Democrats face off in TV studio without audience, standing far apart and bumping elbows instead of shaking hands
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders auditioned in real time for the job of president on Sunday night during the first one-on-one debate of the Democratic primary, as the world confronts the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic and American public health officials warned the worst is yet to come.
The fast-escalating national emergency dominated the prime-time encounter between two candidates with starkly different visions for the country. Yet Biden and Sanders vigorously agreed on the need for a much more aggressive government response to the virus, which had already resulted in 3,244 confirmed cases in the US, with 62 reported deaths, as of Sunday night.
“This is bigger than any one of us,” Biden said. “This calls for a national rallying for one another.”
Biden, who has presented himself as a pragmatic standard-bearer, compared the battle against the disease to a war, calling for a whole-of-government strategy that includes deploying the the military and enacting a “multi-multi-billion-dollar program” to address the public health and economic crises.
Sanders, a democratic socialist, urged sweeping economic reforms and the creation of a single-payer healthcare system. He said the pandemic had revealed “the dysfunctionality” of the country’s patchwork healthcare system, arguing that the adoption of a Medicare for All-style system like the one he has championed would help mitigate the toll of future pandemics.
“One of the reasons that we are unprepared, and have been unprepared, is we don’t have a system,” Sanders said. “We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans. That is not a system that is prepared to provide healthcare to all people in a good year, without the epidemic.”
But Biden said a single-payer healthcare system was not the solution, pointing to Italy, where the outbreak has overwhelmed the country’s national health services.
“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden said.
Both candidates were sharply critical of Donald Trump’s ability to lead the nation through a time of crisis.
“Well, the first thing we have got to do, whether or not I’m president, is to shut this president up right now,” Sanders said. “He’s undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people.”
After the debate, which Trump deemed “VERY boring”, his campaign operation accused the candidates of “plagiarizing” the president’s response to coronavirus, which it described as “a model for all future pandemics”.
At a press conference from the White House on Sunday afternoon, Trump urged Americans to “relax” and refrain from hoarding food. But moments later, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned: “The worst is, yes, ahead for us.”
The two-hour debate, hosted by CNN and Univision, took place as viewers across the nation retreated into their homes amid disruptive, even draconian, efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. Hours earlier, New York City had ordered public schools closed; California had asked bars to shutter, and the Federal Reserve announced it was slashing interest rates to near zero.
As the debate opened, the US Centers for Disease Control published an advisory on its website recommending that events of 50 people or more be cancelled or postponed for the next eight weeks throughout the United States.
In a sign of the times, the candidates, both septuagenarians at greater risk, bumped elbows instead of shaking hands when they stepped on stage, where their podiums were arranged noticeably far apart in accordance with guidelines for social distancing.