Democratic Debate #11: Sanders and Biden Vie for Leadership Points in First Post-Corona Debate

It’s only been 18 days since the last Democratic presidential debate but it feels like a lifetime ago.

18 days ago, Bernie Sanders was the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination. Since then, we’ve had 23 caucus and primaries. Four candidates have left the race. A field that was once seven candidates large — that included three women and one out gay man — is now down to just three candidates… just two, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, with plausible shots at the Democratic nomination for president. Eight former candidates have come off the sidelines to endorse their former competition: seven for Biden, one for Sanders.

And the coronavirus — a topic that earned just four minutes of discussion in that previous debate — has now grown into a worldwide pandemic and has forced unprecedented action from local, state and federal governments. As of March 15, the United States has 3,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and is on a trajectory to match the outbreak levels being seen in Italy and Iran.

It’s only been 18 days since the last Democratic presidential debate but it feels like a lifetime ago.

Still, though, the debate must go on… and while, I think there’s an argument to be made about the futility of last night’s debate and any future debates, it did offer the nation an interesting juxtaposition. Just hours earlier, the nation watched as the current president embarrassed himself, and the nation, once again: sharing erroneous information that had to be subsequently corrected by the speakers that followed. Whatever you think of Biden or Sanders, they stood on last night’s debate stage with a firm command of the facts, plans to tackle the issue and a willingness to let America’s response be dictated by experts. The difference between the parties could not be more stark.

Voting in the Age of Corona

Four states — Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona — have elections tomorrow. Secretaries of State from each of those states have committed to following guidance from the Center for Disease Control to sanitize machines and keep poll workers safe but given what we’ve seen in other primary states, it seems improbable that voters will come “into and out of the building for a short duration.” So what then… do you encourage people to vote in the wake of a pandemic? Do you tell people to wait in line for however long it takes to cast their ballot when doing so could further endanger their health or the health of those around them? What if the choice isn’t about Biden versus Sanders but between putting your health at risk and not?

Ohio had, for instance, closed more than 100 polling locations with a high population of vulnerable people. But, with the coronavirus spreading at a rapid clip, the state’s governor is seeking a injunction from the courts to delay Ohio’s primary until June. What impact could that have on the outcome of tomorrow’s primaries? And if it does have an impact — considering the disproportionate impact its having on folks 65 and older, it seems like Biden’s coalition might be the most at risk — does this taint the legitimacy of this process?

I was surprised not to hear a single question about voting in the age of the coronavirus during last night’s debate… not because I think it’ll greatly influence the winner of Tuesday’s primaries — polls show Biden ahead by a considerable margin in all four contests — but because we still don’t know what comes next. Georgia and Louisiana have already postponed their presidential primaries and as the pandemic spreads, it’s hard to imagine other states not following suit.

Despite suggestions the contrary, most Democratic officials have been reluctant to push Sanders off the primary stage for fear of alienating his base of voters, but how does coronavirus change that calculus? How does Sanders justify staying in what, after tomorrow’s elections may become an unwinnable race, when the health of Democratic voters are at stake? And if Sanders’ campaign remains committed to staying in the race, how does the Democratic National Committee respond? Is there a 12th debate? Does the Party work with states to create an alternative to in-person voter turnout, both for the remaining primaries and, perhaps, for the general election? These are issues we need to grapple with now and I was disappointed that the opportunity was missed last night.

Biden Commits to a Female VP

Perhaps the most talked about moment in last night’s debate came in response to a question from Amy Langenfeld, an Arizona State University law professor, asked how their respective Cabinets will “ensure the best advice on issues that affect women’s physical and financial health.” Sanders pledged to have an administration made up of 50 percent women and then quickly pivoted back to policy issues. He laid out an agenda that that’s committed to fighting for the rights of women… from universal childcare to closing the wage gap to protecting more women from domestic violence. He touted his 100% lifetime rating from NARAL while pointing to Biden’s lackluster record on a woman’s right to choose.

Given the opportunity to respond, Biden pivoted back to firmer ground. If given the opportunity, Biden pledged to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court, calling that representation, “long overdue.” Then, he took it a step further, saying, “if I’m elected President, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country. And I commit that I’ll pick a woman to be Vice President. There are a number of women who are qualified to be President tomorrow, I would pick a woman to be my Vice President.”

It seemed like a record scratch moment for most, including CNN moderator, Dana Bash, who was so stunned by the pronouncement that she asked the former vice president for a clarification. But, honestly, no one should have been surprised: Biden’s been forthright about his intentions for a while now. Back in August, Biden told a group of journalists that he’d prefer his vice president to be a person of color and/or a different gender. When asked about his vice presidential choice prior to the Iowa caucus, Biden once again affirmed his interest in choosing a woman or person of color for the role. Given the opportunity to name names, Biden’s publicly touted Stacey Abrams, Sally Yates and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan as potential picks. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the man widely credited with saving Biden’s campaign in South Carolina, has openly lobbied for Biden pick a woman and an African-American woman in particular. Looking at the members of Biden’s voter coalition, particularly, his appeal to African-American voters and suburban women — the same voters who led to Democrats taking back the House in 2018 — a woman as vice president has always made sense for Biden and I wasn’t surprised to see him embrace that on a national stage.

Given the opportunity to make the same pledge, Sanders was slightly less eager to do so, saying, “In all likelihood, I will. For me, it’s not just nominating a woman. It is making sure that we have a progressive women and there are progressive women out there, so my very strong tendency is to move in that direction.” While he’ll get some pushback for not being as avid to nominate a woman, Sanders’ position has been consistent: his priority is selecting a vice presidential candidate who supports Medicare for All.

Highs & Lows

+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President

High: One of the more insidious things to result from Biden’s rise in the polls has been the whisper campaign about his “cognitive decline” by Republicans and Sanders supporters alike. And while the Sanders campaign disavowed any knowledge of the memo, they did publicly chastise Biden for being unwilling to “stand toe-to-toe with Sen. Sanders on the debate stage.”

The problem with expectation setting is that campaigns set the bar so low for their opponents that anything short of falling on their face feels like a win… and that’s exactly what happened last night. While there were moments where Biden stumbled, his overall command of the facts and the fact that he was adept enough to respond to Sanders’ attacks, helped put to rest many of the questions that have been raised in recent weeks. Unsurprisingly, the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, conducted before and after the debate using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, showed Biden gaining more support.

Another strong point for Biden last night: his tendency to ground his answers about coronavirus with empathy for those who have already lost a loved one plays to Biden’s strengths.

Low: I was taken aback by the level of dishonesty that Biden put on display last night and found myself wishing that Sanders were a more adept debater so that he could push back more effectively (telling people to go to the Youtube is not an effective debate strategy). On Iraq, Social Security, the bankruptcy bill, Biden spun a rosy version of his legacy that seemed so far removed from the truth that it was hard for me to stomach.

When Sanders asked about Biden’s history of touting “cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans programs,” he was making a direct reference to a1995 Senate speech where Biden said, “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice. I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”

+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont

High: There’s an oft-quoted saying in politics, “in the midst of every crisis, there is opportunity,” and in the midst of this coronavirus crisis, there’s never been a greater opportunity to made the case for a single-payer health care… and Sanders took full advantage of that opportunity last night.

“Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system. Now, we’re spending twice as much per person on healthcare as the people of any other country,” Sanders pointed out.

As he’s been throughout the campaign, the Vermont senator was at his best in making the case for Medicare for All. He put the quandary facing far too many Americans right now in starkly personal terms, imagining the debate about what to do when they feel sick: “Should I go to the doctor? But I can’t afford to go to the doctor. What happens if I am sick? It’s going to cost thousands of dollars for treatment. Who’s going to feed my kids?”

Sanders showed himself not only to be capable of meeting the moment, with policy prescriptions, but in striking the exact right tone. Plus, he batted back the former vice president’s ludicrous suggestion that the reason Italy’s struggling to fight the curtail the impact of the coronavirus is their single-payer system. All in all, I thought it was the strongest defense of Medicare for All that we’ve heard from him throughout this campaign.

Low: Sanders has, ostensibly, been running for president for five years now… so I often find myself frustrated that he hasn’t yet developed stronger responses on obvious questions. He’s absolutely right to hit Biden on his past votes in favor of the Iraq war, DOMA, NAFTA and the bankruptcy bull… but, at the same time, he should be prepared to respond when challenged about his own record. After five years of running, he should have a better rebuttal to Biden’s attack on his gun control record. It’s an obvious weakness in Sanders’ record and it’s an obvious rejoinder when Sanders is attacking Biden’s voting record…by not having a strong answer, Sanders allows Biden to escape accountability too.

What’d you think of last night’s debate? Was I the only person that opted to watch the debate instead of Batwoman and Supergirl?

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 410 articles for us.


  1. if one person was going to skip the CW lineup last night, I’m glad it was you, Natalie. thank you for your service. i missed it, but not for sheroes; there was a miscommunication about who was to set up recording.

    in checking the recaps, i didn’t see that Sanders took the opportunity to point out how the Right is ok with socialism in the form of bailouts for corps, like those proposed by the alleged US president for oil, airline, and hospitality industries, in addition to republicans balking on support for main street folks who are already starting to hurt. Sanders, could have also taken the opportunity to note that the increasing deficit -created by tax breaks for the extremely wealthy- makes new corporate bailouts risky in the face of a pandemic recession.

    Biden could have made the same points, but that would have been a surprise.

    it’s always a bummer when a candidate you have to vote for conflicts with values you hold, but at least either of the Democratic candidates believe in climate change and are better prepared to handle issues of global concern like pandemic management.

    thanks for the roundup and the context you provided, Natalie.

    • “it’s always a bummer when a candidate you have to vote for conflicts with values you hold, but at least either of the Democratic candidates believe in climate change and are better prepared to handle issues of global concern like pandemic management.”

      THIS. This is what I’ve been trying to get through to my partner. She hates Biden (and granted, I’m not a huge fan myself). I’m a Social Democrat and do prefer the policy ideas of Sanders, but I’m also realistic and know he can’t win (I also totally agree with others that he could really stand to improve his debate skills.). It stands to reason then that I’ve tried to get my partner to realize that refusing to vote for Biden when he ultimately gets the nomination is nothing more than a vote in favor of Trump. She thinks Trump and Biden are equally bad choices and while I criticize Biden for many MANY things, I cannot equate him with Trump. I will take a bad Democratic choice over a Republican (especially Trump) absolutely any day.

      Tl;dr Thanks for your comment! I relate.

  2. Thanks for the write up, as always, Natalie. It feels so incredibly anticlimactic to be thinking about the primary right now….

  3. Great recap. Thanks Natalie. I hope you aren’t disheartened by the small number of comments on your post- I think many of us are just so despondent and otherwise preoccupied right now that the thought of the elections is simply too much to handle. I appreciate people like you who give us the recap we need to stay informed while still allowing us to bow out of actually watching the oftentimes frustrating debates. Thanks again!

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