If the policy issues were significant, the focus felt discordant in a moment when millions of Americans are preparing to bunker down to slow the spread of an infectious virus, facing disruptive school closures and the possibility of future quarantines.
“I don’t want to get into a back and forth about our politics here,” Mr. Biden said at one point, as Mr. Sanders pressed him on health care.
Eventually they did get into just such a back-and-forth, and spent much of the debate engaged not on real-and-present-dangers but on distant pasts and potential futures.
Biden made overtures to the left…
He invoked Senator Elizabeth Warren and mentioned that he spoke with her recently. He promised that, for his first 100 days in office, “no one will be deported at all.” He highlighted his new support for making public colleges and universities tuition-free for many students.
Mr. Biden, a relative moderate who has won a series of major primary contests in recent weeks, is beginning to think about how to unify the Democratic Party should he become the nominee — and he is looking for ways to appeal to progressives who have long been skeptical of his candidacy, even as the coronavirus crisis has forced him off the campaign trail.
On the debate stage, he noted his moves to the left on several policy matters, and — in a nod to Mr. Sanders’s supporters — promised that, “If Bernie is the nominee, I will not only support him, I will campaign for him.”
But Mr. Biden’s efforts at extending olive branches only went so far — and sometimes, he appeared visibly frustrated by Mr. Sanders.
“He’s making it hard for me right now,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Sanders, when asked directly about how he would appeal to the Vermont senator’s supporters if he became the nominee. “I was trying to give him credit for things and he won’t even take credit for things he wants to do.”
…and promised to pick a female running mate.
Mr. Biden committed for the first time to selecting a female running mate if he wins the Democratic nomination, a move sure to be welcomed by many party activists, operatives and voters who have long wanted to see a woman on the Democratic ticket in November.
The former vice president has previously laid out other criteria he would prioritize in a running mate, including the importance of trust, shared values and experience.
But promising to select a woman could help him generate more enthusiasm headed into upcoming primary contests, reassuring some voters who may feel apathetic toward Mr. Biden, 77. It will also set off a round of predictions about which specific Democratic candidates Mr. Biden may be considering should he clinch the nomination.
And, given the crucial role that black voters played in first reviving Mr. Biden’s candidacy in South Carolina and then elevating him to become a front-runner on Super Tuesday, the speculation will undoubtedly be intense about whether he will select not just a woman but a black woman as his running mate.
It was the last debate before the campaign stops.
When the 2020 campaign is all over, Sunday night’s debate may be unearthed like a fossil from the La Brea Tar Pits.
Campaigning in person has stopped. Upcoming primaries after Tuesday’s four contests have been postponed. The nation is about to go into a collective social and economic hibernation. So what effect will this debate have on who wins the Democratic presidential nomination?
Probably not all that much. Mr. Biden has a durable advantage with black voters, the party’s most reliable constituency. Mr. Sanders romps among young people, who haven’t shown much inclination toward Mr. Biden. But if Mr. Sanders can’t win at least one and probably two states on Tuesday, his path toward the nomination will narrow nearly to a close without much of an opportunity to change the direction of the campaign for weeks — and maybe months.
The Democratic National Committee’s rules require all states to hold presidential nominating contests and assign delegates to the national convention by late June. It’s now next to impossible that the party will hold its last planned debate in April, given coronavirus concerns. So Tuesday’s debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders will serve as the last opportunity for voters in remaining primary states to size up their two options.
The question is how they’ll weigh their choice — extending the race and opting for political revolution by picking Mr. Sanders or finishing it and focusing on beating Mr. Trump by choosing Mr. Biden.
The choice was as clear as ever: revolution vs. restoration.
Mr. Biden firmly believes that if and when Mr. Trump is defeated, there will be a restoration of normalcy in the nation. Mr. Sanders believes that Mr. Trump’s exit is only the first step toward a necessary political revolution.
That divide — one of the most fundamental between the two remaining candidates — was on vivid display in the debate, especially over how they framed the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Sanders used the moment to pitch the need for his government-run Medicare for all program. Mr. Biden was almost singularly focused on the immediate crisis at hand.
“People are looking for results,” Mr. Biden said. “Not a revolution.”
Later, Mr. Biden returned to the same theme. “We have problems we have to solve now,” he said, arguing that the Sanders agenda was unfeasible and unrealistic. “What’s the revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?”
But Mr. Sanders argued that his brand of democratic socialist revolution was the only way to tackle the economic, social and health inequities in a capitalist country.
Over and over, Mr. Sanders panned out beyond the immediate national emergency to address systemic problems that he said were simply being exacerbated by the current crisis.
“This coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health care system,” Mr. Sanders said. He applied the same logic to other fronts.
“It’s time to ask the question of where the power is in America,” Mr. Sanders said in his final remarks of what could be his final debate. “Who owns the media? Who owns the economy? Who owns the legislative process?”
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