Read: There’s a pandemic. Four states are holding elections Tuesday anyway.
Biden is pitching himself as the candidate of stability, the tested veteran who can handle a crisis more ably than the Republicans’ erratic incumbent, President Donald Trump. Answering the expected questions of how he would respond to the pandemic, Biden leaned on the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak. He’d call a meeting in the Situation Room, ramp up testing, build hospital capacity, and push for a “major, major, major bailout package” geared toward helping workers, not corporations. The focus was on immediacy, the here and now. Biden promised to “listen to the experts.”
Sanders talked about all of that too. But he used the crisis as an opportunity—perhaps his last one—to advocate for the revolutionary change that has defined his two campaigns for the presidency. The pandemic, he said, “exposes the dysfunctionality of the health-care system and how poorly prepared we are despite how much money we spend.”
Responding to Biden’s caution against a revolution, he said, “It is not good enough not to be understanding how we got here and where we want to go into the future.”
“God willing, this crisis is going to end,” Sanders continued. “And we’re going to have to develop an economy in which half of our people are not living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to put food on the table.”
Biden scoffed at Sanders’s suggestion that Medicare for All would have made the nation better able to handle a pandemic, because people would not hesitate to go to the doctor out of fear that they would not be able to pay for treatment. “With all due respect for Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there,” Biden said. “It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That would not solve the problem at all.”
The two men bickered bitterly at times, dashing the hopes of some Democratic leaders that Biden’s lead and the coronavirus crisis would prompt Sanders to hold back in a spirit of unity. Sanders unloaded on Biden’s record in the Senate, bringing up his votes on bankruptcy bills and his comments years ago suggesting that he supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Biden occasionally struggled to respond, and an exasperated Sanders implored viewers to go to “the YouTube” to fact-check his rival’s memory.
Biden tried repeatedly to steer the conversation away from policy nitty-gritty. “This is a national crisis. I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth in terms of our politics here,” he said.
He wanted to look beyond Sanders, to project a presidential image and turn to the coming campaign against Trump. To that end, he called for the president to mobilize the military to aid in the domestic response to the coronavirus, and he later pledged to nominate a woman as his vice president.