Updated Mar 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Debate night: Sanders and Biden go head-to-head

Sanders and Biden

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Sunday's Democratic debate was the primary season's first one-on-one match, with former Vice President Joe Biden taking on Sen. Bernie Sanders on the coronavirus, the "political revolution," women's health, climate, the rise of authoritarianism around the world and minority voter support.

Why it matters: It could be the last primary debate of the 2020 election. Biden is significantly leading in delegates and poised to do well in upcoming nominating contests. He's also adopted more progressive policies from Sanders and former 2020 contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren to draw in their supporters.

What they're saying:

On the coronavirus

The coronavirus' spread forced the move of the debate from in front of a live audience in Arizona to an empty studio in Washington, D.C.

Biden stated: "This is bigger than any one of us ... We have to take care of those who, in fact, are exposed or likely to be exposed to the virus."

  • Biden outlined his proposal for handling COVID-19 on Thursday, including deploying mobile testing sites, prepping medical staff and centers, and accelerating vaccine and treatment development.

Sanders went after the president: "The first thing we have got to do ... is to shut [President Trump] up right now. Because he's undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people."

  • Sanders detailed his coronavirus proposal last week as well, including creating coronavirus hotlines and boosting medical staffing. He'd also urged Trump to call a state of emergency, which the president since has.

Sanders, a proponent of Medicare for All, also argued that coronavirus showcases the "incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health care system."

  • Biden countered that Italy is under a single-payer system, but that the country is facing some of the worst effects of coronavirus in the world.

Both candidates urged policies to protect Americans from the potential economic downturn the coronavirus looks set to cause. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero and launched a $700 billion quantitative easing program in response to the coronavirus earlier Sunday.

  • Asked if he would bail out financial institutions struggling from the coronavirus, Sanders stated: "We have got to do more than save the banks or the oil companies."
  • Biden argued: "It's not going to be solved by a change in tax policy now. It's not going to be solved by a change in how we deal with health care. It is going to be solved with an emergency need right now."

Both Sanders and Biden detailed how they are protecting themselves from coronavirus. Sanders is 78, and Biden is 77. People over 60 are the most susceptible to the illness.

  • Both candidates emphasized their moves to virtual rallies, virtual town halls and having their staffs work from home.
  • The candidates also greeted each other on stage by bumping elbows rather than shaking hands, and noted their frequent hand-washing and use of hand sanitizer.

On the "political revolution"

Biden and Sanders stood their respective ground around Sanders' idea of a "political revolution." Biden has argued for more incremental policies, but has come around to some progressive ideas. He's adopted Sanders' proposal for tuition-free college for students whose families make less than $125,000.

  • Biden argued: "We want a revolution, let's act now. Pass the Biden health care plan, which takes Obamacare, restores all the cuts made to it, subsidizes further, provides for lower drug prices ... We can do that now. I can get that passed. I can get that done if I'm president of the United States of America."
  • Sanders countered: "You want to make real changes in this country ... you know what you need? You need to take on Wall Street. You need to take on the drug companies. And the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry."

But both candidates reiterated their intentions to support whoever the Democratic nominee is.

  • Biden noted: "We disagree on the detail of how we do it. But we don't disagree on the principle."
  • Sanders responded: "I hope to win the nomination, but if I don't win the nomination, I — and I think every other Democratic candidate — is prepared to come together to do everything humanly possible to defeat Donald Trump."

On women's health

The candidates outlined their commitments to promoting women's physical and financial health. Biden also on stage committed to choosing a female running mate if he wins the nomination.

  • Biden said: "My cabinet, my administration will look like the country. And I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a woman to be vice president."
  • Sanders noted that he would "in all likelihood" pick a female running mate if given the chance.

But Sanders hit Biden on his record with the Hyde Amendment. Biden had been a supporter of the amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening circumstances. Biden has since called for a ban on the policy.

  • "The reason why I affirmatively came out opposed to the amendment is if we're going to have public funding for all health care along the line, there's no way you can allow for there to be a requirement that you have — Hyde Amendment — a woman who doesn't have the money could not have coverage under health care," Biden stated.

On Climate

The candidates pit their proposals to address climate change against on another. Biden vied for going global and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, while Sanders focused on his proposal to dwindle the use of fossil fuels.

  • Biden said: "I would immediately rejoin the Paris climate accord, which I helped put together."
  • Sanders argued: "Obviously, the Paris accord is useful. But it doesn't go anywhere ... I'm talking about stopping fracking as soon as we possibly can. I'm talking about telling the fossil fuel industry that they are going to stop destroying this planet."

On authoritarianism

Sanders received criticism earlier this year over comments praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's literacy programs. He argues that authoritarianism is a "global crisis" but that it is "a little bit absurd" to deny any successes by authoritarian leaders.

  • Sanders stated: "We condemn authoritarianism ... But to simply say that nothing ever done by any of those administrations had a positive impact on their people, would, I think, be incorrect."
  • Biden countered: "The idea of occasionally saying something nice about a country is one thing ... These are flat out dictators. Period. They should be called for it."

On support from people of color

Both candidates addressed their lack of support from specific minority groups. Sanders has struggled to gain traction among black voters, while Biden has struggled to resonate with Latino voters.

  • Biden: "My message is resonating across the board. Every single state we have been in there's been a significant turnout."
  • Sanders: "Joe has won more states than I have, but here's what we are winning. We are winning the ideological."
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