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Moderates take aim at Sanders and Warren in US Democratic debate

Brendan Smialowski, AFP | Democratic presidential hopefuls US senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders (L) and US Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren hug after round one of the second Democratic primary debate in Detroit, Michigan on July 30, 2019.
5 min

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were in the hot seat for a second round of Democratic debates Tuesday night, with more moderate candidates suggesting that they were too far left to secure the centrist votes needed to beat Trump.

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The candidates in Tuesday’s face off, which took place at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, fell into two distinct camps: moderates versus more left-leaning candidates Sanders, Warren and self-help author Marianne Williamson.

Warren and Sanders struck back, saying moderates had adopted the Republican Party playbook in criticising progressive policies. They said they were tired of hearing Democrats shy away from big ideas just to lure centrist votes.

So pronounced was the attack on the more liberal camp that the popular political statistics blog FiveThirtyEight remarked that the debate was "the revenge of the moderates".

At one point during a question on health care, for example, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said that Sanders’ policies were so liberal that the Democrats “might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump”.

"If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer," he added, eliciting boos from the audience.

Delaney emerges as a dark horse

The first question went to Sanders, with the interviewer quoting former Maryland representative John Delaney as saying the senator's "Medicare for All" plan was unworkable and would amount to political suicide that will get Trump re-elected.

"What would you say to Congressman Delaney?"

"You're wrong!" Sanders replied to laughter. He said middle-class citizens may pay more in taxes, but they will no longer pay private insurance premiums and thus overall less money. They would not have to worry about their care, he added.

"Health care is a human right, not a privilege," Sanders said.  

Delaney, who appeared to make his mark during the debate, said there could be a universal health care system that guarantees basic care without eliminating private insurance.

"We don't have to go around and be the party of subtraction and telling half the country who has private health insurance that their health insurance is illegal," he said.

“The question is, why do we have to be so extreme?" Delaney asked.

‘Crazy Socialists’

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said it was time to stop worrying about what Republicans will say.

"Look, if it's true that 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. So let's just stand up for the right policy and go out there and defend it," Buttigieg said to a round of applause.

The candidates weighed in on the nation's race issues. Tuesday's debate is the first since Trump used racist language to attack four Democratic congresswomen of colour, calling on them to "go back" to their countries even though all four are US citizens.

Pointing to water problems in communities like Flint, Michigan, author Marianne Williamson said poor, minority areas fall victim to a "collectivised hatred" that only deepens their problems.

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said Democrats must show they can "delegate an urban agenda" for substantive changes in schools and affordable housing.

Asked how she would combat white supremacy, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she would call it out as "domestic terrorism", adding that she blamed President Donald Trump for racially unequal policies in economics and education.

Buttigieg said that, as mayor of the diverse town of South Bend, "the racial divide lives within me".

Buttigieg has been criticised for his handling of a police-involved shooting that took him off the campaign trail last month. He came home to a black community that was frustrated and outraged nearly five years after the Black Lives Matter movement was born amid increased awareness of the shootings of unarmed black men by police.

What next?

The second round of the debates takes place on Wednesday evening. All eyes will be on former US vice president Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris. In a June debate, the latter criticised Biden’s alleged opposition to busing policies aimed at desegregation in the 1970s. Harris’s takedown of Biden was the most talked-about moment of the debate.

With 20 viable candidates still angling for the Democratic ticket, some analysts speculate that the 2020 presidential election may be the first since 1988 in which more than two candidates remain in the running well into the election year. Normally, after the initial four caucuses – which take place in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – only two Democratic candidates remain.

Some analysts predict that at least three candidates will remain in the race after the coming caucus season, which kicks off on February 3, 2020: front-runners Biden, Sanders and Warren. Biden is the most centrist of the three. His strategy may well echo that of his fellow moderate candidates, painting Sanders and Warren as overly progressive candidates who cannot lure moderate and centrist voters away from Trump.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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