4 takeaways from the Biden-Sanders Democratic debate

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

For the first time in this election cycle, just two candidates shared a debate stage Sunday evening, after a spate of dropouts from the Democratic primary field. With former Vice President Joe Biden entrenched as the race’s frontrunner, he had to contend in a one-on-one contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders. On a night when the coronavirus had a huge impact on both the setting and content of the debate, the two candidates battled over their records and attempted to make a final pitch to the four states voting in primaries on Tuesday.

Here are the key takeaways from the night.

A focus on the coronavirus

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders challenged each other at the Democratic debate. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, Evan Vucci/AP)

The debate was originally scheduled to be held in Arizona, with a live audience and Univision’s Jorge Ramos as one of the moderators. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was moved to Washington, D.C., the audience was nixed and Ramos removed himself from the panel after concerns that he may have been exposed to someone who interacted with a person who tested positive for the virus. The lecterns were separated by more than the six feet recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, and the two men greeted each other by bumping elbows.

The first half hour of the debate was all about the coronavirus, with each candidate laying out their plans for combating its spread. Sanders insisted that the pandemic showed the necessity for his signature campaign issue, Medicare for All, while Biden stayed focused on immediate measures to contain the virus, scoring a point with the observation that Italy’s national health care plan hadn’t stopped that country’s outbreak, one of the worst in the world. 

Sanders recommended as a first step that President Trump stop talking about the disease. “The first thing we’ve got to do, whether or not I’m president, is to shut this president up right now,” he said.

Later in the debate, the two septuagenarians said they were taking additional precautions on the campaign trail. Both said they were hosting “virtual” events with supporters, had asked their staff members to work from home, and were being personally careful with their hygiene.

“I’m very careful about the people I’m interacting with. I’m using a lot of soap and hand sanitizers,” Sanders said.

“I wash my hands God knows how many times a day with hot water and soap,” Biden said. “I make sure I don’t touch my face, and so on,” he added.

The final question of the debate was also on the virus, as each were allowed to give a closing statement. Sanders said we needed to move aggressively to make sure that anyone who needed the treatment was able to get it, before he pivoted to an abbreviated version of his stump speech about the problems of inequality in the country. Biden discussed global coordination, mitigating the economic effects of the virus — and defeating Trump.

A battle over Biden’s record on Social Security

Biden and Sanders debate faced off in the debate, which was moved to Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Sanders attacked Biden over comments he has made over the years about the need to reduce the growth of Social Security spending

“You were in the Senate for a few years,” said Sanders. “Time and time again, talking about the necessity with pride about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare and veterans’ programs.”

Biden insisted that had never been his position, although the Sanders campaign has run ads that show him calling for a freeze on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the floor of the Senate. “All that I would say to the American people, go to YouTube,” Sanders said. “It’s all over the place. Joe said it many, many times.” 

Biden also attempted to downplay his role in passing a bankruptcy bill of which he was a major supporter

Sanders also pressed Biden on his support for the Iraq War, the Hyde Amendment (which forbids the federal government from paying for abortions in most circumstances) and the Defense of Marriage Act (which disallowed gay marriage). 

Biden said, “We can argue about the past or the future,” before attacking Sanders over his past votes on gun control and immigration. At another point, the two clashed over Sanders’s history of finding positive things to say (with heavy caveats) about totalitarian Communist governments, such as Cuba’s. 

While the candidates sparred on a wide range of issues, they were both clear that they would not just support, but campaign for, their opponent if they won the nomination.

A pledge for a woman vice president

Joe Biden at the first one-on-one Democratic candidates' debate. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Biden, who has a history of lagging changing social expectations about gender relations, pledged that he would select a woman as his running mate. Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement in South Carolina helped revive Biden’s campaign, had previously recommended one of three women of color: Sen. Kamala Harris, Georgia state legislator and defeated gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Sanders declined to make the same commitment. “In all likelihood, I would,” said Sanders when asked the same question, saying that his choice would be a progressive woman and that there were many progressive women out there.

Only three women have ever been on a major U.S. party’s presidential ticket: Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for vice president in 2008 and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984.

Last stand for Sanders?

Sanders makes a point during the debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The debate may have been the final one of the primary cycle for a number of reasons. Biden has taken comfortable double-digit leads in most state and national polls as Democratic voters seem uninterested in a long primary campaign. (In addition to Biden and Sanders, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is the only remaining candidate who hasn’t dropped out; however, she has won just two delegates.) 

But there’s another issue with the primary season: Just before the debate started, the CDC recommended ending gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. If states followed those advisories, it would make in-person voting at polling places almost impossible. With Louisiana and Georgia already planning to postpone their primaries and the announcement of polling place closures in other states, the status of future primaries is uncertain. 

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