The Coronavirus Debate: Biden, Sanders Shadow-Box a Bug

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To combat the coronavirus, the elderly ought to take stock of their circumstances and make a habit of everyday wellness precautions, including avoiding crowds. Such is the current advice of the Centers for Disease Control, advice that the remaining Democratic candidates for president took to heart Sunday night.

Before either said a word, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders demonstrated what primary debates look like during a global health pandemic. They bumped elbows rather than shook hands.  

It isn’t that they’re not friends. It’s that the candidates (average age: 77.5) were giving a prime-time, real-time clinic on how to avoid the spread of pathogens: Avoid personal contact, even if that means not shaking the Purell-sanitized hand of a fellow politician.

And then, on a CNN set made quiet by the lack of an audience, they went after each other in the first two-man debate of the election cycle. The big question: What is needed most during such a time of crisis?

Biden said immediate results.

“This is a national crisis,” the former vice president responded before trying to avoid a back-and-forth over the relative merits of Obamacare vs. “Medicare for All.”

“This is like we are being attacked from abroad. This is something that is of great consequence. This is like a war,” he continued. “And in a war, you do whatever is needed to be done to take care of your people.”

Sanders said a long-term revolution, plus immediate results.

The pandemic, the senator replied after promising to take emergency action if he were president, “exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health care system.” How is it, he asked, that are there people wondering if they can afford treatment if they get sick with coronavirus, when “we're spending twice as much per person on health care as the people of any other country?”

This was the crux of the health care debate at a moment when the nation faces a health emergency. Sanders has made Medicare for All the hallmark of his campaign. Biden has rejected it, arguing that it is too expensive and insisting that a better option would be expanding Obamacare.

Democratic socialism isn’t an elixir for pandemics, said Biden.

“With all due respect for Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy,” he noted, referencing the European nation struggling to contain the virus. “It doesn't work there.  It has nothing to do with Medicare for All.  That would not solve the problem at all.”

But the current system is leaving too many people behind, countered Sanders: “First of all, the dysfunctionality of the current health care system is obviously apparent. As I said earlier, there are people who hesitate going to the doctor. You're going to have a maze of regulations — ‘Well, if this is my income, if that's my income, can I get it? Can I not get it?’

“We’re not prepared,” the Vermont senator continued. “And Trump only exacerbates the crisis.”

On this point, the two agreed. Last week, Biden, who leads the delegate count, held what was essentially the first debate of the general election when he gave a rebuttal to the president’s Oval Office address on the coronavirus the night before. Likely afraid of being left behind, Sanders offered his own vision of how an executive ought to respond to a public health crisis on this scale.

Job One? “Shut this president up right now,” Sanders said, “because he is undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people.”

The pair of elder statesmen also struggled to keep their pandemics straight.

Sanders twice called the current outbreak “the Ebola crisis.” He caught his own gaffe, and admitted that talking about the two public health emergencies had left him with “Ebola in my head.” Biden, meanwhile, confused the coronavirus with the swine flu. What’s more, the former vice president transposed the letters of the H1N1 virus – the dominant flu strain in 2009 -- calling it “N1H1.”

Republicans made certain these mistakes weren’t overlooked, and after the debate the Trump campaign accused both Democratic candidates of “plagiarizing” the administration's response to the coronavirus.

“As President Trump leads our country and takes unprecedented action in stopping the coronavirus, it is now clearer than ever that no leaders exist on the Democrat debate stage,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “Unable to articulate a coronavirus plan, both Bernie and Biden offered little more than plagiarizing President Trump’s response, which will now be the model for all future pandemics.”

The electorate will go to the polls on Tuesday in Arizona, Illinois, Florida, and Ohio. Georgia and Louisiana, however, postponed their primary contests out of concern that having the public line up at polling places could spread the virus. Even this was a source of contention after the debate.

Officials in those four remaining states expressed confidence that voters could cast their ballots safely. National press secretary for the Sanders campaign, Briahna Joy Gray, said that the Biden campaign was giving false and dangerous information. It isn’t safe to vote, she said.

“The only guidance we have so far is that we should not gather in groups of 50 people or more,” Gray wrote on Twitter. “I'm sure it's an honest mistake, but this is a public health crisis.”

Earlier in the day, after a briefing by the White House coronavirus task force, Vice President Mike Pence did not answer shouted questions about whether participating in the primary process at this point is, in fact, safe.

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