In the midst of a national public health crisis over a novel coronavirus that has claimed thousands of lives worldwide, the stakes of the debate over access to healthcare have rarely been clearer.
But as schools, businesses and presidential campaign events themselves have shuttered across the country, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders remained at odds over whether the novel coronavirus pandemic makes the case that a single-payer healthcare system is the solution to the emergency.
“The dysfunctionality of the current healthcare system is obviously apparent,” Sanders said, adding that the pandemic “exposes the incredible weakness” of a system where millions remain uninsured.
“Right now, in this emergency, I want every person in this country to understand that when you get sick, you go to the doctor,” Sanders said. “Do not worry about the cost right now, because we are in the middle of a national emergency.”
But for Biden, the pandemic is a war—not a case for Sanders’ signature issue.
“With all due respect to Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there,” Biden said in the first minutes of the Democratic presidential debate held in CNN’s Washington studio on Sunday, the event having been moved to avoid furthering the spread of the virus.
“We are at war with a virus,” Biden said, and the American people are “looking for results, not a revolution. They’re looking for results they need right now.”
Sanders retorted that he considers the lack of access to healthcare under any circumstances to be a crisis.
“Bottom line here is, in terms of Medicare for All, despite what the vice president is saying, what the experts tell us that one of the reasons that we are unprepared is that we don’t have a system... that is prepared to provide healthcare to all people,” Sanders said. “I consider that a crisis.”
“I consider that a crisis.”
The issue of access to healthcare—and how to pay for it—has loomed over every presidential debate this cycle, but as the American public grapples with an unprecedented public health crisis that has laid bare the dysfunction of the nation’s health care system, as well as the ability of the government’s ability to respond, the issue has become even more critical.
The atmosphere of Sunday’s debate couldn’t be more different than the last one, just three weeks ago. Mere days before the South Carolina primary, a packed stage of candidates were more prone to crosstalk and chaos than consensus. Sunday featured two candidates and, due to the concerns about crowds, there is no live audience.
The last month has been a difficult one for the Sanders campaign. After a blowout win in the Nevada caucuses, Sanders had achieved frontrunner status with clear wins in two of the first three contests. All of that early state momentum meant little however once the primary season moved to South Carolina.
Biden’s decisive victory in the first southern state to vote proved to be a springboard, powering the former Vice President to a strong Super Tuesday showing that vastly outpaced Sanders. A path to the Democratic nomination for Sanders grew even more difficult last Tuesday when Biden outpaced Sanders again in states like Missouri and Michigan, a pair of states Sanders was strong in during his last presidential run.
After last week’s primaries resulted in a series of bitter defeats in major contests, Sanders broke 17 hours of silence to call on Biden to debate him on the issues that exit polls showed were still critically important to the Democratic electorate. Sanders’ tone was not one of defiance, but of realism, ticking off a list of policy goals he would press Biden on at the debate, ranging from medically related debt and dealing with climate change to whether he would veto “Medicare for All.”
“Our country is at a severe disadvantage compared to every other major country on earth because we do not guarantee healthcare to all people as a right,” Sanders said in follow-up remarks on Thursday evening. “The United States government today must make it clear that in the midst of this emergency every one in our country, regardless of income or where they live, must be able to get all of the healthcare they need without cost.”
Biden, on the other hand, has begun to look ahead to a likely November matchup with President Donald Trump. Between a somber victory speech after his slew of wins on Tuesday night and his own coronavirus address Thursday, the 77-year-old is now faced with the delicate task of uniting a Democratic party that has shown deep divisions between its moderate and progressive wings.
During a “fireside chat” Saturday night, Sanders said he has a problem with “debates that turn into food fights,” and a large number of people are on stage, previewing a debate strategy of focusing on policy differences, rather than “political gossip,” Sanders’ all-encompassing term for any topic of conversation he doesn’t like.
“I think in a two-hour debate with two people, we can explore some of the real issues facing this country,” Sanders said.
Alongside plans to push Biden on income inequality, Sanders also fell back on deriding Biden as being “part of the establishment for a very long time,” but described Biden as “a friend of mine and a very decent person.”
“Are people going to believe that you're going to stand with the working families of this country when you are so dependent to your funding on billionaires and super PACs that are funded in undisclosed ways by the wealthiest people in this country?” Sanders said of Biden.
The push for Biden to embrace some of those policies appeared to be working in the hours before the debate. On Sunday afternoon, the former vice president’s campaign announced a policy to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all students whose family incomes are below $125,000—an explicit endorsement of a bill put forward in the Senate by Sanders to do just that.
But before the debate, Sanders chided Biden for not going far enough and called for tuition free education for everyone and the “need to cancel all student debt.”
"It's great that Joe Biden is now supporting a position that was in the Democratic platform four years ago,” Sanders said in a statement. “Now we have to go much further.”
Fears about the health risks of the virus have already caused Georgia and Louisiana to push back their planned primaries that were set for the weeks to come. Despite concerns about turnout, polling place changes and poll worker issues creating confusion among the states set to vote Tuesday, officials in those states have maintained their contests will still happen.
That some primary days after Tuesday's had been postponed wasn't far from the mind of Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, during Saturday night’s fireside chat.
“We are told that the other four states on March 17 will go forward as of now. Who knows, we’ll see what happens in a few days,” Shakir said Saturday night. “But if they do go forward, and if you are healthy, we’d ask you to go to the polls and please vote and then wash your hands.”