WASHINGTON — It was a head-to-head Democratic primary debate for the first time in the 2020 election cycle.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden exchanged elbow bumps as they took the stage Sunday night, but their interactions only got more heated as the night went on.
The debate, originally planned to take place in Phoenix ahead of the March 17 Arizona primary, was moved to Washington, D.C., over fears of the spread of coronavirus. It did not have a live audience.
Sanders needed a boost of momentum after disappointing finishes in the last several primary contests. He now trails Biden in delegates by more than 150, according to current counts, as the two head into Tuesday primaries in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio.
Here are some of the highlights from the Sunday night debate:
From elbow bump to health care feud, coronavirus front of mind
The spread of the coronavirus pandemic across the U.S. was front of mind. In a break from the tradition of shaking their competitors’ hands, Biden and Sanders bumped elbows as a pre-debate greeting, and their podiums were placed 6 feet apart, in keeping with the CDC’s recommendation for social distancing. It was a far cry from the moment Biden and Sanders side hugged during a February debate.
That elbow bump kicked off an extended session on the coronavirus, touching on everything from health care plans to how the candidates themselves were taking precautions against the virus.
The candidates returned throughout the evening to the debate over how the coronavirus should affect the conversation about America’s health care system. Sanders, who has touted his signature Medicare for All plan as a tool to combat the current crisis, said the current pandemic exposes the “cruelty” of the nation’s economy.
“Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
Biden stepped in to reiterate that the country needs immediate action: “People are looking for results. Not a revolution.”
Biden said his priority with the economy would be to make sure everybody is made financially “whole” to help Americans pay their bills and support their family in the face of any lost wages.
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The candidates quickly turned the discussion over the pandemic into a debate over their health care plans. Sanders continued his frequent complaint that the United States spends more than most countries without the results to show for it.
“We are spending so much money yet we are not prepared for this pandemic,” he said. “How come people can’t afford to get the prescription drugs they need?”
Biden said that Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal is not the answer. He said Italy has a single-payer system and their health care system is still in crisis.
“That would not solve the problem at all,” Biden said. “It is not working in Italy right now.”
With both candidates in their 70s, part of the higher-risk group identified by the CDC, they both said they were taking precautions like hand-washing and using sanitizer to prevent contracting coronavirus. Both have also transitioned their campaign staffs to working from home and suspended large campaign events.
Biden adopting progressive candidates’ plans
Ahead of Sunday’s debate, the Biden campaign embraced bankruptcy and college funding plans originally championed by two of the more progressive candidates in the 2020 election cycle.
Of former candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan, which Biden endorsed two days before the debate, Biden said, “she should get credit for having introduced it.”
Two days after backing Warren’s bankruptcy plan, Biden announced hours before his debate with Sanders that the former vice president is expanding his proposal to help young people pay for college.
“He happened to be right on that,” Biden said of Sanders’ agenda.
Biden backed making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students in families earning less than $125,000. That doesn’t go as far as Sanders’ promise of free tuition for any student, along with canceling student loan debt. But it goes beyond Biden’s previous platform of guaranteeing two free years of community college and doubling the maximum value of Pell grants.
Both take hits on voting records
The candidates tried to poke holes in each other’s voting records, engaging in a back-and-forth on marriage equality, Social Security and gun control, among other issues.
In one of the night’s most spirited moments, the two engaged in a debate over whether Biden ever supported cuts to Social Security and other entitlement programs. Sanders has accused Biden of being willing to adjust benefits because of the former vice president’s past efforts to curb federal deficits.
Biden co-sponsored legislation for a one-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments that was rejected in 1984. Over a decade later, he supported a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which he acknowledged could lead to cuts in Social Security or other federal programs.
Sanders told Biden to “be straight” and admit that he was “prepared to cut” the programs.
“Come on, Joe! You were,” Sanders said. “Why don’t you just tell the truth. We all make mistakes.”
Biden denied that’s what he supported but said “everything was on the table” to deal with the deficit.
“You just said it – everything was on the table!” Sanders interjected.
“But we did not cut it,” Biden responded.
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Sanders said leadership is even more important in a time of crisis and the candidates’ past records show when they have and haven’t passed the test. On marriage equality, Biden pointed to his early public support of same-sex marriage but Sanders hit him on his vote for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
Sanders also criticized Biden for voting for a bankruptcy bill, the war in Iraq, trade agreements and measures to block federal funds from being used for abortions.
But if the past is up for debate, Biden responded, then Sanders should be judged for having previously opposed the 1993 Brady Bill. Sanders also supported a 2005 law in the House, which Biden opposed in the Senate, to protect gun manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits if there was no reason to believe a weapon would be sued in a crime.
“He says it was a mistake now,” Biden said, before defending his record on same-sex marriage.
Will a woman be on the Democratic ticket?
Biden made a commitment Sunday night that if he wins the nomination, he will pick a woman for his vice president. Sanders indicated he’s leaning in that direction, but didn’t make the promise at the debate.
“My administration will look like the country and I commit that I will in fact pick a woman to be vice president,” the former vice president said. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I will pick a woman as my vice president.”
Sanders said, “For me, it’s not just nominating a woman, it’s making sure we have a progressive woman. And there are progressive women out there. So, my very strong tendency is to move in that direction.”
Biden also pledged to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. He has seen significant support from African American voters so far in the primary contests.
Sparring over super PACs
In one of their most heated exchanges, Sanders continued to pound Biden over accepting campaign contributions from billionaires, triggering a contentious back-and-forth over the use of super PACs.
“If you want real changes in this country,” Sanders said, you don’t take money from Wall Street, drug companies and insurance companies, “You take them on.”
Biden countered, saying none of his contributions are more than $2,800 apiece, which is the maximum individual contribution allowed by the Federal Elections Commission, and said his average contribution is $44.
“Bernie’s implication is that somehow I’m being funded by millionaires,” Biden said. “When, look at Super Tuesday and before that, Bernie outspent me 1-,2-,3-,4-,5-, 6-to-1 and I still won.”
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Biden said he supports using public funds to pay for elections and called on Sanders to support a constitutional amendment that would do that. “Maybe you and I could work on that together.”
“It’s good that you had an idea 30 years ago. I don’t want to join you. Why don’t you join me?” Sanders quipped back. He then accused Biden of having three super PACs airing “very ugly negative ads” targeting him. “Don’t laugh, Joe. That’s just the truth.”
“Will you condemn the nine Super PACs you have?” Biden responded. “You have nine.”
Sanders said he doesn’t have any Super PACs “I won’t give you a break on this one, Joe. You condemned Super PACs. You’ve got a Super PAC that’s running negative ads against me.”
Contributing: Maureen Groppe, Rebecca Morin, Joey Garrison, Louie Villalobos