Sparks flew between Democratic progressives and moderates during the party’s second presidential debate Tuesday, as candidates from the two rivaling flanks butted heads on just about every major issue, including health care, immigration, climate change and how to best beat President Trump next year.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, a low-polling, middle-of-the-road candidate with little to lose and everything to gain, came straight out of the gate taking aim at two of the primary field’s left-wing titans, saying in his opening statement, “We can go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us with bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything, and impossible promises.”
“Or we can nominate someone with new ideas to create universal health care for every American with choice,” Delaney added.
Sanders, standing center stage at the debate in Detroit, was asked for a rebuttal.
“You’re wrong!” the gruff democratic socialist from Vermont fired at Delaney. “Right now we have a dysfunctional health care system…Health care is a human right, not a privilege. I believe that. I will fight for that.”
Warren, who, like Sanders, supports replacing the private health insurance system with a Medicare for all-style government option, questioned why Delaney is even running for president.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to be the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” the Massachusetts senator said, drawing the loudest cheer of the night from the crowd. “I don’t get it.”
Warren and Sanders, like-minded progressives who have consistently placed in the top five in most 2020 primary polls, repeatedly became punching bags for the more moderate White House wannabes on stage Tuesday night.
Newcomer Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who didn’t make the cut for the first debate last month, teed off on Warren for backing a policy first touted by fellow 2020 contender Julian Castro that would decriminalize illegal border crossings while also favoring providing health care for undocumented immigrants.
“You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” Bullock charged. “A sane immigration system needs a sane leader, and we can do that without decriminalizing, providing health care for everyone.”
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper piled on the progressive-bashing by blasting Sanders’ left-wing agenda and “Green New Deal” advocacy as “a disaster at the ballot box.”
“You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” Hickenlooper said.
But Warren and Sanders countered that the Democratic nominee in 2020 can’t run on a platform of acquiescing to Republican forces.
On immigration, Warren said decriminalizing border crossings is the only way to make sure Trump’s internationally reviled family separation policy won’t ever be repeated.
“What we need to do is have a sane system that keeps us safe at the border, but does not criminalize the activity of a mother fleeing here for safety,” she said.
Sanders said he’s sick of moderates refusing to play hardball with Republicans.
“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” he said. “Republicans are not afraid of big ideas. They could give a trillion dollars in tax breaks to billionaires and corporations, they can bail out the crooks on Wall Street, so please don’t tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry.”
Warren backed up Sanders, saying the “Green New Deal” is necessary to grow the economy while at the same time tackling climate change. She said the modest argument espoused by Hickenlooper, Delaney and another moderate on stage, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, is actually a rehash of GOP talking points.
“That’s the problem we’ve got in Washington right now,” Warren said.
Long-shot candidate Marianne Williamson, who’s best known for writing spiritual advice books, also pounced on the chance to drag the moderates.
“I wonder why you’re Democrats,” she said. “You think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do.”
One of the few issues on which the 10 candidates on stage found common ground was how to combat gun violence.
“I was at an event a few days ago and a 13-year-old asked me what we were going to do about school safety, and then began shaking and then began crying. We can talk about these policies but we already know the policies that work,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said, listing popular proposals like universal background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.
Trump naturally loomed large over the debate, as the candidates took turns slamming the commander-in-chief’s increasingly aggressive and racially-fueled spat with Hispanic and African-American lawmakers.
“I have had it with the racist attacks,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, referring to Trump’s inflammatory “go back” slights against four Democratic congresswomen of color and harsh Twitter tirades against Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s struggled to stand out in the unprecedented 25-candidate primary field, bluntly labeled Trump “the most divisive and dangerous president this country has ever had” when asked to chime in on his recent race attacks.
Trump stayed uncharacteristically quiet throughout the debate, refraining from thumbing out a single tweet.
Another 10 contenders will face off on the debate stage Wednesday night, including early front-runner Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
The appearance will mark a rematch for Biden, who was caught off guard when Harris laid into him during the first debate last month over his controversial comments about working with openly racist lawmakers in the 1970s.
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