WASHINGTON — Joe Biden promised to make a woman his running mate — and Bernie Sanders said "in all likelihood" he would do the same — as Sunday's first Democratic debate of the social-distancing era offered a brief, if temporary, respite from the anxiety of COVID-19.
Reminders of the crisis were never far away: there was no live audience, the two candidates bumped forearms instead of shaking hands, their podiums were the requisite six feet apart and the severity of the global pandemic dominated the first half of the two-hour contest.
The second half, which wrestled with issues like climate change, immigration, reproductive rights and foreign policy, hearkened back to a simpler time in America, when the world was a simpler and safer place and people were preoccupied with the race for the White House.
"I commit that I will in fact pick a woman to be vice-president," Biden said during a discussion about equal pay and access for women. "There are a number of woman who are qualified to be president tomorrow; I would pick a woman to be my vice-president."
Sanders, too, promised a cabinet and an administration that would "look like America," where over half of the people are women. But when pressed on the running-mate question, he was less committal.
"In all likelihood, I will" choose a woman, he said. "For me, it's not just nominating a woman. It is making sure we have a progressive woman, and there are progressive women out there, so my very strong tendency is to move in that direction."
But for the first 60 minutes or so, the spread of the novel coronavirus — and what has been widely panned as a haphazard, contradictory and confusing response from the White House, thanks in large measure to the don't-worry, be-happy messaging of President Donald Trump — was the main preoccupation as the two rivals billed themselves as reliable, competent leaders for an unsettling time.
"The first thing we've got to do, whether or not I'm president, is to shut this president up right now," Sanders said.
"He is undermining the doctors and the scientists who are trying to help the American people. It is unacceptable for him to be blabbering with unfactual information which is confusing the general public."
Sanders cheered the decision to declare a national emergency, saying it's imperative to ensure Americans understand they won't be required to foot any medical bills related to the outbreak. And he continued to use the outbreak as the perfect argument for his centrepiece "Medicare for All" program in place of a "dysfunctional" health care system, and for a holistic approach to cushion the impact on nursing homes, rehabilitation centres and the vulnerable.
Biden, for his part, has called for a revamped testing regimen including mobile and drive-thru testing sites, a fast-tracked effort on a vaccine and rolling out the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military to establish and operate facilities to deal with the coming surge of patients. And he warned of the likely need for a "major, major, major" bailout package to help mitigate the economic impact.
But just as Sanders insisted the time is now for Medicare for All and a suite of progressive measures to make life easier for the country's working poor, Biden — as delicately as he could — derided that progressive vision as a pipe dream.
"People are looking for results, not a revolution," he said.
"That has nothing to do with the legitimate concern about income inequality in America; that's real. But that does not affect the need for us to act swiftly and very thoroughly, and in concert with all the forces that we need to bring to bear, to deal with the crisis now."
The outbreak has caused widespread school closures, international travel restrictions, barren store shelves and deep-seated alarm about the economic fallout both across North America and around the world. On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people for the next two months.
It has also exposed the deep ideological divide between the mainstream moderate Biden and Sanders, a fiercely independent Vermont senator who has become the standard-bearer for progressive upheaval in the United States.
Where Sanders was once the man to beat, Biden has instead surged to the front of the pack, staging a dramatic reversal of fortune in South Carolina last month that helped to propel him to the front of the pack. Rivals have fallen in line behind him; a decisive showing Tuesday in Ohio, Illinois, Arizona and Florida could make the task before Sanders all but impossible.
That dynamic was expected to make Sunday's debate a less confrontational affair. But Sanders, true to form, continued to take the fight to Biden, deriding his voting record in the Senate on issues such as the Iraq war, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 2008 banking bailout.
"Join me," Biden urged his opponent at one point.
"I don't want to join you," Sanders replied. "Why don't you join me?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press