Mar 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

What to watch in tonight's debate: A new Joe Biden

Sen. Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden at the Democratic debate at Gaillard Center, Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 25. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Viewers tuning in to tonight’s Democratic debate will meet a new Joe Biden — one who’s adopted two new progressive policies from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and who’s eager to pull their supporters away from the movement they’ve built into his own coalition.

Why it matters: This could very well be the last primary debate of the 2020 cycle, and Biden knows he has to start the work of winning over Sanders’ supporters before Sanders drops out.

Driving the news: The worsening coronavirus outbreak has profoundly affected this debate and disrupted the primaries. The debate itself was moved from Arizona, one of four states voting on Tuesday, to D.C. and will be held without an audience. Both candidates have had to cancel rallies and pivot to virtual events. And the ongoing public health crisis amplifies the importance of health care in this race and the two competing theories for the way forward:

  • Biden argues that overhauling the current health system as we know it would be too risky— especially during a time like this.
  • Sanders can use this moment to further amplify the problems in the health care system that he wants to remake.

The state of play: Biden has amassed a 150+ delegate lead over Sanders, and he’s poised to win all four states voting in Tuesday’s contest — Arizona, Ohio, Illinois and Florida.

  • He’s emerged as a shadow president, giving national remarks about and unveiling a plan to address the coronavirus pandemic; a de facto party chair working to unite the party's previously competing factions; and — according to voters so far — the best chance Democrats have to beat Trump in November.
  • “The contours of the race have been reshaped dramatically since debate 10 and debate 11,” said a senior Biden campaign official.
  • Another senior Biden official said that at tonight’s debate — and as president if elected — he “will continue to be open to the best ideas ... regardless of where they come from.”

Today, Biden’s campaign announced he adopted two new policies from his progressive colleagues into his own progressive platform:

  • Sen. Warren’s plan on bankruptcy.
  • Sen. Sanders’ education proposal, which would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families make less than $125,000.

Yes, but: In his remarks after a disappointing loss in last week’s contests, Sanders listed a number of policies he’s going to question Biden about tonight on stage because there’s more than education to his vision for the future.

  • Expect Sanders to engage Biden on a conversation around health care, climate change and immigration — all as a way to get early and verbal commitments that Biden will at least recognize where Sanders wants him to evolve.
  • That’s also a way for Sanders to give his supporters permission to support someone like Biden, who they don’t view as a progressive champion.
  • Sanders himself said in remarks from Vermont last week that his campaign has “won the ideological debate,” but they’ve “lost the debate over electability.” It was a nontraditional concession speech that previewed the policy goals he’s going to fight for as the runner-up.

Be smart: Don’t expect Biden to come out in support of Medicare for All, which has been his biggest policy difference with Sanders. He hasn’t supported it thus far, and a plurality of voters who do support single-payer government-run health care have still picked Biden over Sanders in several states throughout the primary.

The bottom line: If this is the last primary debate, that means Biden will find himself in a general election with Donald Trump — who will pick apart a lot more than Biden’s policy record.

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