Joseph R. Biden said Sunday that Americans staring at the coronavirus crisis are “looking for results, not a revolution,” as he painted himself as a middle option between an incompetent President Trump and a too-radical Sen. Bernard Sanders, who sees the epidemic as the reason to adopt a government-run health care system.
Mr. Biden said he would set up hundreds of drive-through testing sites across the country, would call out the military to stand up emergency hospitals and hold meetings to decide whether to declare a quarantine and to figure out a long-term economic stimulus.
But he said Americans need to be assured the government has them covered for all their needs right now, in what sounded like a limited test-drive of Mr. Sanders’ own health care plans.
“This is like in a war, and in a war you do whatever needs to be done to take care of your people,” Mr. Biden said. “Everything you need in terms of dealing with this crisis needs to be free.”
He was facing off one-on-one against Mr. Sanders in a debate in Washington ahead of primaries in four more states Tuesday.
The two men settled on one thing: that Mr. Trump has not handled the crisis well.
“Shut this president up right now, because he is undermining the doctors and scientists,” Mr. Sanders said about Mr. Trump’s public remarks and tweeting. “It is unacceptable for him to be blabbering with unfactual information, which is confusing the general public.”
The senator from Vermont said the American health care system isn’t prepared to handle COVID-19, and it’s proof that it’s time for his “Medicare for All” health care plan.
“We’re spending so much money, and yet we are not even prepared for this pandemic. How come we don’t have enough doctors? How come hospitals in rural areas are shutting down?” he said.
He blamed corporate greed and said the answer is to take it out of the equation.
Mr. Biden countered: “You have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there.”
Mr. Biden also announced that if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, he will pick a woman as his running mate. Mr. Sanders said “in all likelihood” he would, too.
Democratic Party leaders were hoping for a show of unity between the two remaining major candidates. Instead, the debate was peppered with pointed exchanges.
Mr. Sanders pointed to Mr. Biden’s votes against gay rights in the 1990s, his support for a restriction on abortion funding, backing legislation that would have cut Social Security, and voting for a 2005 bankruptcy bill as evidence that Mr. Biden is not the liberal champion the country needs.
Mr. Sanders also said Mr. Biden’s climate change plans fall short.
“I know your heart is in the right place, but this requires dramatic, bold action. We have got to take on the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “Your plan does not do that.”
Mr. Biden acknowledged that he has moved toward Mr. Sanders’ stances in many areas. He said he has apologized for his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act and noted that he was the first major figure in the Obama administration to call for legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
He also said he has changed on the abortion funding question and his vote for the Iraq War was a mistake — but only because he believed President George W. Bush.
But he said the country’s not ready to go full Sanders right now.
“People are looking for results; they are not looking for a revolution,” Mr. Biden said.
There were points of agreement in areas such as immigration. Both men said they would severely curtail enforcement inside the U.S.
Mr. Sanders said he would end “raids” on illegal immigrants, and Mr. Biden affirmed his vow for a 100-day no-deportation period, and after that only those with felonies on their records would be deported. That would carve almost all the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants out of any fear of removal.
Both men said that doesn’t mean open borders. Mr. Sanders called that “a total lie.”
Mr. Biden has been surging since the last debate just ahead of the South Carolina primary, winning at least 15 of the last 21 state contests, including several states that Mr. Sanders carried over Hillary Clinton four years ago.
His stunning success on Super Tuesday, and the stumblings of former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, cleared out the field and left Mr. Biden the choice of the party’s less-liberal wing.
That has consolidated the vote behind Mr. Biden, who now holds a solid lead in the delegate count over Mr. Sanders.
The senator, watching his second bid for Democratic nomination falter, delivered a speech last week laying out his plans for this debate. He said he would pressure Mr. Biden to stake out positions on a plethora of “progressive” issues.
The strategy appeared aimed at defining the candidates’ differences and giving the former vice president a political road map for how to connect with the far-left voters who have rallied behind Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Biden took the first steps Sunday before the debate. He announced he had updated his higher education agenda to include tuition-free public college for students from families with incomes lower than $125,000.
Tuition-free college and his “Medicare for All” health care plan are the centerpieces of Mr. Sanders’ democratic socialist agenda.
Mr. Sanders welcomed the backing but questioned the late change.
“This is a little about leadership,” he said. “Glad you’re coming around now.”
Mr. Biden also announced that he was adopting the bankruptcy plan of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of the presidential race this month but maintains credibility among liberal voters. Ms. Warren’s plan, which Mr. Biden now embraces, would make it easier for people to claim bankruptcy and allow them to shield some assets in the process.
The embrace was a makeup call for Mr. Biden, who has taken fire for his vote in 2005 for a bankruptcy bill that irks liberal Democrats.
To win the nomination, a candidate must collect 1,991 delegates.
Mr. Biden appears poised to expand his lead Tuesday when voters in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio have their say. Polls show Mr. Biden with double-digit leads over Mr. Sanders in each of those states.
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden greeted each other Sunday night with an elbow bump rather than a handshake, and both men assured the debate moderators that they wash their hands frequently amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The debate was relocated from Phoenix to Washington, and the live audience was scrapped.
COVID-19 has led to more than 50 deaths, upending people’s daily lives and leaving the presidential contenders to navigate unknown political waters at a pinnacle moment in the campaign.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60% of Americans think the worst of the epidemic is yet to come. Democrats are far more concerned about the virus than other voters, making the candidates’ handling of it a major campaign issue.
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden have canceled mass rallies and headed online for virtual town halls and fundraisers, fireside chats and an increasing number of press conferences.
Mr. Sanders has penciled in a virtual rally Monday that is set to include musical acts.
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