The progressive Democratic presidential frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren faced fierce challenges on Tuesday from moderate candidates who contended the party was lurching too “far left” to wrench the White House from Donald Trump’s grasp in 2020.
In the first of two nights of debate between Democratic candidates in Detroit, Sanders and Warren teamed up to defend their overlapping platforms on issues such as universal healthcare and immigration, which were swiftly contested by the party’s centrists.
The former Maryland congressman John Delaney, who has been struggling to cut through in polling, came out swinging by accusing Warren and Sanders of promising “bad policies” that, in his words, amounted to “free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected”.
Warren countered by saying the Democrats could not win the White House with “small ideas and spinelessness”. When Delaney later called for Democrats to concentrate on “kitchen table” issues such as infrastructure, Warren responded with: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Warren and Sanders were among the first 10 candidates to debate, on Tuesday night. The second set of 10 candidates, which includes the moderate former vice-president Joe Biden and California’s Senator Kamala Harris, will debate on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s debate saw Warren and Sanders avoid conflict with one another and instead defend themselves against a circular firing squad of centrists.
The two senators and longtime friends were flanked by moderates such as Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, the former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and the Montana governor, Steve Bullock – a new face in the debates – all seeking to make a splash on the national stage.
The rising stars Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, both of whom have positioned themselves as next-generation candidates, also appeared on Tuesday and found themselves between the progressive and centrist wings of the party.
The debate was at times contentious and often scrappy, as candidates jockeyed for more time to air their disagreements amid an ideological divide on issues ranging from healthcare and immigration to gun violence.
Within moments, the discussion was dominated by Medicare for All, the single-payer healthcare proposal championed by Sanders and embraced by a number of Democratic 2020 candidates. Bullock, appearing in his first debate, wasted little time in dismissing the plan as “wishlist economics”.
Delaney also piled on, likening support for Medicare for All to “political suicide” and characterizing it as “the creep toward socialism”.
Sanders, who has made the proposal a central plank of his campaign, told Delaney he was “wrong” and complained that the debate was being framed by Republican talking points.
In a standout moment, Sanders grew visibly frustrated as Ryan leveled his own criticisms against Medicare for All and suggested Sanders did not know what his plan would do. “I do know. I wrote the damn bill!” the Vermont senator emphatically replied.
Warren, a co-sponsor of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, also hit back at the moderates, stating: “We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away healthcare from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”
“And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that healthcare,” she added, as the audience erupted in applause.
Sanders and Warren have been the architects of sweeping changes to address healthcare, taxes and income inequality. Both senators are proponents of debt-free college tuition and breaking up big banks. Warren has also pushed for a wealth tax on the ultra-rich.
But Klobuchar, who serves alongside Sanders and Warren in the US Senate, argued in favor of what she sees as a more pragmatic approach.
“You’re going to hear a lot of promises up here, but I’m going to tell you this: yes, I have bold ideas, but they are grounded in reality,” she said.
While the intra-party fissures were a fixture of the debate’s first half, there were also areas of broad agreement.
On immigration, the candidates did not spell out any notable differences – Democrats remain largely in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. They also forcefully spoke out against Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance policy”, which has led to the separation of families at the US-Mexico border.
There were, however, attempts by some candidates to clarify their positions on how to address the unfolding crisis at the southern border.
After signaling in the first debate that he was in favor of decriminalizing illegal border crossings, Buttigieg appeared to walk back that position on Tuesday. The candidate said his view was more nuanced and suggested he would treat illegal border crossings as a civil offense as opposed to criminal.
“The main point I want to make is what Trump is doing through his racism and xenophobia is demonizing a group of people,” he said.
With the threshold to qualify for the third round of debates in September expected to grow tighter, the Detroit debates could be the last chance for some candidates to make an impression before the American public.
Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bullock, Delaney, and the self-help author Marianne Williamson have yet to qualify for September.
Wednesday’s debate will see Biden and Harris split center stage once again, following their contentious encounter at the first debates in Miami last month over race and segregation. Biden, who continues to hold a commanding lead in the polls, is expected to be a top target yet again after stumbling through that confrontation.
Wednesday’s debate will also feature New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who has traded his own barbs with Biden on race, as well as candidates in desperate need of a breakthrough, such as the former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee.