A clash of pragmatism against ideological purity dominates Democratic debate

Highlights from the first night of the July Democratic presidential debate
Ten presidential hopefuls, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, took the debate stage in Detroit Tuesday night. (Mark Gartsbeyn / Globe Correspondent)

DETROIT — The Democratic Party’s soul-searching about whether its 2020 presidential contenders have veered too far to the left spilled out onto the debate stage Tuesday night, as moderate and progressive candidates clashed over the politics of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and decriminalizing border-crossing.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, side by side and center stage, handily fended off attacks from the field’s more moderate — and lesser known — candidates in a lengthy battle over their support for a wholesale overhaul of the health care system, which the moderates argued would be disastrous in a general election.


“You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said from his end of the debate stage.

Hickenlooper’s lament was part of a larger chorus from many of the moderates on stage, who painted a bleak picture for Democrats should they nominate someone who embraces some of the party’s most transformative ideas.

John Delaney, a former US representative from Maryland who has hovered around 1 percent in national polls, compared Warren and Sanders to unsuccessful Democratic nominees of the past like Michael Dukakis and George McGovern, and criticized them for promising “free everything.” Montana Governor Steve Bullock who touted himself as the only candidate on the stage who won election in a Trump-voting state, said Medicare for All “rips away quality health care from individuals.”

Even Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru who attracted attention for telling Trump she would “harness” love for “political purposes” in the first debates in Miami last month, said she had “concerns” that embracing Medicare for All “will make it harder to win.”

The attacks — largely from candidates at risk of being eliminated from the next debate in September due to low polling numbers — put Warren and Sanders on the defensive for the first half of the night. But both progressives also seized on the chance to make the case that big ideas are needed in order to motivate Democrats to win in 2020, and pushed back on the moderates on stage for adopting policy stances out of fear.


“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said, adding that Republicans had delivered on big promises of their own, like the 2017 tax cuts. He called for Democrats to mount a more aggressive response to climate change. “So please don’t tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry.”

Warren, in particular, found an opening to offer a concise response to the lingering questions around her electability and the viability of her progressive policies.

“I took on Wall Street and CEOs and their lobbyists and their lawyers and I beat them. I took on a popular Republican senator and I beat him,” Warren said, referring to her defeat of Scott Brown in 2012.

“We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else,” she said, before turning to Delaney and landing the zinger of the night.

“I don’t know why anybody goes to the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren said to loud applause.

Even the candidates not under fire from the moderates urged the party not to be too concerned with how policy ideas will be perceived. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who has taken a more cautious position on Medicare for All than Sanders or Warren, also asked his fellow candidates not to focus on Republican critiques. “It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” Buttigieg said. “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.”


At times, Warren and Sanders appeared to tag team while defending themselves from critiques from others on stage that their plans are unrealistic or will be unpopular, in a show of unity. Warren interjected herself into a moderator-instigated fight between Delaney and Sanders over Medicare for All, coming to Sanders’ defense as Delaney pointed out that Democrats would be taking away private insurance from some Americans who prefer it.

“We should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk to each other about how to best provide health care,” Warren said.

Sanders also got testy with Delaney at times, saying that just because the former congressman used to “make money” from health care in his past as a businessman doesn’t mean the current system works. “These insurance companies do not have a God-given right to make $23 billion in profits,” Warren said.

The moderators also pushed Warren and Sanders to confirm that taxes would go up on the middle class in order to pay for Medicare for All. Both conceded that, but stressed that lower premiums and deductibles would mean middle-class Americans would have more money in their pockets overall.


The barrage from the moderates pulled Warren away from some of her signature issues for the first half of the debate. She instead was dragged into debates about Medicare for All, immigration, and the Green New Deal, and occasionally appeared to fade into the background as the moderate candidates sparred with Sanders.

But later in the night, Warren reacted with glee when the moderator pointed out that Delaney — a multimillionaire — would likely face her proposed tax on assets that would fund much of her policy agenda if she were elected, and she was able to describe her overhaul of the nation’s trade deals in detail.

Warren also defended her position that border crossing should be decriminalized in a testy exchange with Bullock, who said her support for decriminalizing some immigration violations would encourage more migrants to come to the United States.

“You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” said Bullock. “A sane immigration system needs a sane leader and we can do that without decriminalizing immigration.”

Warren shot back that the criminal statute is what empowers Trump to separate children from their parents at their border.

“These debates are detached from people’s lives,” Bullock retorted.

Buttigieg argued that the debate should be about immigration reform more broadly, not decriminalizing border crossing.

“Americans want comprehensive immigration reform. And frankly, we’ve been talking about the same framework for my entire adult lifetime,” said Buttigieg, subtly contrasting his age — 37 — with that of the septuagenarians Sanders and Warren standing next to him.


By random chance, the 10 candidates on stage Tuesday night were all white, but they spoke forcefully about race in America in a portion of the debate that was far more unified than the fights over health care and immigration. Warren, Buttigieg, and others pointed to the specific plans they have released to try to ameliorate racial inequality.

“We need to call out white supremacy for what it is — domestic terrorism,” Warren said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said that many of Trump’s voters were not racist. “They wanted a shake in the American economy, so I would appeal to them,” she said, before adding that now, “I don’t think anyone can justify what Trump is doing.”

And it was Williamson who drew a direct connection between Democrats’ willingness to meaningfully address racism and the party’s chances of beating Trump. She mentioned Flint, Mich., the majority-black city northwest of Detroit where a water crisis has dragged on for years.

“We need to say it like it is — it’s bigger than Flint. It’s all over this country,” she said.

Jess Bidgood of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.