The eleventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential election cycle on Sunday (March 15) was the first since the South Carolina primary a month prior. Since then, five candidates who were on stage have dropped out; Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is still running, did not qualify. The debate also precedes four primaries that will be held on Tuesday in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.
Only two candidates remain: Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, who currently leads at the polls. The debate was overshadowed by the looming pandemic, an outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Both candidates have taken the Trump administration’s largely conflicting responses to task by putting forth their own plans and recommendations. But the virus's impact could also be felt in most aspects of the event, from the questions posed by the moderators to the location of the debate itself.
Before taking to the podiums, which were spaced 6 feet apart, Sanders and Biden ditched the collegiate handshake greeting for a friendly elbow-to-elbow nudge. Then, the candidates dug deep into many key issues, like health care and past voting records, in making their cases for the oval office. Here are the key takeaways from Sunday’s debate.
There was no audience.
The impact of COVID-19 could be felt before candidates even set foot on the stage. The location was moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C., and one moderator, Jorge Ramos of Univision, stepped down after potentially being exposed to the virus.
And in keeping with the mitigation tactic of social distancing to limit the illness’s spread, this was the first Democratic debate of the season without a live audience. It follows efforts put forth by officials nationwide: In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee prohibited groups of 250 or more from meeting in three counties, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo temporarily banned gatherings of 500 or more.
The first question was about the coronavirus.
Right out of the gate, the moderators and candidates acknowledged the national state of emergency, and people’s fears of both societal and medical collapse.
Biden answered first, pointing people to his website, where he “laid out precisely what I would do if I were president today,” he said. As MTV News previously reported, his plan includes prioritizing the dissemination of tests for COVID-19, and making those tests free for people who need such assistance, regardless of immigration or insurance status. (An estimated 44 million Americans are uninsured.) He also wants to protect health care workers on the frontlines, ensure that people receive the correct information in a timely manner, and secure paid sick leave for those impacted, as well as to instate a fund to help those who have experienced a loss of work because of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Sanders stressed the need to pass Medicare For All, which would insure every American across the board. “This coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system,” he said. His plan also stresses the importance of increasing funds for emergency unemployment compensation, and put a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs. He also urged the government to provide additional economic assistance and meals on wheels for the elderly, and ensure that there are national and state hotlines to answer questions about the virus.
Biden said people want “results, not a revolution,” are how we solve the economic crisis. Sanders disagreed.
The impact of coronavirus could also recently be felt on an economic level, with the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates to 0.25 percent or less, a low that have not been seen since the market crash in 2008. Air lines have cut flights, citizens have been urged to avoid cruises and crowded public spaces, and many large events have been canceled. Candidates were asked how they would remedy the current economic crisis, to which Biden made the case for “a major, major, major bailout package,” he said, a statement that reflect his pro-bailout voting history in the 2008 crisis.
In response, Sanders, who voted against the bank bailouts in the 2008 crisis, took the opportunity to discuss inequalities in income and distributions of wealth. “We need to stabilize the economy but we can’t repeat what we did in 2008. We’ve got to do more than save the banks or oil companies.” He continued by pointing out how wealth demographics affect the way people are and will be affected by coronavirus, adding that under his plan: “No matter what your income is, you will not suffer as a result of this crisis,” he said.
The candidates covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Biden touted his past support of same-sex marriage — and questioned Sanders on his votes against the Brady Bill and other past votes on gun control measures, for which Sanders has since expressed his regret. Sanders called out the number of young people who are drowning in student debt and took Biden to task on his own voting record. “Go to the YouTube!” he said.
And that was overall a good thing, because it showed just how interconnected everything is when it comes to politics. But it wasn’t without a few road bumps: When Sanders brought up immigration reform during a conversation about the novel coronavirus, a moderator tried to make the case that the two are separate issues, when they’re not; after all, the virus does not discriminate between nationalities or immigration status.
Both candidates asserted their cabinets “would look like the country,” with women in seats of power.
Biden promised he would not only nominate a Black woman judge to the Supreme Court, but that his vice president nominee would also be a woman.
“It is making sure we nominate a progressive woman,” Sanders said, adding that “in all likelihood,” he would do the same thing. “And there are progressive women out there.”
But Sanders also pointed out Biden’s history of voting for the Hyde Amendment, a provision that would bar the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, but Biden pushed back. “It is not my view [now],” he said, doubling down on the fact that many people in congress have voted for the Hyde Amendment at one point or another, because it is often folded into other legislation that is often unanimously passed by legislative bodies.