun control and fracking. The most heated exchanges came when Sanders sought to pin down Biden on his past willingness to slow the growth of spending on Social Security and other entitlement programs.
“Well, let me ask you a question, Joe. You’re right here with me,” Sanders said. “Have you been on the floor of the Senate — you were in the Senate for a few years — time and time again talking about the necessity, with pride, about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans’ programs?”
“No,” Biden responded.
“You never said that?” Sanders asked incredulously.
“No,” Biden said.
“All right, America, go to the website right now,” Sanders instructed. “Go to the YouTube right now.”
Perhaps in an era of self-quarantine and social distancing, some Americans have the time and patience to “go to the YouTube” and pore through ancient C-SPAN footage. But chances are they’ve got other matters to worry about than the respective voting records of two septuagenarian veterans of the U.S. Senate.
Unfortunately for Sanders, the moment most likely to break through the virus-plagued news cycle was Biden’s made-for-TV pronouncement that he would choose a woman to serve as his running mate — and Sanders’ far less emphatic response. “In all likelihood, I will,” Sanders said when asked whether he’d do the same. “My very strong tendency is to move in that direction.”
When Sanders announced last week after another electoral drubbing that he would stay in the race at least through Sunday’s debate, he was undoubtedly hoping that the head-to-head format would provide a final opportunity to regain momentum. He performed perfectly well and, as always, stayed entirely on message. But he did not do anything to shake up the race.
And with the nation’s attention turning from the primary to the pandemic, it’s hard to see how that will be enough.