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Winners and losers from the Bernie Sanders-Joe Biden debate

Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) debated each other one-on-one for the first time on March 15. Here’s what you missed. (Video: The Washington Post)

As coronavirus shuts down many activities across the country and even causes states to postpone their primaries, the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates with a shot at the nomination pressed forward with an audience-free debate Sunday night.

Here’s what we learned, in the form of winners and losers.


Joe Biden: Bernie Sanders right now needs a fundamental change in the race to chip away at Biden’s delegate lead, and it’s not clear anything transpired Sunday night that might provide that. He repeatedly pointed to votes Biden had taken as a senator and bills he had worked on that don’t fit as well with today’s Democratic Party, and Biden got testy at times. But Biden was largely focused, and he repeatedly brought things back to what was clearly a point of emphasis for him: Saying he had worked to get things done while Sanders lobbed bombs from the sidelines. “I did that, while you were watching,” he said at one point about a renewable energy bill. He repeated his talking point that “people want results, not a revolution,” and then expanded on it. “We have problems we have to solve now -- now,” he said. “What’s the revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?"

Biden wasn’t sterling at the debate, but he seldom is, and the lack of an audience seemed to work against Sanders, who often thrives on them. Sanders also needed more from this than Biden did. Biden drove home the point that he would be a steady, pragmatic hand at an uncertain time. And the crisis we find ourselves in right now fits nicely with that message.

Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and other would-be female VPs: Biden made some real news, which is somewhat rare in these debates: “I will pick a woman to be my vice president,” he said. Sanders was asked whether he would do the same thing, and had to be pressed by a moderator before he said, “In all likelihood, I will.” This may not be terribly surprising. With two white men remaining in the Democratic field, it’s been likely the nominee’s running mate would either be a woman or a racial minority. But it did solidify that people like Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Stacey Abrams, Elizabeth Warren — and others — are now the ones competing for a shot at the nation’s No. 2 job. On the flip side, people like Cory Booker and Julián Castro will apparently not be in the mix.

Strategically for Biden, it was a wise move. He was coming off a half-hour of pretty tough attacks on his voting record on issues like the economy and abortion, and it successfully changed the subject. (Biden, for what it’s worth, has also said he would name an African American female to the Supreme Court.)

Audience-free debates: This was the first debate in decades without an audience. Let’s hope it’s not the last. The audience marred a recent debate by clearly favoring certain candidates (Mike Bloomberg) over others (Sanders). And there is really no reason for audience reactions to color who has good answers and who doesn’t. It encourages playing to the crowd rather than having substantive debates. Sunday night’s debate may not have been the best we’ve ever seen, but it was certainly better thanks to the lack of cheering and booing.


Sanders on coronavirus: One of the things that plagued Sanders during his 2016 campaign was his tendency to fall back on his economic message as kind of a crutch, even when asked about things like race relations. And that struck again Sunday night. Repeatedly when asked about coronavirus, Sanders struggled to come up with immediate solutions and reverted to talking about his Medicare-for-all proposal. When he was asked about how he would hold China accountable for allegedly covering up the spread of coronavirus, he pivoted to attacking President Trump. About the best he could muster was talking about how we needed to bring world leaders together to respond. Oh, and he incorrectly referred to coronavirus as “Ebola.”

It got to the point where Biden repeatedly pointed to the lack of answers from Sanders. After Sanders brought up one of his pet issues — income inequality — Biden shot back that coronavirus “has nothing to do with the legitimate concern about income inequality in our country.” He added, “I don’t disagree with that. You’re asking about the crisis. … It’s not going to be solved by a change in tax policy. It’s not going to be solved with a change in health care.”

Biden’s Medicare-for-all attack: While Biden is ahead in the delegate race and is on pace for the nomination, it was he who started the jousting Sunday night. While talking about coronavirus, Biden launched into talking about how Medicare-for-all wouldn’t solve 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. It has nothing to do with Medicare-for-all.”

Coronavirus presents real-world test for state-run, single-payer health systems

Biden repeatedly made the case that such situations could be addressed with immediate action rather than an overhaul of the health-care system. But then Sanders hit back by saying, “The trick is, do we have the guts to take on the health care industry, some of which are funding the vice president’s campaign?” Biden then pulled out of the joust, saying, “I don’t want to get into a back and forth in term of our politics here.” But he started it! And then he didn’t finish it.

It didn’t seem Sanders was nearly as anxious to mix it up Sunday night. You kind of wonder if Biden hadn’t gone at him right away if they might have had a more civil debate — which would have been good for Biden. After Sanders began attacking Biden’s record hard on entitlements and bailouts, Biden appeared taken aback. When asked about how he would reach out to Sanders supporters, Biden said, “He’s making it hard for me right now. I was trying to give him credit for some things."