The debate between the two final contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination began on Sunday night with a focus on the unprecedented public health crisis that has upended nearly every facet of American life. But as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders squared off days before the crucial Florida and Ohio primaries, they returned again and again to the easier target than the novel coronavirus: each others’ records.
In a stripped-down debate held in CNN’s Washington bureau—the first in 60 years to be held without a live audience—both Biden and Sanders urged the other to look forward, rather than backward. But time and again, the candidates targeted each others’ legislative track record on the social safety net, immigration, gun safety, abortion, gay rights, the war in Iraq, and money in politics, in exchanges that focused more on issues of the past than those that face the country today.
“I voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. You voted for it,” Sanders said at one point, in a razor-sharp attack on Biden’s past record. “I voted against the bankruptcy bill, you voted for it. I voted against the war in Iraq, which was also a tough vote. You voted for it. I voted against the disastrous trade agreements like NAFTA, which cost this country over four million good-paying jobs. You voted for it. I voted against the Hyde Amendment, which denies low-income women the right to get an abortion. You have consistently voted for it.”
“You can argue about the past,” Biden responded, then proceeded to argue about the past. “This man voted against the Brady Bill five times—background checks, five times, number one. Number two, this man is the only one of the few Democrats I know who voted to exempt the gun industry from being able to be sued.”
The dynamic replayed itself over and over, on issues ranging from public health to foreign policy, with Biden attacking Sanders for the praising of the Sandinistas, the praising of Cuba,” and Sanders responding that at least he, unlike the former vice president, had not voted to invade Iraq.
“Everybody in the world knew that when you voted for that resolution, you were giving Bush the authority to go to war,” said Sanders. “Most people who followed that issue closely understood that the Bush administration was lying through its teeth with regards to Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.”
The exchanges, which punctuated nearly every non-coronavirus-related topic, were a reminder of the near-impossibility of maintaining ideological purity over political careers that span a century between them—and of the difficult task of unifying the party that either candidate would face as the Democratic nominee.
The candidates did spent nearly half the debate discussing how they would address the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed thousands of lives worldwide and has led to the closure of schools, businesses and services in cities and states across the nations.
But even on that issue, Sanders and Biden found fertile ground for disagreement.
“With all due respect to Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there,” Biden said in the first minutes of the debate. “We are at war with a virus,” Biden continued, and the American people are “looking for results, not a revolution. They’re looking for results they need right now.”
Sanders retorted that he considers the lack of access to health care under any circumstances to be a crisis.
“Bottom line here is, in terms of Medicare for All, despite what the vice president is saying, what the experts tell us that one of the reasons that we are unprepared is that we don’t have a system... that is prepared to provide health care to all people,” Sanders said. “I consider that a crisis.”
As Biden has vaulted ahead in the race for pledged delegates, with a rout last Tuesday that has some in the Democratic Party already referring to the former vice president as the presumptive nominee, and with even rockier demographic terrain ahead for Sanders in this Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio and Florida, both candidates have made halting entreaties to winning over voters who might be ideologically incongruous with their base.
Biden, for example, has made some overtures to Sanders’ liberal base in recent days, endorsing a Sanders-penned bill that would guarantee free college tuition for children of parents making less than $125,000. Sanders, in turn, has moved to frame his signature policy proposal as not only politically feasible, but as the most sensible response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The dysfunctionality of the current healthcare system is obviously apparent,” Sanders said at the debate’s outset, adding that the pandemic “exposes the incredible weakness” of a system where millions remain uninsured.
“Right now, in this emergency, I want every person in this country to understand that when you get sick, you go to the doctor,” Sanders said. “Do not worry about the cost right now, because we are in the middle of a national emergency.”
But as the debate continued, the chasmic gap between the Vermont senator and the former vice president appeared no closer to being bridged on Sunday, particularly during the extended exchange over each candidate’s lengthy Senate record on bankruptcy, gun control, and public financing for elections, among other things.
When asked, both candidates again vowed to campaign for the other if their opponent won the Democratic nomination, a pledge that each had made long ago—although Biden noted that Sanders wasn’t making it easy to keep that promise.
“He’s making it hard for me right now,” Biden said of Sanders, semi-jokingly. “I was trying to give him credit for things and he won’t even take credit for things he wants to do.”
The most forward-looking moment of the debate came when both candidates were asked how they, as a pair of septuagenarian straight white men, would “balance the ticket” as the final candidates in a field that was once historically diverse. Biden vowed to name a woman as his running mate, with Sanders all but echoing the promise a moment later.
“I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a woman to be vice president,” Biden said. “There are a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow.”
But even that moment of near-agreement soon broke apart as the candidate fractured over each others’ past support or non-support of dictatorial regimes around the world, with Biden lashing at Sanders for positive statements he once made about the Sandinistas and the Soviet Union, and Sanders in turn condemning Biden for working with human-rights violators like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and his vote for the war in Iraq.
Sanders pushed to broaden the critiques beyond the matter of who-voted-for-what, calling Biden’s vote a failure of leadership.
“The issue is not just the war in Iraq,” Sanders said. “That was a long time ago. The issue is the trade agreement—it wasn’t so easy to lead the effort against disastrous trade agreements. The issue was the bankruptcy bill that you supported. The issue was the Defense of Marriage Act. The issue is whether or not in difficult times, and God knows these are difficult times, we’re going to have the courage to take on powerful special interests and do what’s right for working families in this country.”