Yesterday, as Americans finally began to internalize the severe implications of the coronavirus outbreak, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders each gave a national address on the topic. Their speeches were a contrast in leadership: Biden’s mostly a restatement of the problems posed by the pandemic, Sanders’s a clarion call for specific measures and an appeal to solidarity in the face of danger.
The vast difference between the two Democratic presidential candidates’ responses puts the question to us all: is Biden really the safe pick and Sanders a risk, as the prevailing story goes, or is it the other way around?
Biden’s speech Thursday afternoon was cast as his big chance to demonstrate steady, stable leadership amid the Trump administration’s incompetent handling of the country’s health and looming economic crisis. Instead, viewers who tuned in at the scheduled 1 PM time were treated to half an hour of wide-eyed staffers trying to fix technical difficulties so Biden could come to the podium.
Thirty minutes later, a sober, subdued Biden delivered an address his campaign team hoped would give their candidate a presidential sheen and draw a contrast with President Trump. Stressing that “this is going to require a national response,” Biden hit on themes familiar to anyone who has been following his campaign, decrying Trump’s xenophobia, his cuts to federal agencies, his weakening of public trust in the government, and general undermining of US “credibility” on the world stage.
Yet when it came to outlining specifics for dealing with the crisis, Biden was curiously vague. His speech was peppered with statements like, “We have to get to work immediately to dig ourselves out of this hole,” and, “We need to weather the storm and get the people and this economy back to full strength as soon as possible.” No less than twelve times, Biden told viewers “We need” to: “surge our capacity,” to “place our focus on those who are struggling just to get by,” to “give them relief,” to “provide food for them,” to provide “smart, bold, compassionate leadership.”
Biden largely elided specifics, instead beginning the speech by directing Americans to go to his campaign website if they wanted to see details of the plan he had released. One exception was his call for emergency paid sick leave, a measure aimed at making it easier for people to abstain from work in the coming weeks and months — and prevent infection or further spread of the virus — without losing their financial footing. On this, Biden was more specific, but he was also following the lead of Congressional Democrats who already introduced an emergency paid sick leave bill.
Other than paid sick leave, Biden’s only specifics for dealing with the crisis revolved mainly around personal behavior. He urged the public to wash their hands, to stay at home, and to avoid hugs and handshakes. He called for free COVID-19 tests; for the government to measure and report every day how many were ordered, completed, and came up positive; for testing of seniors and other vulnerable populations; and for the creation of hundreds of mobile testing stations and drive-through testing centers. He also called for FEMA and the Pentagon to plan and prepare for potential deployment, and for the government to ensure every American had enough information to “make an informed decision” about when to get tested, to self-quarantine, or to seek medical help. None of this was purposeless, but neither was it particularly robust.
In the end, Biden’s speech achieved the feat of being both technocratic and light on technocracy. While he gave a picture of the areas in which a response would be necessary, he was stingy with details. And crucially, aside from paid sick leave, he failed to propose any concrete measures to protect working-class people from the economic fallout that the pandemic is likely to cause.
Now Is the Time for Solidarity
One hundred miles away, almost as soon as Biden finished speaking, Sanders gave a parallel but very different speech.
He opened in an unusually emotional style, both sober and reassuring. “First and foremost, we must remember that we are in this together,” he said. It would be “a tragic and dangerous mistake” to believe that our own health is our only concern and that others must fend for themselves. He urged recognition of mutual dependence, vulnerability, and responsibility.
“Now is the time for solidarity,” he said. His speech imagined solidarity not as an aspirational ideal but as a practical course of action, not as an expression of individual altruism but as an act of collective self-preservation. We consider each other’s well-being not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because the more people act in that spirit the more likely each of us is to see our own interests met. It’s a lesson learned through many decades of working-class struggle, particularly the experiences of the labor movement.
Sanders then moved on to concrete plans for dealing with the crisis. On some of these, his approach overlapped with Biden’s. Both assailed the administration’s lack of transparency and general incompetence, urged more testing, and called for putting public health professionals front and center in dealing with the crisis. When it came to policy specifics, Sanders, like Biden, demanded the eventual vaccine be available free of charge, called for emergency funding for paid leave from work, and to evaluate the status of the government’s testing and processing.
But unlike Biden, who simply directed viewers to read through a nearly 7,000-word long plan on their own time, Sanders outlined numerous specific proposals the government needed to take to deal with the crisis there and then. He called for an immediate expansion of community health centers, and rather than merely demand Americans “surge our capacity” to deal with the virus as Biden had, he called for the government to mobilize medical residents, retired medical professionals, and all other medical personnel to beat back the crisis. More than just urging authorities to nebulously “ensure” Americans were informed about the crisis, Sanders called for the creation of well-staffed national and state hotlines.
Sanders demanded emergency unemployment assistance to anyone who lost their job during the crisis, constituting 100 percent of their prior salary, with a cap of $1,150 a week, or $60,000 a year. He specified that gig workers, independent contractors, domestic workers, and — due to the crisis’s impact on the restaurant industry — tipped workers must all be eligible. He called for school lunches, SNAP, and Meals on Wheels to be expanded, ensuring people stuck at home could still be well-fed.
Emergency homeless shelters must be constructed, Sanders said, to ensure homeless Americans, survivors of domestic violence, and college students quarantined off-campus could still receive shelter and nutrition. He also called for emergency lending to small- and medium-sized businesses, in part to fund construction of manufacturing facilities and production of supplies like ventilators, of which he warned hospitals were facing shortages.
Perhaps most significant was Sanders’s call for an “immediate moratorium” on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs, a measure meant to both alleviate the financial burden on the public in what looks to be a protracted health and economic crisis, and to prevent Americans from spreading the virus by venturing out to work due to financial desperation. (By contrast, Biden’s website merely mentions “mortgage and rental relief,” by which it means making federal money available from a general fund for mayors and governors to provide assistance in an unspecified manner.) Such measures were justified, Sanders made clear, because the virus outbreak was a crisis on the scale of World War II and could end up taking more lives than that global conflagration.
Beyond that, Sanders dutifully worked in his usual themes — now with renewed resonance in the midst of the crisis. He stressed the importance of passing Medicare for All as not just a matter of economic justice, but of practicality, noting that many Americans avoid visiting the doctor for lack of money, worsening the current crisis. And he called for pharmaceutical companies to be told “in no uncertain terms” that there would be no price gouging when it comes to medication.
Contrary to the dominant media narrative that surrounds both candidates, for viewers who watched both addresses it was Biden who seemed unprepared and lacking specifics, and Sanders the realist who had come prepared, could reassure the public, and knew exactly what he would do upon winning office.
The Right Politics for the Moment
In many ways, Bernie Sanders was made for a moment like this.
He understands the problems facing working-class people in their day-to-day lives: medical uninsurance and underinsurance, inflexible or unreliable work schedules, lack of childcare, food insecurity, vulnerability to eviction, the absence of emergency funds. He talks about these pervasive realities in his stump speech; they are integral to the way he imagines the texture of American life, and what he believes needs fixing. It’s not difficult for him to call them to mind and account for them in a moment of crisis.
And he’s not a rookie at arguing for major public interventions to stop and prevent widespread devastation, regardless of the implications for corporate profits. In fact, the central demands that have propelled him from the margins to the mainstream — Medicare for All, tuition-free college and student debt cancellation, a Green New Deal, massive public housing investment and a homes guarantee — are of precisely that same nature. The measures this moment urgently calls for are echoes of the social-democratic reforms for which Sanders has spent years, or in some cases decades, attempting to build support.
A public health crisis of this magnitude is like a tracer dye revealing the fractures in the system. It’s never been more evident that health care in this country is inadequate and barbarically unequal, and that tens of millions of working-class people in this country are living inches from financial ruin. It’s never been clearer why the nation needs a political revolution of the type Bernie Sanders advocates. A recent headline in the Independent read, “Ironically enough, Bernie Sanders’s policies could have saved us from coronavirus.” But it doesn’t have to be ironic — and they still can. If we’re fortunate, this crisis will help millions understand that Biden’s hostility to the creation of a real welfare state is unreasonable and literally deadly.
As disastrous as COVID-19 looks to be, the crisis presents Sanders with an unparalleled opportunity to revive his campaign. According to exit polls, large majorities of voters in Michigan and Missouri trusted Biden more to handle a major crisis. Sunday’s debate, the first and perhaps last one-on-one matchup between the two candidates, gives Sanders a chance to reverse this perception and show Biden up as unprepared, risky, and generally unfit to lead.
In 2016, debating Hillary Clinton one-on-one in Flint, Michigan before pulling out a surprise victory in the Midwestern state, Sanders was able to use the format — as well as Clinton’s own in-built conservatism — to appear forward-thinking and decisive, while making Clinton look indecisive, wishy-washy, and overly cautious in a time of crisis. While Clinton received one round of applause for her answer to a question on restoring trust in government, Sanders received four separate sets of audience applause for an answer that was half the length.
In other words, the debate went a lot like Biden and Sanders’ dueling coronavirus press conferences, except unscripted and in real time. Clinton’s reticence to call for bold public action — a product, fittingly, of the same political approach pioneered by Biden in the 1980s — worked against her in a time of crisis, while Sanders’s more ambitious and strident demands perfectly fit the moment.
Sunday’s debate will be similar. It will be one on one. It will be conducted in the midst of crisis. And Sanders’s opponent will be a similarly conservative Democrat allergic to government action — in this case, one who once admonished Democratic elder statesman Hubert Humphrey for not being “cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems.” Only this time, Sanders will be facing a rival who not only has a habit of forgetting his best friend’s name and what office he’s running for, but tends to give incoherent, rambling answers when deprived of a teleprompter. And this time, the crisis is affecting not one city, but the entire globe and its economy.
Sunday’s debate has the chance to reshape the race — but Sanders will need to take the gloves off. After all, there are bigger things at stake in this election than his friendship with Joe Biden.