Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders clashed at Sunday night’s Democratic primary debate over whether the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the need for a “Medicare-for-all” proposal, with Biden declaring a “war” against the virus that has nothing to do with single-payer health care — and Sanders accusing Biden of taking too much money from the pharmaceutical industry.
At various points in the debate, each candidate tripped up over key terms, as Sanders confused Ebola with the coronavirus, and Biden called H1N1 the “N1H1” virus and referred to Ebola only as “what happened in Africa.” Biden also indicated that the coronavirus outbreak had occurred under the Obama administration, before correcting himself; and Sanders urged viewers to “go to the YouTube” to review evidence of Biden calling for cuts to Social Security on the Senate floor.
That prompted one of the debate’s most conentious moments, as Biden eventually acknowleged under pressure that various cuts were “on the table” as part of congressional negotiations, but that he “never voted” for such cuts. Sanders said he was “surprised” by Biden’s denials that he had sought potential Social Security cuts, given that he’s ordinarily an “honest” guy.
Earlier in the debate, arguing we need to “shut this president up right now” because he was “blabbering with unfactual information which is confusing the general public,” Sanders went on to call the moment a referendum on the nation’s health care system as he renewed his call for “Medicare-for-all.” Biden, however, cast the crisis as a probative test of presidential leadership.
“First of all, the dysfunctionality of the current health care system is obviously apparent,” Sanders said. “As I said earlier, there are people who hesitate going to the doctor. … Clearly we are not prepared, and Trump only exacerbates the crisis. When we spend twice as much per capita as any other nation, one might expect we’re gonna have enough doctors all over this country. One might expect we’re gonna have affordable prescription drugs.”
He added: “What the experts tell us is that one of the reasons we’re unprepared is we don’t have a system. We have thousands of private health insurance plans. That’s not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people.”
“It is not working in Italy right now, and they have a single-payer system,” Biden countered. “It has nothing to do with Bernie’s ‘Medicare-for-all.’”
“I don’t want to get this into a back and forth in terms of our politics,” Biden bizarrely remarked at one point. He also asserted that ad hoc coronavirus response legislation currently under consideration by Congress was the appropriate response to take care of the “immediate needs we have now.”
Americans, Biden said, were looking for “results, not a revolution.” Medicare-for-all, Biden said, had no realistic chance of passing Congress, and likely couldn’t be funded.
“We’re responding,” Biden said.” It’s all free, you don’t have to pay for a thing. That has nothing to do with whether or not you have an insurance policy. This is a crisis. We’re at war with the virus.”
“That’s not true, “Sanders interjected. “That law has enormous loopholes. I understand Nancy Pelosi did her best, Republicans prevented it.”
Sanders went on to argue that “right now, we have a lack of medical personnel,” and that “unprecedented action” was needed. The self-described “democratic socialist” urged the Trump administration to promise Americans that “if you lose your job, you will be made whole.”
He then suggested that the government can guarantee workers’ wages if it can inject $1.5 trillion into short-term money markets — a comparison that economists have said is inapt.
Biden, meanwhile, said first responders lacked necessary “equipment” to handle the crisis. He called for widespread access to testing kits and using federal resources to add more hospital beds.
“This is bigger than any one of us,” he said.
The debate comes as the nation and much of the world struggle to contain a global pandemic amid mounting economic uncertainty. The debate itself was upended by the outbreak, having been moved from Phoenix to a Washington studio, with no live audience. The candidates’ podiums were six feet apart, to comply with CDC guidelines.
“It has nothing to do with Bernie’s ‘Medicare-for-all.’”
Their first one-on-one stand-off represents perhaps Sanders’ last moment to alter the trajectory of Biden’s front-running campaign ahead of another round of primaries that could see the Vermont senator fall further behind in the delegate count. For Biden, he has to strike a challenging balance – appealing to a general election audience while also making concessions to the left, as the party tries to coax Sanders out of the race.
Hours before the CNN-Univision debate began, Biden announced he would adopt portions of two proposals from Sanders and Elizabeth Warren concerning free public college and bankruptcy, respectively, in an apparent bid to win over their supporters.
But, Sanders’ campaign quickly rebuked the Biden initiative, saying it simply wasn’t sufficient. The shift was somewhat unusual for Biden, as front-runners typically have moved toward the political middle with an eye toward November, instead of embracing more left-wing ideas. But here, Biden clearly is trying to demonstrate to Sanders as well as his base that he embraces at least part of their progressive agenda, likely in hopes of convincing Sanders and his followers to support him.
Much has changed in the United States, and in the campaign, since the Democrats’ last debate less than three weeks ago. Biden stepped on stage as the front-runner, a distinction that seemed unlikely when Sanders was winning early contests. But, more moderate Democrats have consolidated rapidly around Biden, buoyed by his strong standing with black voters and motivated by a desire to block Sanders, as many of them signaled fears he’d lose to President Trump in November.
The fast-moving coronavirus largely has grounded the candidates for days, leading them to cancel campaign rallies even as big states prepare to vote on Tuesday. That’s also frozen the trajectory of the primary contest, limiting Sanders’ opportunities to regain momentum. Advisers said Biden also will aim in Sunday’s debate to show voters who backed Sanders or other liberal candidates that they’d have a home in his campaign.
After rebounding in stunning fashion from his sluggish start in the primary, Biden has held a solid lead over Sanders in the all-important delegate race since. A strong showing in Tuesday’s primary contests essentially could guarantee his nomination. Four big states will be up for grabs: Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and Florida, a perennial general election battleground where Biden has appeared to have an edge over Sanders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.