Shared from the 7/31/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Democratic hopefuls draw ideological battle lines

Warren, Sanders fend off moderates’ attacks on big proposals in second debate

Maddie McGarvey / New York Times

Marianne Williamson, from left, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Sen. Elizabeth Warrenof Massachusetts; former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenloop; former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, left, called on Sen. Bernie Sanders to pass the torch to the next generation of Democrats.

DETROIT — The leading liberal populists in the Democratic presidential primary, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, strenuously fought back against accusations of impracticality and warnings of electoral ruin Tuesday night, as a group of moderate underdogs sought to dent their momentum in the second round of presidential primary debates.

From the first moments on the debate stage, there were charges of “wish-list economics” and critiques of “massive government expansions,” as the candidates engaged in an unusually substantive discussion of health care policy. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, appearing in a debate for the first time, took implicit aim at Sanders by insisting that distressed farmers and teachers could not “wait for a revolution.” And former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland conjured electoral catastrophes of the past to argue that the activist left could not be trusted to lead the party.

The course recommended by Sanders and Warren, Delaney said, was defined by “bad policies like ‘Medicare for All,’ free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected.”

Sanders and Warren responded with defiance, rejecting the moderate candidates as offering policies that were plainly unequal to the political moment. Without taking aim at her more centrist rivals by name, Warren used her opening statement to dismiss their ethos of incremental change.

“We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness,” Warren said.

Sanders, who has largely staked his candidacy on his support for single-payer health care, defended the policy ferociously, at one point accusing a CNN moderator, Jake Tapper, of using a “Republican talking point” when raising questions about his plan and then noted that “the health care industry will be advertising tonight on this program.” Prompted to address Delaney’s criticism of Medicare for All, Sanders fired back laconically: “You’re wrong.”

Assailing the instability of the current health care system, Sanders argued, “The answer is to get rid of the profiteering of the drug companies and the insurance companies.”

Sanders and Warren have largely defined the party’s conversation about policy up to this point, and there were signs of impatience on the debate stage with the admonitions of moderates about how Republicans might brand Democrats in the general election as outside the political mainstream.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, drew applause with the prediction that Republicans would brand the eventual Democratic nominee as a wild-eyed extremist no matter what policies that person endorsed.

“Let’s just stand up for the right policy,” said Buttigieg, who has endorsed a liberal health care policy more modest than the one favored by Warren and Sanders.

The same center-versus-left divide evident on health care was also on display as the candidates clashed over immigration and whether some of the proposals offered by the liberal candidates would represent a boon to President Donald Trump’s reelection.

“We got a hundred thousand people showing up at the border right now,” said Bullock. “If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that.”

Turning to Warren, he accused her of “playing into Donald Trump’s hands” for wanting to make illegal migration a civil penalty and seeking to provide federal benefits to undocumented migrants.

Warren fired back that “seeking refuge, seeking asylum” is “not acrime.”

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio also criticized his progressive rivals for what he described as overly permissive immigration proposals. “If you want to come into the country you should at least ring the doorbell,” said Ryan.

The Tuesday debate did not feature any of the candidates of color — they will all be onstage Wednesday — but it marked the first opportunity for half the field to speak about President Donald Trump’s recent rash of derogatory attacks against a group of minority lawmakers, an offensive that has appalled Democrats and much of the country. Several of the candidates harshly criticized the president in their one-minute opening statements, with Warren saying that any one of the Democratic contenders on the stage Tuesday or Wednesday would be a vast improvement over Trump.

For several Democrats, including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Bullock and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, the debate had the potential to become adecisive moment. All three men have fielded entreaties from Democratic leaders to leave the presidential race and run instead for the Senate in 2020, and in Hickenlooper’s case some of his closest associates have urged him to do just that.

The most important political rivalry in the debate — between Warren and Sanders — was not guaranteed to produce a dramatic clash. In general, the two have been more inclined to defend their shared ideas against centrists like Hickenlooper than to attack each other over their real but comparatively modest policy differences.

Though the two liberal populists are competing for some of the same primary voters, they both indicated in the run-up to the debate that they were not eager for direct combat.

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