Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) debated each other in a studio with no audience in Washington, D.C., on Sunday night amid a global panic over the spread of the coronavirus.
Here are five takeaways from the debate.
The coronavirus changed the debate
The pandemic sweeping the globe dominated the discussion for large stretches of the debate and helped underscore the different worldviews held by Biden and Sanders.
Biden sought to cast himself as an accomplished statesman who would lead from the Situation Room and mobilize the military to open makeshift hospitals to relieve the burden on health care workers.
The former vice president repeatedly recalled his time in the White House under former President Obama and pointed to his experience in dealing with the scourge of Ebola as evidence that he’s the steady hand the nation needs in this time of crisis.
Sanders, meanwhile, argued that the virus had exposed “the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality” of our system, which can be addressed only through radical changes to the economy and health care industry.
The debate around the coronavirus also forced the candidates to address some uncomfortable questions. Both men are in their late 70s, and the virus has proved to be especially deadly for elderly people.
Biden and Sanders talked about the things they’re doing to minimize their own risks, such as washing their hands, canceling rallies and effectively moving to campaigns that are taking place in the digital, rather than physical, world.
The change in tone was evident from the start, as the candidates bumped elbows when they walked out onto the debate stage instead of shaking hands.
Biden attacked and counterattacked
The former vice president has opened up a substantial lead over Sanders in the race for delegates, and he’s in a strong position to build a nearly insurmountable lead on Tuesday, when voters will cast ballots in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio.
Biden is expected to win big across the board, and he came out aggressive on Sunday night in an effort to put Sanders away for good.
There were questions heading into the debate about whether Biden could hold his own for two hours in a one-on-one setting. He more than met the challenge, both going on the offensive and returning to Sanders’s attacks to make his own pointed jabs.
Biden opened by stating that in a time of crisis, Americans would have to put the revolution aside and instead focus on incremental changes to stabilize the government and the economy.
When Sanders hit Biden for supporting a bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis, Biden fired back that “all those people Bernie says he cares about would be in deep, deep trouble” if the banks had gone under.
When Sanders ticked through what he said were Biden’s most troubling votes, the former vice president countered with Sanders’s own votes against federally mandated background checks and to protect the gun industry from lawsuits brought by the victims of gun violence.
Near the end of the debate, Biden attacked Sanders for his past praise of authoritarian regimes in Cuba, China and Russia.
Analysts praised the performance as one of Biden’s best, and the expectation is that it will help move him closer to the nomination when votes are cast on Tuesday.
Sanders managed a difficult balancing act throughout the debate
Sanders had a difficult challenge on Sunday night, needing to present himself as a viable alternative to Biden in a way that did not anger Democrats, who were worried that tarnishing their likely nominee would only serve to boost President Trump ahead of the November election.
At times, Sanders went hard against Biden, at one point comparing elements of an immigration reform bill the former vice president supported to “slavery.”
But for the most part, Sanders’s attacks were not personal and instead were aimed at showcasing policy differences between the two.
Sanders at one point ticked through a list of votes Biden had cast on trade, authorizing military action in Iraq, freezing entitlement spending to address the deficit and gay marriage to cast himself as the candidate liberals could trust to be ahead of the curve and to do the right thing.
But Sanders did not show the kind of killer instinct that many on the left were agitating for. It’s hard to see how this debate will fundamentally alter a primary race that has quickly moved against him.
Biden’s supporters are breathing a lot easier after tonight, and Sanders may have won over some critics who feared he was about to go nuclear to alter the shape of the race.
Biden makes overtures to the left
The big question on the minds of many Democrats is whether the progressive left will rally behind Biden if he is the nominee.
A few hours before the debate, Biden announced that he would add Sanders’s plan to make public colleges and universities free for families who make less than $125,000 a year.
That won’t be enough to satisfy many liberals, and Sanders used much of Sunday night’s debate to question Biden’s past positions and to make the case that the former vice president has to be a more forward-thinking liberal champion if he’s to win over young people and the progressive left.
“Joe has won more states than I have,” Sanders said at one point. “But we’re winning the ideological battle.”
Biden noted correctly that the energy in the Democratic electorate had moved behind his campaign, resulting in a huge turnout spike among black voters and moderates in the suburbs.
But he also acknowledged the importance of ensuring that liberals of all stripes are on board with his campaign.
“I’ll support [Sanders] and campaign for him if he’s the nominee, and I believe the people who support him will do the same thing,” Biden said. “I’d hope Bernie will do the same thing if I’m the nominee and encourage his supporters to back me as well because it’s bigger than either of us. The character of the nation is on the ballot.”
The debate format was one of many strange things about the night
The national party made several changes in the days leading up to the debate to minimize the risk from the spread of the coronavirus.
The debate was moved from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., to cut back on travel for the campaigns and the news media. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos pulled out of hosting the debate after saying he’d come in contact with someone who may have been exposed to the virus, although he is said to be healthy.
The debate moderators sat a far distance away from the candidates, who themselves were separated by more distance than they have been in the past.
But the big change that had people talking was that there was no audience on hand to cheer or jeer the candidates, making the debate a little bit like a movie without a soundtrack.
Many in the news media praised the format, believing it kept the candidates focused on substantive policy ideas rather than churning out zingers that might fly with their supporters in the crowd.