Debate: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden Cast Themselves as Best Leader Amid Crisis

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Joe Biden (left) and Bernie Sanders

The debate was the first head-to-head face-off between Biden and Sanders, who addressed the coronavirus pandemic, health care, Social Security, climate change and other topics.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sought in Sunday's debate to cast themselves as best-positioned to lead the nation through a global pandemic, with Biden pledging to deploy the military to help with recovery efforts and Sanders using the crisis to pitch his long-sought overhaul of the country's health-care system.

"One of the reasons that we are unprepared, and have been unprepared, is we don't have a system. We've got thousands of private insurance plans," said Sanders, who backs a sweeping government-run health insurance program. "That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people in a good year, without the epidemic."

Biden, who is leading Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination, argued that a pandemic was not a moment to attempt to push through an overhaul of the American health insurance system, a politically arduous endeavor.

"This is a crisis," Biden said. "We're at war with a virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything."

As the debate opened, Biden and Sanders skipped a handshake, greeting each other instead with an elbow bump. They took their positions at podiums spaced six feet apart in keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus. They addressed the nation, and each other, from a television studio in Washington, D.C., without an in-person audience.

The debate was the first head-to-head face-off between Biden and Sanders, who are vying to become the Democratic presidential nominee. After a sluggish start to the primary season, Biden rapidly surged to the front of the field, consolidating support among moderates and moving within striking distance of the Democratic nomination. Sanders is struggling to regain momentum and faces the prospect of more losses in Tuesday's next round of primaries.

The coronavirus pandemic dominated the start of the debate, reflecting how quickly it has also overtaken almost every aspect of American life. Schools are shut down across the country, travel has been significantly limited and the likely economic consequences have sent financial markets plummeting.

Biden and Sanders both called for increased testing for the virus and economic relief for Americans who will suffer.

"This is bigger than any one of us. This calls for a national rallying for one another," the former vice president said.

Sanders panned President Donald Trump's handling of the crisis, urging the president to stop hindering medical professionals by "blabbering with unfactual information that is confusing the American public."

The first clash of the debate came in the form of a dust-up over whether Sanders' signature health care plan is the best way to respond to the coronavirus.

After Sanders said the Trump administration's response to the outbreak laid bare the weaknesses of the nation's current health care system, Biden pointed out that Italy — where the virus has essentially quarantined the country — has a government-run health-care system that hasn't alleviated the problem.

"With all due respect to Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy," Biden said. "It doesn't work there."

Sanders responded by noting that experts say "one of the reasons that we are unprepared...is that we don't have a system."

Sanders argues his single-payer health-care system would provide free treatment for those diagnosed with COVID-19. Biden says he would authorize government funds to cover treatment. 

Asked how he as president would alleviate the strains, Sanders said that the crisis further shows the need for a holistic overhaul of the country's economic system.

Saying, "People are looking for results, not a revolution," Biden stressed he would focus on meeting "immediate needs" like helping Americans make sure not to miss mortgage payments.

Earlier Sunday, the Federal Reserve took massive emergency action to help the economy withstand the coronavirus by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and saying it would buy $700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.

Another heated exchange came over the Vermont senator's assertion that Biden advocated for cuts in Social Security while serving as a U.S. senator.

During Sunday night's debated, Sanders repeatedly asked the former vice president if he had pushed for cuts to the entitlement program on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sanders also said Biden pushed for cuts needed in Medicare and veterans' programs.

When Biden several times said he had not done so, Sanders told viewers to "Go to the YouTube right now" to see what he characterized as video proving his case on Biden's comments.

Biden also responded by saying he has laid out a plan for adding to Social Security, as well as how he would pay for the changes — a critique he has made repeatedly of Sanders' plans, particularly Medicare for All.

Both of the Democratic candidates said they are healthy amid the coronavirus crisis — and are taking concrete steps to keep it that way.

Sanders, 78, noted that he “loves” doing large rallies around the country but has curtailed them and now addresses supporters online. His campaign staff has been working from home and Sanders also noted that, “I’m not shaking hands. Joe and I did not shake hands” to start the debate Sunday night in Washington.

Biden, 77, noted that he doesn’t have any of the “underlying conditions” that make the virus especially dangerous and said he was taking precautions that people in their 30s, 60s or 80s should be doing.

Biden said his campaign staff was also working from home and that he was washing his hands “God knows how many times” per day and using hand sanitizer almost as much.

Meanwhile, Biden said he's committed to naming a woman as his running mate if he's the Democratic presidential nominee.

Asked the same question, Sanders didn't definitively commit but said, “In all likelihood, I will.” Biden has previously said he would seriously consider naming a woman or a person of color as his running mate.

Also Sunday night, Biden repeated a previous pledge to nominate a black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court if given the chance to do so as president.

Both he and Sanders have been under pressure to consider a woman or person of color as a running mate as the once-historically diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates has dwindled to two white men.

Elsewhere, Sanders accused Joe Biden of not going far enough on his plans to combat climate change.

To Biden, the Vermont senator said, "I know your heart is in the right place" on climate change. But, calling the Paris Climate Accord — which Biden said he would rejoin — “useful,” Biden said that "bold action" was required for the good of the globe.

Biden asserted that his plans are ambitious, noting plans to end offshore drilling, as well as subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, but a need for global action to accomplish real change.

"We could get everything exactly right," Biden said, of the need for international cooperation. "We're 15 percent of the problem."

Sanders also continued to defend recent comments he made highlighting a literacy program in Cuba under the late dictator Fidel Castro.

He says during the Democratic presidential debate that while he condemns authoritarianism in Cuba, China and elsewhere, it's possible to acknowledge positive changes made by such governments. As an example, he said China has made progress in reducing extreme poverty during the last 50 years.

His comments about Cuba may be a particular vulnerability ahead of Tuesday's primary in Florida, which has a large Cuban population.

Biden slammed him for the remarks and defended similar comments former President Barack Obama has made about Cuba under Castro's leadership.

Sanders said it's a “problem with politics" that politicians can't acknowledge progress if it happens in an authoritarian country.

Sanders said he has doubts about Biden’s ability to energize enough voters to defeat Trump.

Sanders said he’s fully committed to helping Biden win if the former vice president is the Democratic nominee. Sanders acknowledged Biden has won more states but says to defeat Trump, “you have to bring young people, who are not great voters.” He says his young supporters bring energy and excitement.

Biden says he’s the candidate who is exciting voters, noting a big surge in voter turnout in some of the states he won. He says he pulled off big victories on Super Tuesday even though he had very little campaign money.

“Lets get this straight — energy has been for me,” Biden said. Biden says he’s “winning overwhelmingly among Democratic constituencies across the board.”