“People are looking for results, not a revolution.”
That line from former Vice President Joe Biden during Sunday night’s debate defined his strategy to distinguish his COVID-19 plan from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT).
Though the candidates in recent days have laid out many similar short-term moves for responding to the disease — economic stimulus in the form of covering rent and grocery bills, for example, and replacing workers’ lost income — during the debate, the pandemic provided a platform to to talk about their long-term policy differences.
Sanders, in response to multiple questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, plugged his Medicare for All proposal, putting COVID-19 in the larger context of another truth he called a “crisis” — that tens of thousands of Americans die yearly due to a lack of health insurance or other health insurance-related barriers.
“I think it goes without saying that as a nation we have to respond as forcefully as we can to the current crisis,” he said. “But it is not good enough not to be understanding how we got here, and where we want to go into the future.”
Biden, for his part, seemed content to leave Sanders’ long-term progressive policy agenda unanswered and stay focused on the short-term.
“This is a national crisis,” he said at one point, after Sanders pressed him on health crises that would not be covered under Biden’s proposed emergency funding for COVID-19-related bills. “I don’t want to get this into a back-and-forth in terms of our politics.”
“This is a crisis,” he added. “This is like we are being attacked from abroad.”
And Sanders, in turn, largely ceded that ground to focus on systematic change.
“Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health-care system,” he said at one point, asked a specific question about the current capacity of ICUs and ventilators in place to address the crisis. (Earlier, Sanders did note that U.S. health care capacity was lacking on several specific fronts.)
Eventually, the Vermont senator tailored the Medicare for All message for the current moment.
“Despite what the vice president is saying, what the experts tell us is that one of the reasons that we are unprepared, and have been unprepared, is we don’t have a system,” he said. “We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans. That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people.”
“In a good year without the epidemic, we’re losing up to 60,000 people who die every year because they don’t get to a doctor on time,” Sanders added. “It’s clear that this crisis is only making a bad situation worse.”
Biden was blunt in response: “That has nothing to do [with] when you’re in a national crisis.”
The candidates’ closing answers captured this difference in approach, both toward the virus and also in their campaigns.
“This is a time to move aggressively dealing with the coronavirus crisis, dealing with the economic fallout,” Sanders said. “But it is also time to rethink America and create a country where we care about each other rather than a nation of greed and corruption which is what is taking place among the corporate elite.”
Without getting into specifics, Biden focused on the near-term.
“How do you deal with things that necessarily have to be kept going and what’s the way to do that?” he asked. “There should be a national standard for that. It should be coming out of the Situation Room right now.”
And what about Sanders’ signature issue, income equality? Biden addressed the concern with a familiar refrain from the campaign trail.
“The single most significant thing we can do to deal with the larger problem, down the road, of income inequality is: Get rid of Donald Trump.”