Mar 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

4 takeaways from the Biden-Sanders Democratic debate

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The last time former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders took the debate stage, eight candidates were still competing for the nomination, Biden's campaign looked to be on its last legs, and the coronavirus epidemic was the subject of just one question from moderators.

The state of play: The world has changed dramatically since Feb. 25. Bumping elbows and standing the CDC-recommended six feet apart in a CNN studio without an audience, the two candidates, both septuagenarians, sparred over their visions for an America paralyzed by a global health crisis.


1. Predictably, the first question of the debate centered on what the candidates would say to Americans confronting the new reality of life during a pandemic, where large gatherings have been banned, elections have been delayed, and the economy and health care system are under unprecedented strain.

  • Sanders began with a line that most Democrats can agree on: "Firstly, whether or not I'm president, we have to shut this president up right now. Because he's undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people. It is unacceptable for him to be blabbering with unfactual information."
  • But from there, the coronavirus debate evolved to embody the two worldviews through which competing factions of the Democratic Party tend to see this election: Biden believes the coronavirus is a crisis that needs immediate action to return to normalcy; Sanders views it as evidence of a broken system.
  • Biden stressed the need for stability and presidential leadership, while Sanders made the issues-based argument for a health care system that would ensure the most vulnerable Americans are protected.

2. Biden committed to picking a woman as his running mate, stating that his administration "will look like the country" if he wins. Sanders said in response that "in all likelihood" he would do the same, but added: "For me, it's not just nominating a woman. It is making sure we have a progressive woman, and there are progressive women out there."

  • Between the lines: House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who is widely credited with reviving Biden's campaign, told "Axios on HBO" Sunday that he would advise Biden to pick an African-American woman as his running mate. See Clyburn's shortlist.

3. The conventional wisdom coming into tonight was that Sanders, knowing Biden's delegate lead is insurmountable, would refrain from being too critical of his opponent and instead use the debate to push the presumptive nominee to the left on key issues.

  • This was largely true for the first half of the debate, but things got heated when Sanders launched into attacks on the former vice president's record of voting in favor of the 2005 bankruptcy bill, the war in Iraq, "disastrous trade agreements" like NAFTA and more.
  • Sanders also repeated his claim that Biden's campaign is financed by billionaires. But at this point in the primary, when Biden has proven he has sweeping support among black voters and moderate Democrats who view defeating Trump as their No. 1 priority, it seems unlikely that relitigation of policy records will do anything to shake up the race.

4. The one-on-one setting allowed the candidates to delve into a substantive policy discussion on climate change, arguably for the first time, laying bare the differences in scope between the two men's climate plans, Axios' Ben Geman notes. Biden defended his plan as ambitious enough, despite being less aggressive in size and cost than Sanders' $16 trillion Green New Deal proposal.

  • Sanders ripped into Biden's focus on international climate diplomacy and rejoining the Paris Agreement, calling it "nowhere near enough": "We started this debate talking about a war-like situation in terms of the coronavirus," Sanders said. "I look at climate change in exactly the same way."
  • Go deeper: How the coronavirus and climate change are obvious risks we ignore

The bottom line: The voters who are still undecided between Biden and Sanders are unlikely to make a decision after a debate that was, in effect, a rehashing of the two ideological perspectives that have defined the race for the last year. All Biden needed to do was to escape this debate with his head above the water, and that's exactly what he did.

Go deeper