The 2020 election pulled that much closer with CNN’s first of two Democratic presidential debates held in the city of Detroit on Tuesday.
Much of the two-hour debate was an absolute slugfest, with haymakers thrown as soon as the bell went off for opening statements.
A motley crew of moderates, from Montana Governor Steve Bullock, former Congressman John Delaney, and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper opened by going hardcore on being pragmatic, directly targeting Sanders and Warren, who have captured the nation’s attention with calls to bring big-ticket progressive policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
Bullock, for instance, panned candidates for promising “wish-list economics” while working people “can’t wait for a revolution.” Delaney made it plain, saying that “the road that Senator Warren and Senator Sanders want to take us,” with things like Medicare for All, is one that will “get Trump re-elected.”
Of all the supposed battle lines defining this contest, the sharpest and most enduring remains the same one that’s riven the party since 2016: whether the path to the White House should follow a bolder, more progressive north star or take a more moderate, timeworn path.
The first chance he got, Sanders shot back at Delaney, practically poking him in the chest with a resounding “You’re wrong!”
“Five minutes away from here, John, is a country,” Sanders teasingly said. “It’s called Canada. They guarantee health care to every man, woman, and child as a human right. They spend half of what we spend. And by the way, when you end up in a hospital in Canada you come out with no bill at all.”
Sanders was hammering at a simple point: Medicare for All is not only infinitely possible to imagine, but we have real-life receipts for how it might actually look and function, in the form of a country mere minutes away.
Warren came down emphatically on Sanders side, arguing that “we should stop using Republican talking points” to tear down proposals like Medicare for All in a country where 87 million people go completely uninsured or underinsured.
A host of other moderates on healthcare, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Marianne Williamson, and Hickenlooper, faded into indistinguishability on the issue by basically parroting some version of Delaney’s argument.
The lines continued to be further etched in stone on issues like immigration reform, with Warren one side arguing passionately for decriminalizing border crossings and thus taking away Trump’s weapon of choice for snatching children from their parents, and centrists like Bullock and Ryan arguing that such a move would cause a dramatic spike in undocumented immigration. It should be said that even if this were the case, they offered no explanation for why this would be such a bad thing in a country as fabulously wealthy and rich in uninhabited space as the United States.
The debate eventually turned to the battle lines themselves, with questions about whether the Democratic Party was wandering too deep into the progressive wilderness to be competitive in 2020.
Hickenlooper saw his opening. The former Colorado governor argued that policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, which would transition the country’s energy portfolio completely off of fossil fuels in a New Deal-style national mobilization, would “be a disaster at the ballot box.”
Sanders had an answer. Tuesday was also the anniversary of Medicare, which brought insurance to 19 million elderly people within its first year. “Please don’t tell me,” Sanders said, “that in a four year period” we cannot get to Medicare for All.
“I get a little tired,” Sanders would later add with regards to the Green New Deal, “with Democrats afraid of big ideas.” Especially ones like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, with some, though not all, polls showing strong majorities in favor of both.
Warren got a similar shot in on Delaney, who provided an opening as a result of his endless cries that one progressive policy or another would be doomed to fail. “I don’t understand why anybody runs for president,” Warren wondered, “to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” It was the perfect question to ask a candidate, who among several others, seem to have maxed out early on political imagination.