Bernie, Biden, and the Coronavirus: an analysis of the 11th Democratic Debate

Kayley Roche and Brian Foisy

The 11th Democratic primary debate took place Sunday, amidst all of the frenzy and panic surrounding the coronavirus pandemic that is overtaking the nation. Co-hosted by CNN and Univision, the debate was moderated by CNN’s Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, and Univision’s Ilia Calderón who was standing in for moderator Jorge Ramos, absent due to possible coronavirus exposure. This debate was significant as it not only showed the intensive impacts that the coronavirus was having on the nation, but it was also the first debate between the two frontrunners of the party:  Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. 

The virus was a prevalent topic throughout the debate, for obvious reasons, with most of the questions from moderators and individuals relating to the impacts of the virus and how the candidates would respond to this kind of threat if they were in office. Sanders explained that instead of punishing the Chinese government for how they handled the outbreak, this was a chance for global communities to work together and support each other, and for the United States to come out of this a global leader in their handle of the pandemic. He also used it as an excuse to bring up the lower class, bringing attention to the economic disparities of the nation and how this crisis, like other issues in the United States, is causing the heaviest burden to fall on the lower and working classes. This demographic is now struggling to find affordable child care. Many lack affordable, effective health care, and now, they are losing their jobs due to the virus. Sanders believes that we need to respond forcefully and reform the economy to protect the lower classes from dealing with such significant consequences, but he failed to elaborate on how he would do that. Biden took advantage of this, explaining that he agreed that immediate economic action needed to be taken due to the emergency need and that if he was in office he would ensure that healthcare should be given to all who need it, involve the military, and address immediate needs of unemployment. Biden used this to contrast with the vagueness of Sanders’ response, saying “I guess he’s gonna do a wealth tax or something”. 

Many of the questions of the night’s debate circled back to the coronavirus, including how this was impacting the candidates personally, as they are both seen to be more at risk for catching the virus and being susceptible to severe symptoms due to their age, and in Sanders’ case a pre-existing heart condition. Sanders said he had stopped doing rallies and has shifted to virtual discussions, stopped shaking hands, is sanitizing, and is being careful about the people he’s interacting with. Biden has also stopped doing rallies and town hall meetings and is doing them virtually, and washing his hands.

It was clear that Bernie would clash with Biden on the idea of billionaire donors as he had with many other moderate candidates throughout the primary cycle. At one point in a February debate, Bernie attacked Pete Buttigieg saying, “I don’t have 40 billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign.” This ‘40 billionaires’ figure is virtually impossible to vet, yet Sanders’ crowd erupted in raucous applause after he said it. Biden would pull a similar trick during this debate when he claimed that Bernie had 9 SuperPACs. Biden’s claim is somewhat founded in truth as Sanders does have several advocacy groups that have SuperPACs that do fund his campaign, but these groups aren’t the SuperPACs we classically associate with the term. When asked by Bernie to list the 9 SuperPACs, Biden responded with, “come on man, give me a break,” which isn’t really a response. 

A closer look at the organizations supporting Bernie’s campaign raises more questions than it does answers. While several advocacy groups have SuperPACs that endorse Bernie and support his campaign, they are groups like the Sunrise Movement, Dream Defenders, and Our Revolution. Our Revolution was founded in 2016 during Bernie’s original run for the Democratic nomination. As an Associated Press report laid out, the group is technically a nonprofit, which means that while like a SuperPAC, it can raise money from wealthy donors with no limits, yet unlike a SuperPAC the donations are anonymous. The Communications Director for the Sunrise Movement, Stephen O’Hanlon, pointed out the distinction between his PAC and the ones funding other candidates: “Unlike PACs set up by billionaires to blanket the airwaves with attack ads, Sunrise and the other groups we’re working with represent working people, young people, and people of color.” 

Another recurring part of this debate was a back and forth conflict between the candidates on previous, influential legislation. Both candidates have held various positions of political office for decades, and have crossed paths in many ways,  in some cases voting on the same issues. This leads to a significant amount of debate now on past votes and standpoints on issues, due to the candidates’ long-running political careers. Notably, Biden mentioned that Sanders voted against background checks and voted to exempt gun owners from being sued – information that may come as a surprise to Sanders’ supporters that agree with Sanders’ progressive, gun control policies. In reality, according to Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver, his vote on the Brady bill (the one referenced by Biden in the debate) was because the majority of Vermonters at the time felt that national waiting periods was a federal overreach, and it was Sanders’ job as a senator to not vote by his personal belief, but rather vote in the interests of the Vermont people he represented. At another point in the debate, Sanders took the time to mention Biden’s vote on the Hyde Amendment, an amendment preventing federal funds from being used to save a mother’s life during an abortion. Biden said that “Everyone in Congress voted for the Hyde Amendment at one point or another” but that he has since evolved his view and doesn’t agree with this vote any longer. These debates about past bills may seem trivial or unimportant as they don’t always relate directly to current hot-button issues, but in actuality these historical votes provide crucial insight into the consistency of the candidates and what they have stood for in the past. Bernie touches on this as well, saying that “We can argue this or that bill, but what I’m suggesting is that in this time of crisis when we are living in a really, really unsettling world — economically, from a health care perspective with the coronavirus — the people of America know my record.” Sanders uses this to show his consistency, saying that Biden has become more progressive, while Sanders has voted the samefor years, saying that “Leadership is about going forward when it’s not popular”.

Another big moment within Sunday’s night debate came when Joe Biden was describing how his cabinet would reflect the demographics of the United States, “ if I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact, pick a woman to be vice president.” It had long been rumored that Biden or Sanders would pick a woman to be their Vice President, but this is likely the first time either candidate firmly stated that. Biden justified his choice by saying, “there are a number of women who are qualified to be president.” CNN’s moderators then pressed Bernie to make a similar announcement, and after a few tries Sanders stated, “in all likelihood I will.” 

This announcement by both candidates, from a pessimistic point of view, is an attempt to reconcile the fact that many female candidates didn’t get far in the primaries, likely, as a result of their gender. However, that same pessimism can be resolved by actual policy, because both candidates have proposed that support Women’s Rights. Both candidates support a woman’s right to an abortion, both support paid maternity leave, and both support closing the gender wage gap. This move may worry some as simply a ploy to garner the female vote, but if a female Vice President brings with it a woman’s perspective on policy issues, it’s a very good thing. 

Overwhelmingly, there was a theme to this debate that was a hopeful one. In the 2020 election, it is the Democrats v. Trump, and if they want to beat him there is a mutual understanding that there must be unified support within the party. Biden said during the debate that if Bernie is the nominee “not only will [he] support him but [he’ll] campaign for him,” and Bernie said the same. This kind of unity may be the Democrats saving grace during an election many fear they will lose.