DETROIT, MI—Around 15 minutes into Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, it became clear that it was Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders against the world.
The two liberal stalwarts were peppered with criticisms from lesser-known, more centrist opponents who called them everything from whimsical to naive. Such attacks have been leveled before. But never with millions of people watching and never in such aggressive, pre-packaged sound bites.
The senators defended Medicare for All, pushed back on more moderate approaches to immigration reform, and chided their rivals for failing to think outside the box to fix the country’s most intractable problems. But their pleas and persuasions didn’t assuage their rivals who, in the process of chastising them, gave fodder to Republicans eager to paint the Democratic Party as radically out of step with the American public.
Asked to respond to former Maryland congressman John Delaney’s attacks on Medicare for All, which he has called “political suicide” for eliminating private insurance, Sanders curtly responded: “You’re wrong.” After a few moments of sparring between the two men, Warren also came to the policy’s defense, calling Delaney’s criticisms “Republican talking points.”
“Let’s be clear about this: We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone,” she said. “That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”
The two joined forces again on immigration after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock called Warren’s plan to decriminalize illegal border crossings and grant health insurance to undocumented immigrants “detached.”
“[I]t matters if we say our law is that we will lock people up who come here, seeking refuge, who come here, seeking asylum, that is not a crime,” she said. “And as Americans, what we need to do is have a sane system that keeps us safe at the border but does not criminalize the activity.”
But the onslaught didn’t end there. Sanders dismissed criticism from Rep. Tim Ryan (OH), who said providing undocumented immigrants with health care would attract more unauthorized immigration.
“I happen to believe that when I talk about health care as a human right that applies to all people in this country, and under a Medicare for All single payer system, we could afford to do that,” he said.
Sanders and Warren repeatedly criticized their rivals for pitching ideas that lacked a bold vision for the country. At one point, a bemused—and perhaps a bit agitated—Warren chimed in after Delaney had taken another swipe at the extent of her policy ambitions. “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,” she said.
Even Marianne Williamson, a mystic healer and motivational speaker turned presidential candidate, showed signs of exacerbation at the wet blanket tune of many of the candidates. “I look at some of you and I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” she said. “You almost think something is wrong with using the instruments of government to help people.”
The back-and-forth was the most glaring illustration to date of the policy and strategic divides that are emerging within the 2020 field—in which the rush to embrace far-reaching progressive policy proposals has been met by fears that the party is moving too fast, too far. And while some Democrats were agitated that the prime-time showing of their presidential candidates was turning into an admonishment of the frontrunners, Republicans were giddy.
“Voters don’t just need to trust Republicans when we say their party is beyond extreme,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens told The Daily Beast. “There are Democrats on stage making that case for us.”
“They’re right,” Ahrens said of the Democratic field’s centrist candidates. “Expect to see their attacks in Republican ads near you.”
As they watched live on Tuesday evening, Team Trump and its surrogates were practically clicking their heels. Asked if the more moderate or centrist candidates were laying a foundation for possible attacks during the general election, a Republican operative involved in 2020 replied, “Honestly, yes.” The operative added that there were “some good clips” from Bullock, Delaney, and Ryan “hitting them for unrealistic health care [and] climate plans.”
Every presidential primary carries the risk that the demands of the base may create vulnerabilities in the general election. Veterans of past elections say those fears can be overstated. There is, they argue, some upside in having the attacks be leveled now.
Back in 2016, much of the Democratic primary was waged in docile tones. When Hillary Clinton was challenged on her use of a private email server, Sanders took the issue off the table entirely, saying the public didn’t care about her “damn emails.”
The line worked well for Sanders—his aides said it prompted a fundraising bonanza—but it didn’t for Clinton. Instead of having to deal with the issue when the stakes where relatively low, she ended up having to navigate it during the general election. After the campaign, aides to the former secretary of state looked back and wondered if it would have been better if Sanders had hit her harder.
Still, Republicans watching the campaign from afar saw the division within the Democratic field Tuesday as a gift. The Trump campaign, in particular, zeroed in on one exchange between Ryan and Sanders as emblematic of the fissures they could utilize as the general election nears.
“In this discussion already tonight,” Ryan said, “we’ve talked about taking private health insurance away from union members in the industrial Midwest, we’ve talked about decriminalizing the border, and we’ve talked about giving free health care to undocumented workers when so many Americans are struggling to pay for their health care. I quite frankly don’t think that that is an agenda that we can move forward on and win.”
Ed Brookover, who served as a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 presidential run, told The Daily Beast that the “divisions in the Democratic Party are wide. The voters who joined the Trump campaign in 2016 are seeing their decisions justified by the socialist-type platforms presented by most candidates tonight. The frustrations of many Democrats continue to grow, giving the Trump campaign an entree to even more disaffected Democrats in 2020.”
Democrats emerged from Tuesday night’s debate still confident that the party stood in a strong position to defeat Donald Trump. Even the centrist think tank Third Way offered a note of caution for the naysayers within the Democratic tent who feared that the policy prescriptions offered by Warren and Sanders would prove debilitating.
“There are certain things a few of these candidates have supported that would make it harder to win when November 2020 comes around,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for Third Way’s social policy and politics program. “Democratic voters already know that, and it is so much better for them to ask these questions now than in October of next year.”
After the debate, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper told reporters he had doubts that a Medicare for All message would help where Democrats needed voters the most.
“[A]re these swing districts in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, are they really gonna support Medicare for All?” he said. “You tell me. I don’t see it.”
But what stood out about the debate was not that the party had given itself a weakened hand heading into the general election, but that it was looking at the possibility that the next few months would be filled with more instances of the moderates providing fodder for the president’s re-election team.
“It is time,” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said at one point, “to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say.”
—with reporting by Hanna Trudo, Lachlan Markay, and Asawin Suebsaeng