One-on-one debate sees Biden, Sanders emphasize differences on coronavirus
Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, wait on stage to participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios in Washington, Sunday, March 15, 2020. | Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON—In their first one-on-one debate of the long presidential primary campaign, former Vice President Joseph Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., went in different directions on what the federal government – aiding the U.S. people – should do to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

And that wasn’t the only issue where they parted ways on the evening of March 15, but it was the big one.

Biden concentrated on the immediate future: Mobilizing all federal resources in an organized manner – unlike the disorganized and inadequate effort of their common foe, GOP President Donald Trump – to stop the pandemic, its health impact, and its economic impact, too.

Sanders said we’re fighting a war, and like Biden, urged people to take immediate protective measures – hand washing, no big crowds, don’t go to work if you’re sick, etc.  As for Trump, Sanders said the president should just shut up, rather than spreading happy talk and misinformation.

But Sanders also looked at the big picture: How to extend coronavirus and all other testing and care to everyone in the country. He declared his Medicare For All plan would let everyone in the U.S., get the care and treatment they need without worrying about how to pay for it – and that Medicare For All also would prevent Big Pharma from using the coronavirus crisis to enlarge its profits.

The Sanders-Biden debate at Cable News Network’s TV studio in D.C. was switched from Arizona, one of the four primary states whose voters cast ballots on March 17. The others are in the larger states of Illinois, Florida, and Ohio, though Florida, with a high proportion of older and more vulnerable people, faces a shortage of poll workers. And Illinois extended its ballot-by-mail deadline.

The location change, and elimination of both a press room and an audience, was one of many ways the spreading virus disrupted normal routines. That includes the campaign: Biden and Sanders canceled live rallies, opting to speak to supporters by video.

Biden stuck to practical measures the government could put in place now to battle the spreading virus, such as getting the military involved to build emergency tent hospitals, and ordering the government to pay for everyone’s testing and treatment at federal expense, so that insurers’ demands wouldn’t keep people away.

“Get all the testing done as quickly as possible,” he said, for example. Each state should have at least “10 drive-through” testing stations, as South Korea set up nationwide. That nation tests more people in a day than the U.S. has since it began coronavirus exams.

“This coronavirus exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunction of our health care system,” Sanders countered. The questions left unanswered, he added, include: “What happens if I’m sick? Who’s going to feed my kids? How come when we spend far more per capita on healthcare than any other advanced country we don’t have enough doctors?”

“And some people in the pharmaceutical industry are saying ‘Oh, wow! What an opportunity to make a profit!’”

A check of Big Pharma’s website shows it says nothing about pricing an anti-coronavirus vaccine, should the firms develop one – a process that could take at least a year, including research and development and testing.

Sanders also declared there’s one more big move the feds can make: “We have to shut this president up right now,” referring to Trump. “He’s undermining the doctors and the scientists.”

Sanders then pointed out millions of U.S. residents would shy away from care because they can’t pay insurer-mandated doctors’ co-pays, insurers’ deductibles or for treatment the insurers refuse to cover.

Medicare For All, Sanders said, would solve that refusal problem. It also would cover undocumented people now afraid to seek care for fear they could be picked up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids or reported to authorities and arrested, detained and deported. Sanders blasted the raids and deportations and vowed to stop them if elected president.

Neither Sanders nor Biden proposed huge measures to “arm” ourselves, such as mandating converting factories from producing consumer goods to producing testing kits, N95 masks and respirators, just as auto factories switched over to making tanks in World War II.

Or another big measure Ernest Logan, president of the American Federation of School Administrators said his union proposed: Closing every U.S. school to prevent the virus’s retransmission and spread. On March 15, New York City closed its public school system, the largest in the U.S., after prior closures in other big cities, including Chicago and D.C.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered all bars and restaurants in New York City to close their doors to customers, but go into a delivery-only mode. That afternoon, so did California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). On March 16, Gov. Larry Hogan, D-Md., ordered closings of all bars, restaurants, gyms, schools, restaurants and “places hosting more than 100 people.” He also barred landlords from evicting Marylanders who lose their jobs – and thus their pay – and can’t pay the rent.

Just after the debate, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which bases its recommendations on scientific evidence, strongly recommended banning all gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks, and suggested holding smaller events only if people take protective measures, such as keeping “social distance.”

Biden and Sanders agreed the government must lessen the economic impact on workers who lose their jobs to the pandemic – everyone from teachers to servers to fast-food workers to truckers to airline crews and more – but neither suggested a guaranteed income for workers during the weeks the pandemic hits, or afterwards. Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., did.

Sanders came closest to endorsing that idea. If he’s elected, “Bottom line, if you lose your job, you will be made whole” by the federal government, Sanders said.

Ryan and Khanna introduced legislation for emergency income tax credits for every worker who earns less than $65,000 yearly from now through the end of the year. The initial checks would be $1,000-$6,000 per worker, and would be paid out within three weeks of the law taking effect, “followed by additional monthly payments for the rest of the year,” they added. Some 200 million people would get checks, the lawmakers said.

And that includes not just “employees,” but “independent contractors” – workers whom their bosses misclassify in order to cut their pay, not pay Social Security or Medicare payroll taxes, and avoid workers’ comp and, most importantly for those workers, jobless benefits.

And neither Biden nor Sanders mentioned a potential 14-day nationwide shutdown floated late on March 15 by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the top medical researchers in the coronavirus fight, as reported by The Los Angeles Times.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” Fauci added.

And in another indication of the difference in focus, Biden again criticized Sanders’s Medicare For All plan by saying a similar system in Italy didn’t stop the spread of the virus there. After China, Italy and Iran are the two hardest-hit nations worldwide – so far.

Sanders and Biden endorsed paid sick and family leave for workers harmed by the coronavirus. The House-passed $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus legislation includes 14 days of such paid leave, as well as emergency jobless benefits, among other aid for workers and families. That irked the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the New Poor People’s Campaign. He argued that paid leave should be much longer – and that it should apply to any need for leave, not just the coronavirus.

The Senate originally scheduled a “district work period” for this week, but political pressure forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to cancel it so lawmakers could stay in D.C. and deal with coronavirus relief. McConnell promised a vote this week. He didn’t say what he wants in the package. Trump wants aid for businesses, not for workers, except for a payroll tax cut.

Sanders and Biden also agreed Trump has totally botched the U.S. response to the spreading pandemic. Sanders cited Trump’s lies, misinformation, and blame-shifting on the pandemic as a reason to shut him up. And Biden pointed out the World Health Organization, which declared the global pandemic on March 11, “offered us testing kits and he (Trump) refused them. He didn’t even want to buy them.”

Trump also shut down a special committee within the National Security Council, formed by his predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama – Biden’s boss – to coordinate federal responses to pandemics, the former veep noted.

The panel brought experts together on ways to handle, manage and curb epidemics and it devised and implemented the government-wide response which stopped the Ebola virus from spreading within the U.S. Biden would reconstitute the panel, bring in specialists from around the world, listen to the science and follow their proposals. “We’ve done this before,” he said.

But in a nationalistic dig, Biden criticized unnamed countries that would not cooperate. He previously chided China, site of the virus’s outbreak, for not letting U.S. specialists in to help battle its spread before transmission got out of hand, beyond Wuhan.

Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of a coronavirus task force, despite Pence’s past record, as Indiana governor, to deny measures to halt the spread of other diseases. News reports add Trump’s son-in-law/special advisor, Jared Kushner, a real estate developer like Trump, has been horning in on the task force’s meetings, and trying to take over.

The debate site was one of many changes the coronavirus pandemic forced on presidential campaigns, as well as on daily life. Biden and Sanders canceled live rallies, opting to speak to supporters by video. Georgia and Louisiana delayed their presidential primaries. Illinois extended ballot-by-mail voting beyond its primary day, March 17.

Various virus trackers reported the number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases was 2,900 by the morning of March 15, up by about one-third from the day before. Worldwide, France and Spain imposed national quarantines, while the first nation to do so, Italy, nonetheless saw coronavirus deaths increase by 25% in one day, to 368.

More ominously, a “crawl” along the bottom of  CNN’s TV screen during the Sanders-Biden debate reported many of the 82 confirmed coronavirus sufferers in Massachusetts had caught it from someone who – at that time – was asymptomatic i.e. showing no signs of the disease.

While the coronavirus discussion took up the first half of the debate, the second half veered among a range of topics. One key was the vice-presidency, an important issue given the ages of Biden, Sanders, and Trump, plus Sanders’s heart attack last October. He’s recovered but has not released his medical records. Neither has Trump.

Biden promised to name a woman as his running mate should he win the nomination. Sanders said he leans strongly towards naming a woman, but they must be compatibly progressive. Both pledged to have a Cabinet with a female majority (Biden) and that “looks like America” (Sanders).

A discussion of leadership led both to joust over past political positions and congressional votes, reflecting their long service on Capitol Hill. Sanders hit Biden for voting for the war in Iraq and the 1994 crime bill. Biden hit Sanders for past votes against gun control, for which Sanders has since apologized and called them “wrong.”

Both slammed Trump for lack of leadership and his “go it alone” edicts, on the coronavirus and everything else. At times, both Biden and Sanders said the other was misrepresenting – at best – their past positions, particularly when Sanders challenged Biden’s support, decades ago, for what the senator said were “cuts” in Social Security.

Biden retorted that he never advocated cutting Social Security. Fact-checkers pointed out Biden supported changing the way benefit increases are calculated as part of an overall deficit-cutting package – a solution Biden cited in a 2012 vice-presidential debate with then-Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan advocated actual Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare cuts.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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