U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were the popular political punching bags of lower tier Democratic presidential candidates at Tuesday’s debate in Detroit, as the first batch of presidential hopefuls lobbed attacks at the Democratic Party’s most progressive candidates on everything from health care to free college tuition.
Right off the bat, after a 10-minute fanfare-filled intro and a lengthy round of opening statements from the candidates, CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked Sanders how he responds to former Maryland congressman John Delaney’s characterization of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” health care policy as “political suicide.”
“You’re wrong,” Sanders said bluntly. “Five minutes away from here is a country called Canada. They guarantee healthcare to everyone and spend half of what we do ... Health care is a human right.”
But Delaney shot back, arguing that the public option would unnecessarily eliminate coverage for too many Americans and noting that “we don’t have to be the party of subtraction.”
Sticking up for Sanders, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also jumped into the fray on the issue that took center stage at Tuesday’s debate.
“We are not about taking away healthcare from everyone,” Warren said. “That’s what Republicans do.”
Sanders and Warren spoke the longest during the more than two-hour debate, amassing more than 18 minutes and 17 minutes of speaking time, respectively — four minutes more than the next nearest candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who spoke for about 14 minutes.
Texas presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke spoke only for about 10 minutes — near the middle of the pack of candidates — chiming in from time to time, as the debate migrated from health care to immigration to climate to race.
Diverging from Sanders and Warren, the former congressman from El Paso touted the middle ground “Medicare for America” plan in which people have the option to stay on their private insurance plans. He also reiterated his opposition to entirely decriminalizing illegal crossings at the Southern border, a position that fellow Texas presidential hopeful Julián Castro blasted during June’s debates, and gave a shoutout to Texas, saying “there’s a new battleground state.”
Notably, O’Rourke also spoke forcefully about issues of reparation.
“The wealth we have built, the way we became the greatest country was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force,” said O’Rourke who also expressed his support for a resolution by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston that would “establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery.”
But he was overshadowed by author Marianne Williamson who passionately spoke about her plan to pay up to $500 billion to descendants of slaves.
“We need some deep truth telling,” Williamson said. “We don’t need another commission.”
Challenged at various times in the debate on their progressive proposals, Sanders and Warren stood their ground and entirely avoided going after each other.
“I don’t know why anybody goes to all 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 in a heated exchange with Delaney.
Similarly, in a passionate monologue about climate change, Sanders said, “I get a little tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Please don’t tell me that we can’t take on the fossil fuel industry.”
The candidates were forced to speak in short, frenzied sound bites, based on the debate rules. Williamson was perhaps the most effective at speaking succinctly and forcefully. She received some of the biggest cheers of the night as she talked about environmental racism and said that the Flint water crisis would never happen in Gross Pointe, Mich., an affluent Detroit suburb where she lived.
While many of the candidates were quick to take swipes at Warren and Sanders — and President Donald Trump — they interestingly didn’t go after former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner and a key focus of tomorrow’s debate.