Big Takeaways From the Biden-Sanders Debate

Our experts weigh in on the first head-to-head debate between the two main remaining Democratic contenders.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders square off at the Democratic presidential debate in Washington, D.C., on Mar. 15.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders square off at the Democratic presidential debate in Washington, D.C., on Mar. 15. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders square off at the Democratic presidential debate in Washington, D.C., on Mar. 15. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

No live audience, podiums spaced wide apart, elbow bumps between the candidates—the unfolding coronavirus pandemic was front and center at Sunday’s primary debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Elephants in the Room team offers their expert analysis on the first direct matchup between the two main contenders left in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

In the Shadow of the Pandemic, It Was Game, Set, and Match

by John Hannah

The only real drama in the debate was whether former Vice President Joe Biden, through some act of involuntary self-sabotage, might disrupt his near-inevitable march to the Democratic nomination. It didn’t happen. Not even close.

On the contrary, in the first half of the discussion devoted to the only issue that currently matters to Americans—the coronavirus pandemic—Biden came off strong, competent, and experienced in wielding the powers of government. He said the country is at war against the virus and needs to be laser-focused to mitigate the damage, both to save lives and to limit the economic devastation wrought on ordinary people. He focused on ramping up capacity to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, including enlisting the full capabilities of the U.S. military and other parts of the government that can provide disaster relief. He promised that no American would be denied testing or treatment for lack of funds. No one would lose their jobs for being sick. No one would be evicted from their homes for not being able to make their mortgage. How exactly all of this would be accomplished and at what cost was left to decide for another day. Biden’s message was that this is war—an existential threat to Americans’ way of life—and that the United States will do whatever it takes to win and get its people through it.

Biden was especially good in parrying Sen. Bernie Sanders’s effort to pivot from the coronavirus crisis to his signature proposals of “Medicare for All” and the need to radically transform American capitalism. We need to deal with this crisis now, Biden implored. This is not the time to politicize it by indulging in ideological hobbyhorses. Practical results to help the country survive the next few months, not revolutionary disruption that would exacerbate instability and uncertainty, is what average Americans need from their government, Biden suggested. Pointing to Italy as a country whose health care system is on the verge of collapse because of the virus, despite having the kind of public health care system backed by Sanders, was particularly effective.

Biden’s performance on the coronavirus was game, set, and match—especially when coupled with his headline-grabbing commitment to name a woman as his running mate. The rest of the debate seemed small by comparison to the enormity and urgency of the challenge now thrust upon the nation (and indeed the world) by the pandemic.

For the select audience that paid attention to what passed for the foreign-policy section of the debate, my notes read as follows: Sanders (still) has a soft spot for leftist authoritarians who may have killed and imprisoned millions, but made the trains run on time. On both immigration and climate change, Biden needs to be careful about being savaged by the Republicans. In his understandable effort to reach out to the progressive wing of his party, he runs a serious risk of further alienating a white working-class electorate that moved decisively to President Donald Trump’s populist message in 2016. An all-out assault on fossil fuels and fracking demonizes an industry that has transformed global energy markets over the past decade to the United States’ great geopolitical advantage, while employing tens of thousands of average Americans in well-paying jobs. Declaring war on them may not be wise.

Biden also showed another vulnerability when he, however legitimately, attacked Trump’s harsh immigration policies. Biden needs to be careful that his calls for humanely dealing with the undocumented are coupled with sufficient concern for the necessity of maintaining adequate control of the United States borders—one of the primary responsibilities of any sovereign government. The failure of repeated U.S. administrations to provide that basic reassurance played a major role in Trump’s ascendance. Trump will no doubt exploit it again if Biden proves incapable of striking a balanced tone. He clearly didn’t find that tone when he seemed to suggest an equivalence between undocumented migrants surging across the U.S.-Mexican border and the millions of Italians and Irish who immigrated legally a century ago.

But that’s all small potatoes at the moment. Biden sealed the nomination last night. It’s all over except for the exact timing of when Sanders ends his campaign. Then attention will turn to the critical question of whether Sanders can (and will) mobilize his army of impassioned revolutionaries on behalf of Biden’s more conventional form of progressivism. Will they accept half a loaf or stay at home and sulk? The country’s future may ride on the answer—assuming the coronavirus doesn’t ruin us first.

Wrong Prescriptions on Health Care and Climate Change

by Robert A. Manning

Bernie Sanders’ answers to questions about the coronavirus pandemic revealed him as an ideologue. He simply dusted off his familiar “Medicare for All” proposal, even as Biden—correctly—pointed out that Italy, Europe’s most disastrous victim, enjoys public healthcare for all. Sanders made Biden look presidential, as the latter spoke of coronavirus as a national emergency that calls for extraordinary measures, regardless of health care plans.

The most disappointing exchange was on that Democratic hobbyhorse, climate change. Both candidates failed to address the reality that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is no short-term project, but requires a sustained long-term effort and an all-of-the-above approach. Sanders’ proposed ban on fracking, a technology that has allowed the United States to dramatically reduce emissions by replacing coal with cleaner-burning natural gas, would be worse for the climate as it reverses the shift away from coal. And while more research and development is needed, no investment will change near-term reality: The potential of wind and solar power will remain limited until there are more cost-effective ways to store energy. The transition to a post-petroleum economy will be a slow process. Smart policies can accelerate it, but both Biden and Sanders seemed to be promising a lot more than anyone can deliver.

A Game-Extending Debate Whose Format Could Hurt Trump

by Peter Feaver

Some debate performances are game-changers, and some are game-enders. Most, however, are just game-extenders. Sunday’s much-anticipated mano a mano between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders fell into the last category. Biden did not finish off Sanders —but as the front-runner, Biden did not have to. More importantly, Sanders did not inflict a mortal blow on Biden—and he really did need to do that to have any hope of changing the trajectory of the race. Now, barring some sort of coronavirus-induced surprise, tomorrow’s primaries are likely to further cement Biden’s grip on the nomination. Yet if Sanders is fixing to pull out of the race any time soon, he did not hint at that in the debate.

So the Democratic primary is likely to limp along for a few more weeks. President Donald Trump is the beneficiary of this, for every minute Biden has to position himself for the primary is a minute he does not get to position himself for the general election. The coronavirus lockdown could, in theory, provide a window of opportunity for Biden to refocus his campaign on Trump, but not if he has to spend the next few months going through the motions of finishing off the nominating contest. And woe betide him if he conveys the impression that he is just “going through the motions,” because that is one way Sanders could revive, phoenixlike, to be a threat at the convention.

In the meantime, while the debate was far more substantive than previous ones, it was not very revealing on foreign policy and national security—at least not revealing of any surprises. Sanders showed that he still can’t break free from the far left’s rigid double standard that blames the United States first while winking and nodding at what totalitarian regimes wrought in the previous century. Biden showed that he, like most Republicans and other Democrats, still cannot talk with candor and persuasion about Iraq. He needs to have a better explanation for his vote in Congress supporting the Iraq War, and former President Barack Obama’s administration’s role there, since this will be one of the most obvious lines of attack from the Trump team. For Biden, it won’t be enough merely to point out that Trump has mishandled Iraq as well—that is true, but it will only land if Biden can better explain what he has learned from several decades of playing a key role in managing Iraq affairs.

One final takeaway: Most observers seemed to agree that the no-crowd format made the debate more substantive and less of a carnival. I bet that scares the Trump campaign. Trump emphatically does not do well in such an atmosphere, and I doubt very much that his campaign would want to accept a format where Trump cannot play to a noisy hall. A shrewd move for the Democratic Party would be to insist on this format going forward. Even if they can only force Trump to accept it once, that could lay the trap for a game-changing moment in the general election.

Ironclad Commitments

by Dov Zakheim

Sen. Bernie Sanders was more passionate, but former Vice President Joe Biden held his own. Biden made two ironclad commitments: to name a woman as vice presidential candidate, and to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. Sanders made no commitments to speak of. As often as Sanders harped on his usual targets—the banks, the oil companies, the drug companies, the insurance industry—Biden invoked his years with Obama.

Both men showed their age; neither could refrain from dredging up his opponent’s decades-old votes and statements. Both studiously avoided addressing their failures in attracting key constituencies: for Biden, young people and Hispanics; for Sanders, suburban voters and African-Americans. Biden demonstrated his superior experience in matters of national security and foreign policy. Sanders tried to skirt those subjects, except when attacking “authoritarians.” After two hours of back and forth, it is unlikely that either man changed anyone’s mind.

Biden’s Lead is Good News for Trade

by Clark Packard

For free traders, former Vice President Joe Biden’s likely nomination is a relief. While Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump are unapologetic protectionists, Biden’s record, while mixed, is generally positive. Given the increasing support free trade enjoys among the American public, Biden has an opening to clearly litigate the case against Trump.

First as a senator and then as vice president, Biden supported every major trade initiative—including the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the creation of the World Trade Organization the following year. In 2000, Biden voted in favor of normalizing trade relations with China, paving the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. As vice president during the administration of former Barack Obama, Biden supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To be sure, Biden’s record isn’t perfect; he voted against the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, and for quotas on steel imports. There were other votes that would normally have given free traders pause, but compared to the sprint toward 1930s-style protectionism under Trump, they are minor apostasies.

Trump will surely point to Biden’s support of NAFTA and trade with China as a reason voters in the Midwest can’t trust the former vice president.

On NAFTA, Biden has no reason to be defensive. In 2016, the U.S. International Trade Commission found that NAFTA produced small but significant economic gains. Not only that, Trump’s much-advertised replacement for NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, is only a minor rewrite of its predecessor.

China is more complicated. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization was a good idea and made sense at the time. It remains a positive development: Beijing has cut tariffs since joining the World Trade Organization, and the United States has more influence over China’s trade policy and practices now that Beijing participates inside the system. All is not well with U.S.-China commercial relations, though. Much of the concern stems from actions taken by Beijing in recent years, including abuse of intellectual property, forced technology transfer as a condition of doing business in China, theft of trade secrets, massive industrial subsidies, and cyberintrusions into commercial networks.

Now is the time for a responsible hawkishness toward China’s economic practices. Even after the so-called “phase one” deal between the United States and China, tariffs now cover about 70 percent of imports from China with an average rate 6.3 times higher than when the trade war began.

By abandoning negotiations toward a Pacific trade agreement and levying tariffs on imports from China, Trump’s irresponsible policies have weakened the United States economically and hurt its ability to influence Beijing’s commercial practices. Biden will need to fully flesh out a China policy, but his instincts toward multilateral engagement are vastly superior to erecting an “economic Iron Curtain,” as former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson dubbed the Trump tariffs.

The Candidates Are Ignoring Other Countries’ Lessons

by William Tobey

The Democratic presidential debate last night led with the coronavirus crisis and what the United States should do about it. Yet even as the United States has struggled with a timely response to the pandemic, the candidates did not much address the valuable lessons offered by other countries.

South Korea stabilized its outbreak with free, easily accessible, and unlimited testing, administering more than 250,000 tests at a pace of up to 20,000 per day. As a result, the number of new cases there peaked on March 3, and has generally trended downward ever since. Seoul has apparently turned the corner without widespread lockdowns. Hong Kong and Taiwan focused on screening and quarantining travelers from coronavirus hot spots, as well as social distancing, and have managed to keep the rate of infections per capita down to a fraction of that reported by China. Singapore used technology and big fines to enforce quarantines. China exercised the state’s immense power to enforce massive lockdowns. While the data from China is less authoritative than from South Korea, new cases appear to have peaked in mid-February, after an initially slow response. One small indicator beyond the numbers: At the moment, China is the only country in the world where Apple stores are open. So much for the states that appear to be coping.

For now—and much remains to play out—the biggest failures appear to be in Italy and Iran, the two worst-hit countries after China, as measured by the total number of infections. There, the number of new cases appears still to be accelerating. They also have much higher infection rates per capita than those reported in China. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the numbers reported in Iran substantially understate the true extent of the outbreak. What both nations’ responses seem to have in common is a failure to act quickly.

Once we are past the crisis stage of dealing with the pandemic, various nations’ strategies will be compared to infer best practices. Important lessons will be learned. Perhaps more important, though, will be the debate about how differing political systems responded. Were China and Russia more successful, or Europe and United States? Did democracy or dictatorship do better? Do transparency and civil liberties matter? Or is it optimal when unlimited state power is put to the purpose of public health? The coronavirus outbreak is likely so momentous that it will be the leitmotif of the debates sparked by China’s rise over which political systems are most effective at advancing the health and prosperity of their people, and so which should be emulated. The pandemic is, therefore, a matter of international security on several levels, and its consequences will last far longer than the outbreaks.

Elephants in the Room is a blog about U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump, written by experienced GOP policymakers, scholars, and others not currently working in the new administration. It is curated by co-editors Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.