Biden-Sanders duel on economy stands out at a raucous debate

MIAMI — The Democratic Party’s moderate flank, led by Joe Biden, voiced disagreement and dismay in a debate Thursday about a number of left-wing policy ideas that have moved to the forefront of the party’s agenda, including proposals to create a single-payer health care system and make public colleges entirely free.

Biden-Sanders duel on economy stands out at a raucous debate

After the party’s first debate in Miami on Wednesday, an event defined largely by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s blunt populism and ambitious policy agenda, the second forum — featuring a different set of candidates — quickly magnified the misgivings of Democrats closer to the center.

Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, avoided clashing directly with his competitors — but in a debate that was sometimes heated and often raucous, he spelled out in plain terms that he would govern as a pragmatist. Citing his own modest upbringing, Biden said he would focus on providing substantial new benefits to the middle class without upending the economy.

“We’ve got to be straightforward,” Biden said, arguing for the creation of an optional government-backed health care plan but not a single-payer system. “We have to make sure we understand that to return dignity to the middle class, they have to have insurance that is covered and they can afford it.”

Two lesser-known rivals, Sen. Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, both of Colorado, warned in more ominous terms about the rise of the party’s left wing, embodied by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who joined them onstage. Hickenlooper declared that embracing socialism as a political label would lead Democrats to electoral defeat, while Bennet spoke with evident alarm about Sanders’ legislation that would void the private health insurance system.

And Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, raised reservations about creating new universal college tuition benefits, suggesting they could end up providing unneeded financial support to wealthy students.

Yet Sanders had ample company onstage from Democrats aligned with his vision for health care and much more, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both of whom raised their hands to endorse the replacement of private care with a “Medicare for all” system.

For his part, Sanders defended his agenda with plain enthusiasm. From his first comments of the night, he said voters were demanding “real change” from their government, and suggested without naming names that opponents like Biden were offering paltry half-measures.

Americans, Sanders said, deserved a president who would “stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that health care is a human right.”

And capturing the mood of ambition among liberals, Harris — a progressive running on somewhat more traditional Democratic policies than Sanders — struck a defiant note early in the debate when moderators asked whether Democrats had a responsibility to detail how they would pay for their plans.

“Where,” Harris countered, “was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1% and the biggest corporations in this country?”

The forum grew unruly at times as many of the candidates sought to interject comments when they were not called on to speak, creating a din that eventually prompted Harris to deploy a line she plainly had at the ready. “America does not want to witness a food fight — they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table,” she said to applause.

To the surprise of no one, President Trump sneaked a look at the Democratic debate in between meetings with world leaders in Osaka, Japan. And to the surprise of exactly no one, he professed not to be impressed.

Trump evidently passed a television set just before joining Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited health care,” he (or perhaps an aide) quickly typed out on his Twitter account. “How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”

He then sat with Merkel and went ahead with the same criticism of Democrats as reporters were invited in the room. “They didn’t discuss what they would do for American citizens,” he said. “That’s not a good thing.”

For the 76-year-old Biden, who leads the field in national and early-state polling, the first debate was as much about reassuring his party’s voters that he is up to the task of serving as commander-in-chief as it was about firing off a pithy one-liner or demonstrating fluency on any policy matter.

Biden’s aides have been irritated by the focus of their rivals and the news media on his 35-year record in the Senate, and were hoping Biden could use the forum to remind primary voters of perhaps his most powerful asset: his service as Barack Obama’s vice president.

Having stumbled in some of his public remarks since entering the race in April, Biden must vindicate his supporters’ claims that he would be the safest bet to defeat Trump. What alarms some of his supporters is that his garrulousness and pride have also led him to display defensiveness and at times to strain to prove his liberal bona fides on issues they would rather not engage on, especially with lesser known candidates in the race.

Biden’s supporters were also worried about what might be his biggest vulnerability — his own indiscipline — rather than about any line of attack from another candidate on the stage. But attacks were possible, too. Sanders has already gone after Biden for backing a number of free-trade pacts, and some of his advisers were counseling him to do so again Thursday. But others took the opportunity first.

Rep. Eric Swalwell of California used his first chance to speak to target Biden, recalling that he had once urged Democrats to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders. Biden began chuckling before Swalwell finished his critique and eventually said: “I’m still holding on to that torch.”

Two other low-profile candidates were just as pointed in their critiques of Sanders. Hickenlooper called Sanders’ “Medicare for all” proposal unrealistic. “You can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up,” he said.

Bennet went even further in targeting Sanders, noting that he could not even get single-payer coverage passed in his own home state. “Vermont rejected Medicare for all,” Bennet said.

Sanders rejected the attacks, noting that the polls show him faring well in a general election and arguing that the best way to defeat Trump was to expose his populist rhetoric as hollow — by providing voters with the genuine article.

With Warren gaining more support among the sort of liberals who backed Sanders in 2016, the Vermont senator was under pressure to at least retain his base on the left flank of the party. But with Democrats veering closer toward Sanders’ brand of progressive politics, he has also been forced to come up with new arguments for what distinguishes him from the field.

Indeed, if Wednesday night’s debate was mainly a disputation over policy — a tug of war over whether Democrats should demand single-payer health care or a more incremental compromise — the debate Thursday featured candidates with a more targeted focus on defeating Trump.

Both Biden and Sanders have put their strong poll numbers at the center of their candidacies, with Biden’s campaign arguing that he is by far the most potent Democratic messenger in areas of the Midwest and South that the party must reclaim in 2020. And Sanders, though known for his ideological jeremiads, has increasingly emphasized his performance in general-election polls, drawing a barely veiled contrast with Warren, who appeals to many of the same voters but holds a much narrower lead over Trump in early surveys.

But other candidates onstage are laying claim to a different theory of how to beat Trump, one that calls into question whether a white man in his eighth decade is well equipped to motivate the Democrats’ diverse and youthful coalition, and whether a candidate who has spent decades in Washington can effectively present a message of change.

Two female senators, Harris and Gillibrand, were potentially well positioned to make that argument. Harris, an African-American, remains a figure of considerable interest to Democratic voters, seeming to hold out the possibility of uniting women, minorities and educated liberals in what could make for a powerful primary coalition. Gillibrand, polling far behind Harris, is herself a capable orator, and has cast herself explicitly as a champion for women. The debate offered her a chance to draw contrasts with the older men in the race.

No candidate has risen faster in the race than Buttigieg, who on the stump has melded a cerebral and even literary demeanor with calls for broad political reform, enthralling the educated liberals who are a pillar of the Democratic coalition. He has become a particular favorite of the party’s wealthy, and overwhelmingly white, donor class. But many in his party are skeptical that he can appeal to minority voters in the primaries and general election.

Introducing an element of volatility into Thursday evening was the presence of two idiosyncratic candidates, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang, with no political credentials or campaign experience. Williamson, a spiritual author with a remote and at times severe demeanor, and Yang, a sharp-elbowed former tech executive, have built modest online followings and generated enough financial support to seize podiums of their own. Yang, whose signature proposal is to guarantee a minimum income for Americans through payments from the government, is seen by other campaigns as a particularly unpredictable figure.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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