The two frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination faced-off center stage Thursday night in part two of the first debates and the stark platform contrast between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) was on full display. The two camps, which are one-two in most polls with Biden holding an early lead over the field, are taking distinct approaches to the 2020 race.
Biden is emphasizing his ability to topple Trump, and is leaning into a more traditional Democratic Party platform that builds off the Obama legacy. Sanders, on the other hand, seeks to shake up the party’s key policy initiatives. While, Biden views Trump as and aberration and his own campaign as a return to normalcy, Sanders believes Trump’s election symbolizes broader social and economic issues, demanding a more radical plan. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had the most buzzworthy clash with Biden of the night, challenging his opposition to federally mandated busing for school desegregation and work with pro-segregationist senators.
But the moderators, a team from NBC news, consistently structured the questioning so Sanders and Biden would follow one another, and their contrasting core values were apparent throughout. A moment midway through the debate when all of the candidates were asked to describe their first priority in a few words spotlighted the differences.
“We need a political revolution,” Sanders said. “People have got to stand up and take on the special interests, we can transform this country” Biden, after referring back to a previous question to praise Obama’s record on combating climate change, responded: “The first thing I would do is make sure we defeat Donald Trump, period,” On issue after issue, Biden often referred back to Obama administration policies and his own, lengthy senate record. Sanders, meanwhile, hammered on the need for a deeper transformation, a movement to take on the monied interests such as Wall Street, insurance companies, and the fossil fuel industry.
While Biden advocated a quick return to the Affordable Care Act as a first step to improving health coverage, Sanders responded by invoking fresh ideas and “real change.” “We have a new vision for America. We think it is time for change, real change,” he said. “Healthcare is a human right. We have got to pass a medicare for all, single payer system.”
As the poll frontrunner, Biden drew the most direct attacks from the other candidates. Rep. Eric Swalwell repeatedly referenced Biden’s age, later including Sanders, as he repeated the phrase “pass the torch.” Sanders, 77, and Biden, 76, have their relative advanced age compared to the field as a commonality, one that the senator from Vermont rushed to defend.
“The issue isn’t about generation. It’s who has the guts to take on the big money interest who have unbelievable influence on the political life of this country,” Sanders said. When foreign policy was raised, Sanders was quick to point out his opposition to the Iraq War.
“One of the differences that Joe and I have in our record is Joe voted for that war,” he said. “I helped lead the opposition to that war.” Both of them expressed their support for rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and increased gun control legislation. And on immigration they took similar tacts as well, with Biden returning to his praise for Trump’s predecessor.
“President Obama did a heck of a job, to compare him to what this guy is doing is immoral. We need to change the circumstances behind why they leave in the first place,” he said.
Both candidates raised their hands when asked if they would support providing health care coverage for undocumented immigrants and changing crossing the border without inspection to a civil rather than criminal offense, an issue raised by Julian Castro in Wednesday night’s debate.
“On day one we rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done,” Sanders said on immigration. “Second, we have to look at the root causes [of the border crisis].”
There were few direct attacks between Sanders and Biden, but their divergent paths to the same goal reflect the two dominant Democratic strategies for victory. As might be expected, the attacks on the biggest opponent not in the room were the sharpest and most frequent.
“The American people understand that Trump is a phoney, a pathological liar and a racist and he lied to his people during his campaign,” Sanders said. “We beat Trump by exposing him for the fraud that he is.”
Biden, given the final closing statement of the night, implored the nation to unify against a near existential crisis.
“I think it’s important we restore the soul of this nation,” Biden said. “This president has ripped it out.” In terms of total time on the mic, Biden won the evening, topping all candidates with 13:19 of speaking time while Sanders came in third (10:58), behind Harris (12:19).
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