Democratic debate dwells on health care as Warren, Sanders dominate

Biden’s toughest competitors also spent much of the party’s second presidential debate fending off criticisms that their ideas would strip healthcare choices away from Americans.
CNN hosted the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. [AP | Paul Sancya]
CNN hosted the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. [AP | Paul Sancya]
Published July 31, 2019|Updated July 31, 2019

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren traveled to Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Detroit each seeking to emerge as the clear challenger to former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential primary by dismantling arguments for a more moderate nominee.

The leading voices of the American left slammed proposals by some of their opponents for incremental change. Warren said “small ideas and spinelessness” could never win the White House back from Republicans, while Sanders said his critics were “afraid of big ideas.”

But Biden’s toughest competitors also spent much of the party’s second presidential debate fending off criticisms that their ideas would strip healthcare choices away from Americans and, as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said, “play into President Donald Trump’s hands.”

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With Biden set to debate Wednesday on the second of a two-night affair, Sanders and Warren became convenient foils for a scrum of moderate long-shot candidates desperate to break out — who in turn became easy targets for the headliners. And in the punchy and sometimes choppy debate that touched on everything from immigration and healthcare to guns and climate change, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg continued to cast himself as a dark horse alternative to the centrist Biden.

“It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. If we embrace a far-left agenda they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” Buttigieg said.

Though Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg all have massive war chests and polling numbers that place them at the top of a crowded field, they still have a lot of ground to make up to catch up with Biden. They trail him both nationally and in Florida, a state that could go a long way to determining the outcome of the presidential election.

Healthcare was a main point of debate Tuesday. Warren and Sanders believe Medicare for All, a government-run health plan that would eliminate private insurance, is the best way to overhaul a health system that leaves millions without coverage and forces millions more into bankruptcy.

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Sanders, who took a dozen Detroit residents across the border into Canada ahead of Tuesday’s debate to show how much cheaper it is to purchase insulin there than in the U.S., used the neighbor to the north as an example for successful socialized medicine.

“They spend half of what we spend and when you end up in a hospital in Canada you end up with no bill at all,” Sanders said, adding later: “Nobody can defend the dysfunctionality of the current system.”

But moderate candidates like former Maryland congressman John Delaney said a single-payer system would bankrupt hospitals. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan said millions of people, including union members who had paid extra out of their paychecks in order to receive better health coverage, would be forced from health plans that they like.

“If all the bills were paid at Medicare rates, then many hospitals in this country will close,” said Delaney, who like most of the field favors the creation of a universal public option.

In the wake of the party’s first presidential debates in Miami, during which the candidates moved quickly to the left, some of the 2020 hopefuls have tried to move the party back closer to the center. Buttigieg talked Tuesday night about allowing people to opt into Medicare, and using the system to force private insurers to change or become obsolete.

Delaney, the former Maryland congressman, said Warren and Sanders would take healthcare options away from Americans — which Warren ripped as a “Republican talking point” from a weak-willed candidate.

In one of the more memorable moments of the debate, Warren took this shot at Delaney: “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

One Democratic strategist said Sanders and Warren worked well together to present a clear vision for addressing the country’s problems.

“Turned out Sanders and Warren tag-teamed to strongly advocate for a progressive vision versus an onslaught from the many moderates on stage,” said Doug Gordon, a Democratic communications strategist. “They had plans and showed conviction. The moderates seem to have [said] ‘’We can’t do that’. But didn’t offer clear alternatives.”

Among those on stage Tuesday for the debates, hosted by CNN, Warren and Sanders lead in national polls, with Buttigieg firmly behind them. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and self-help author Marianne Williamson are all polling in the low single digits.

The candidates’ positions on healthcare will likely help separate them, both nationally and in Florida. A poll conducted in late June and released one week ago by Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA found that 52 percent of likely voters cite healthcare in their top four issues.

“The one thing I’ve seen in my polling around the state consistently and in South Florida is that, especially among non-Cuban Hispanics and [independents], healthcare is the No. 1 issue, with a strong affinity toward repairing and not repealing Obamacare,” said veteran Democratic pollster Tom Eldon.

Biden says Democrats should focus on improving Obamacare, which was created while he was former President Barack Obama’s vice president. The latest polls in Florida show that he remains well ahead of the field and holds a significant fundraising advantage in the cash-rich state, even if his lead nationally has shown signs of slipping.

And Florida may be the most important state in the country come November 2020. Trump’s reelection campaign has acknowledged that he must win the state again to keep the White House. No Republican has won a presidential election without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge did it in the 1920s. And the president — who will visit The Villages retirement community in Central Florida next week — has spent a large amount of time in Florida, including frequent trips to his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach.

Buttigieg and Sanders, themselves, will return to Miami Aug. 6 to participate in a forum by the National Association of Black Journalists. Cory Booker, who will participate in Wednesday’s debate, will also be in Miami for the event.

In Florida, Democrats campaigned hard against Trump in the midterm elections over Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. Some strategists argue that Democrats are better off trying to tweak Obamacare than completely overhauling healthcare once again.

The ideological split among candidates carried over into other issues that are high on Florida voters’ priorities list, including climate change and gun safety.

Several low-polling moderates on the stage tried to attack as anti-worker the Green New Deal — a plan to fight climate change — which Warren and Sanders have supported. That led Sanders to argue that Democrats can “create millions of good-paying jobs” while pushing the country to quickly become carbon neutral.

On guns, Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, recalled Trump calling for universal background checks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February 2018 — only to quickly fold under pressure from the National Rifle Association.

“As your president, I will not fold,” she said.

Buttigieg said his motivation to end gun violence stems from the conversations around gun safety he’s heard since he was in high school, when the mass shooting at Columbine High School happened.

“I was part of the first generation that saw routine school shooting,” he said. “We have now produced the second school shooting generation in this country. We better not allow there to be a third.”

McClatchy DC reporters David Catanese and Adam Wollner, and Miami Herald reporters Daniel Chang, Samantha Gross and Monique O. Madan contributed to this report.