Democratic Presidential Candidate Debate: Focus on Covid-19

March 15, 2020 DNC debate

The most recent Democratic Party debate occurred on March 15, 2020 in the insulated studios of CNN. The debate was moved to Washington, D.C. at the last minute due to the incipient Covid-19 crises affecting cities across the United States. Beginning on March 12th, many federal institutions, including museums, libraries, schools, universities, stadiums, theatres, and food venues announced a two-week shut-down.

Nevertheless, the Democratic Party presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders held their debate, even with many in the public amazed at how quickly the tide has turned over to Biden’s favor in the last two weeks with Biden now officially having won twice as many states as Sanders.

The theme of the debate is certainly timely. Many of the questions posited by CNN-Univision moderators (Dana Bash, Ilia Calderon, Jake Tapper) focused on the Covid-19 crisis and what each leader would do if he was President right now. The moderators were polite but predictable in showing Biden on cue; Jake Tapper as an interviewer is known for his aggressive style at times. Neither politicians were out to pull any punches, however. There was no mud-slinging between the statesmen, just straight comparisons between the centrist perspective and the progressive perspective of what is best.

Predictably Senator Sanders’ perspective focused on what is best for the people of the United States (meaning real humans, not corporations). He says he will make medical care, and especially a plan to implement Medicare-for-All, a priority. (Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) also touts a Medicare-for-All plan). No one should suffer the ignominy of having to be turned away from healthcare access because they are too poor or lack insurance. This would include anyone within the boundaries of the United States, after all, Covid-19 does not discriminate on who will be the next host-victim. An emphasis on facts (not opinions or speculations) is important to allay fears and prevent panic Sanders asserts.

When you get sick, if you have the virus, it will be paid for. Second, our hospitals have the ventilators and ICUs that they need. We need unprecedented action right now. Bottom line from an economic point of view: if you lose your job, you will be made whole. If the Fed can put 1.5 trillion into banking system we can protect the wages of every worker in America. —Senator Bernie Sanders (VT)

In contrast, although former Senator Biden agrees that the country must focus its resources on containing the Covid-19 illness, his basis for leadership and comparison is how the Obama Administration tackled the Ebola crisis. There were only eleven cases in the United States, and under 6,000 cases worldwide; however the former Vice President insists they developed the prototypical template for containing what WHO classified as an international health emergency in 2014. Biden believes that a “surge” (such as implemented by sending 4,000 troops to West Africa to build temporary hospitals) will be useful today in quashing the spread of the pandemic as it did back then. An immediate response includes free walk-ins and drive-through testing sites, free health care, and free medicines. He also assures that small businesses will be able to access interest-free loans.

We need the WHO test kits and temporary hospitals now, even when Trump has delayed in this. —former VP Joe Biden

The crux of the debate centers around the socialist versus capitalist perspective although neither candidate mentioned the difference in philosophy. For instance, Sanders’ perspective aligns more closely with independent parties such as the ICFI recommendations for free treatment, expanded health care infrastructure, workplace closures with full compensation for the workers, and halting all trade sanctions. Socialists believe that the reluctance to address needs from the people’s perspective is attributable to trillions of dollars spent in military buildups and war-like profiteering at home and overseas. We can also take lessons learned from effective measures taken overseas whether in China or South Korea.

In contrast, the centrist perspective of middle-class American citizens is more parochial. It advocates a bigger bureaucracy, which arguably is most important in being able to coordinate national guidelines and priorities in combating the pandemic. But it also tends to become an opportunity to politicize the issue through global systems of outreach, such as in Biden’s belief that American security teams should have access to Chinese hospitals. (China was mentioned no less than 10 times during the debate). Biden supports improving upon the Affordable Health Care Act to include a public option rather than a single-payer system. He believes that bailing out the corporations did prevent another Great Depression.

Examining the rhetoric closely it would almost have seemed that Sanders (and his team) were borrowing ideas straight from the ICFI manual, while Biden is arguing persuasively culling from Bernie Sanders platform. For instance, in the economic segment of the debate, Biden insists that we need a major bail out package not to reward corporations, but for the individuals so they can get their mortgages, rent, childcare, and medical bills paid.

“We are going to have to level with the American people. We are going to have to deal with the immediate economic crisis now. To let people know that they will have their mortgages paid, their rent paid, they are going to have medical care, childcare, all their medical bills relating to this, etc. We have to go beyond that. We are going to have be in a situation where we are meeting on a daily basis like we did in the middle of the financial crisis to decide how we are going to find the wherewithal and the money to be able to see to it we hold all these folks harmless, but not do what Trump wants to do…” —VP Joe Biden, former Senator (DE)

Time and again, both veteran Senators harked back to the Democratic platform ideals of putting people to work, making sure they receive decent wages and benefits, ensuring they have affordable healthcare, have a decent standard of living with a future for their children whether or not they attend college, and are able to afford retirement. But Sanders pointed out that Biden’s centrist positions included voting for the 2008 corporate and industry bailout packages. Over the length of the debate, Sanders continued to argue that banks and corporations are bigger and stronger than ever today, meanwhile, for people under 50, there is massive income inequality.

At least twice, Sanders emphasized the importance of reaching out to affected workers and how half of the workforce is living from paycheck to paycheck. By redefining authentic leadership, he alludes to broader possibilities besides just bailing out the big banks, such as nationalizing them, or making corporations publicly owned.

“Look, this is also a little about leadership; 45 million Americans are struggling with student debt. You helped write the bankruptcy bill that made it impossible to escape student debt. I did not, and I voted alone against it in the House. It was not popular 14 years ago, but I supported that. Today more are moving in that direction. Leadership is about moving forward even when it is unpopular, when you get criticized for it.”—Sen. Bernie Sanders

The moderators also brought in the subject of climate change as an additional crisis later on. Unlike the Trump Administration with its emphasis on Exxon Mobil style leadership and accelerating developments on public lands, both Democratic presidential candidates are strongly in support of recognizing climate change as an existential crisis. At the very least, Biden promises to reinstate the climate change policies enacted under the Obama Administration. He stated his website outlines a 13-point plan that includes revitalizing CAFE standards, heavy investments in alternative transportation systems including light rail, high speed rail, electric vehicles, public transportation, and research using low-carbon or no-carbon fuels. He is proud of having been a major contributor to the Paris Climate Accord signed by President Obama, but supports corporate farming in the Amazon.

Here again, Bernie Sanders is much more revolutionary in wanting to curb new investments in fossil fuels and coal plants, worldwide. Like Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, he believes that preserving the fuels and resources we have for future generations are forms of external capital that short-term investors downplay. This includes ending subsidies to fossil fuels. However moderator Jake Tapper denigrated the costs of Sanders’ Green New Deal even while proponents like Elizabeth Warren envision many ways it will pay for itself.

“Look this is what the scientists are telling us. What they are telling us is that if we don’t get our act together, in the next seven or eight years, there will be irreversible damage done to this planet. We’re talking about cities from Miami, to New Orleans, to Charleston, S.C. being underwater. We are talking about farmers in the Midwest being prevented from growing the food that they need. We are talking about extreme weather events like the one that hit Venice, Italy just a few months ago. We are talking about… transforming our energy system as quickly as we humanly can away from fossil fuels. It is insane that we can continue to have fracking in America. It is absurd that we give tens of billions of dollars a year in tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industries. This has got to end, and end now, if we love our kids and future generations.” —Senator Bernie Sanders

Even if it was off-topic on addressing the growth in infectious diseases from climate change, Sanders’ big picture approach resonates with the younger fans, millennials who favor driving less, not owning cars, using bikes, rent-a-scooters, and even walking. While Biden’s climate plan is an upgrade from Obama’s especially with its emphasis on rail investments, the over-arching emphasis is more centrist and hegemonic with regard to the U.S. as the major player. In contrast the progressive candidates are arguing for suspending trade sanctions, reducing armaments spending, and bringing all world leaders to the negotiating table to listen to the scientists and address the most existential crisis facing humanity and the planet.

The bold progressive side of the Democratic team may not convince long-time politician Joe Biden to take a few steps more to the left; nevertheless, both Democratic candidates shared a few things that the American public has missed over the past several years. They actually stated that they were concerned, that they cared, and that their hearts go out for all those affected. They stated that even if they are in disagreement over the details, they do agree on needing to improve access to healthcare, education, action on climate change, and placing America back on track to the real democracy and beacon to the world it must continue to be.

With regard to the Covid-19 emergency, both presidential candidates are offering comprehensive plans that give the working class, all those very worried about making their rent and auto payments, their student loans and other bills by April 1, 2020, a measure of hope. In this arena, former Vice President Joe Biden has solid administrative experience and therefore a more comprehensive Covid-19 plan; however Senator Bernie Sanders’ COVID-19 response continues to be the voice of conscience especially on behalf of the population living from paycheck to paycheck that they will not have to consider drastic measures on April 1, 2020, such as suicide.

Watch the full debate: