The final Democratic primary debate

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) greeted one another March 16 by bumping elbows, setting the mood for a debate that would be dominated by talk of proposed COVID-19 response plans.  

The debate was hosted by CNN in a D.C. television studio – the first to be conducted without a live audience since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of the 1960s. Though the lack of audience was mandated by grim circumstances, the change was much welcomed – I was more than happy to be spared the 30 seconds of audience whooping and applause after a candidate rattled off a well-rehearsed zinger intricately crafted by their campaign team. In addition, the setting made the debate feel a bit more authentic, substance-focused and certainly more coherent. 

Barring the mobbish influence of the audience and perhaps adding the sobering effect of the pandemic, both candidates seemed substantially less aggressive, and at several key points, allied together in their remarks about their responses to COVID-19. Still, as passionately as Biden and Sanders agree that Trump is mishandling the COVID-19 response, at their core, the candidates’ ideological centers are as far apart as their socially distanced lecterns were on the debate stage.

Sanders, expectedly zeroed in on the implications the coronavirus crisis has on the public health and economic sphere, using the pandemic as another arguing point for a single-payer healthcare system. Admittedly, this crisis, probably more than any purely theoretical economic or social reasoning Sanders could have provided, is probably the most convincing vehicle by which Sanders could turn skeptical Americans in favor of a universal healthcare system. 

At a time when a health crisis is personally affecting every American, this is a crucial moment – one in which Sanders has the greatest chance of rallying the national solidarity required to convince more Democratic voters of supporting his proposed single-payer system.

Still, the question remains: How can Sanders so emphatically turn to single-payer healthcare as a solution to a pandemic like this when nations that already had strongly rooted universal healthcare systems – Italy, Spain and the UK – failed to adequately combat the virus?

Though it may be easy to point to the United States’ number one spot on the list of countries with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases as being an indicator that the U.S. healthcare system has left it vulnerable to coronavirus, several contextual factors have to be taken into account. Most importantly, Sanders has not yet accounted for the disparity in fatality rates between the United States and nations with single-payer healthcare systems. With the U.S. fatality rate due to coronavirus at three percent and the UK, Spain and Italy fatality rate rising above 10 percent, Sanders has to find new ways to market his single-payer system to voters who may begin viewing it as a weaker system.

Biden capitalized on this question, turning it around on Sanders and emphasizing that people are “looking for results, not a revolution.” Still, as much as Biden may be promising results, he fails to lay out a distinct and novel policy plan in response to the pandemic. 

Using rhetoric that likens the pandemic to a war, Biden appears to be grasping desperately for some sort of “rally-round-the-flag effect,” aiming to unite all Democrats with him to fight against the lethal foe that is the coronavirus. In the context of the televised debate, Biden may as well have started howling “We’re All in This Together” from “High School Musical” in his pandering attempt to centralize deeply ideologically split Democratic voters behind his campaign.  

However, there is a reasonable underpinning to Biden’s geezerly attempt at pushing partisan unity. Let me point to the striking similarities between both Biden and Sanders’ coronavirus response plans as laid out on their websites:

  • Elimination of cost barriers to COVID-19 related testing, preventive care and treatment
  • Swift, decisive economic response entailing paid emergency leave for workers and families affected by the pandemic
  • Acceleration of COVID-19 vaccine development
  • Expansion of Medicaid and Medicare to ensure health coverage for vulnerable people

Though there are certainly notable differences in the candidates’ response plans, Biden and Sanders both prioritize access to quality healthcare for all Americans, balanced with a careful and pragmatic approach to economic impacts of the pandemic – a contrast to Trump’s over-eager and apparently haphazard economy-focused approach.

In all bleak honesty, Sanders chose the most beneficial course of action for the Democratic Party in countering the coronavirus by withdrawing from the race and allowing Biden and his team to apply laser-focus to efforts against coronavirus. I commend Sanders for recognizing that he stood too low of a chance of clinching the nomination to justify carrying his campaign into the late months of the summer, as the coronavirus-sourced delays of state primaries would necessitate. 

In less biased terms, Biden’s assertion that voters want either revolution or moderate pragmatism is true. The Democratic Party as it stands is polarized to an unprecedented extent. As the frontrunner, if Biden has any hope of beating Trump, he must increasingly cater to progressives. And, as a seasoned career politician, Biden and his team likely realize this too.

Though I understand that Sanders and his team felt a reinvigorated urgency to push his healthcare plan in light of the worst public health crisis in the last century, the odds were stacked against his campaign, and prolonging it into the late summer months would have seriously hurt the Democratic Party as it prepares to reclaim the executive seat. Though his second race for the Democratic nomination came to yet another disappointing end,, Sanders can rest easy knowing his influence will pull Biden leftward as he seeks to garner all the support he can in defeating Trump. 

Christina Kirk

Christina Kirk is the Editor-in-Chief of The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: Institutions & Policy and international relations.

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