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Democratic debates: Who is winning so far?

Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren

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Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren

Twenty leading Democrats competing for the right to take on President Trump in 2020 are squaring off again – over the course of two nights of debates. Here are the key takeaways so far from round one.

In the first debate, the two strongest candidates – in polls, at least – are the two that are farthest to the left, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Many of the other candidates on the stage are moderates – and they could very well be left out of the debate when the field is cut to 10 in September.

With that in mind, the moderates came out of the gate swinging at the two progressives in the centre of the stage.

Moderates on the march

Montana Governor Steve Bullock said Americans “can’t wait for revolution” – clearly a reference to Sanders’s revolutionary rhetoric – saying that their problems are “here and now”.

Not to be outdone, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney called out Sanders and Warren by name, accusing them of making “impossible promises” that will turn off voters.

Even the mild-mannered former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper got in on the action, noting that the 40 Democrats who won seats in the House of Representatives didn’t share the views of Warren and Sanders.

While much has been made of possible friction between Sanders and Warren, who are both competing for progressive votes, on Tuesday night they face a common threat the centre of their party.

A fight over ‘Medicare for all’

As it was during the first debate in Miami, healthcare has taken centre stage in Detroit. It’s the issue Americans tell pollsters they care about the most, and it’s one of the issues that most starkly divides the progressives and the moderates in the presidential field.

Those divisions were on full display, as Warren and Sanders were pressed by others on the stage – particularly Delaney – about the details of their plans and the costs involved.

Both Warren and Sanders highlighted the flaws in the current system, not just for those who don’t have insurance but also those who do but whose coverage is insufficient.

Sanders spoke of the Americans with insurance who can’t afford to go to the doctor or, if they end up in the hospital, end up going bankrupt because of bills.

“Nobody can defend the dysfunctionality of the system,” he said.

Warren noted the $23bn in profits made by the private insurance industry and that healthcare paperwork is just a way for insurance companies to say “no”.

What the moderates and others who may not embrace such a label, like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, counter is that replacing private insurance entirely is not only unrealistic, it’s too expensive. Instead, they’ve been pushing some form of a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers.

“Medicare for all who want it,” is the way Buttigieg describes it. It would be, they contend, an incremental change that could eventually end up with all Americans on publicly provided health insurance, but it would bring less disruption to the system.

“It used to be just Republicans wanted to do repeal and replace,” Bullock quipped, “now many Democrats do as well.”

What to do at the border

If healthcare was a big battle for between the two wings of the Democratic Party, the discussion of immigration reform was a skirmish – albeit a significant one.

The debate centred around whether migrants should be prosecuted as criminals when they enter the US without proper documentation.

That wasn’t what the debate was really about, though.

Media captionFive numbers that explain US border crisis

Instead, the fundamental disagreement is over whether the the laws, as they are, need to be changed or it it’s simply a matter of removing Donald Trump from the White House.

After O’Rourke said he wanted to keep the current criminal statutes on the books, Warren countered that those statutes are what gives Trump the ability “to take children away from their parents”.

“You don’t have to decriminalise everything,” Bullock said a few moments later, “you have to have a president who does the right thing.”

Democrats tend to agree on the big things on immigration – ending efforts to build a border wall, giving undocumented migrants who entered the country as children normalised immigration status and ending the Trump administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration law in the interior of the US.

The question for Democrats, then, is how much else has to be changed to stop someone like Donald Trump from using the existing laws in a way they don’t like sometime in the future.

Can ‘big ideas’ beat Donald Trump?

Elizabeth Warren delivered what will probably be remembered as the line of the night, about three-quarters of the way through the debate.

During a segment on “electability” and how best to beat Donald Trump – something polls indicate Democratic voters care deeply about – the moderates once again began bedevilling the progressive senators.

“I don’t think that is an agenda we can move forward on and win,” Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan said, referencing the plans to do away with private insurance and decriminalise undocumented immigration.

Moments later, Warren had her response ready to fire.

“I don’t understand why anybody goes through all the trouble running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said.

Sanders followed it up by saying the way to win elections was to give voters bold ideas that energise them to head to the polls. The audience erupted with cheers after both candidates spoke.

Amy Klobuchar, who makes her ability to win elections in moderate mid-western Minnesota a key part of her campaign pitch, voiced the counterpoint to the “big ideas” strategy. Call it the big-tent strategy: “The way we win an election is by bringing everyone with us”.

Energising Democratic voters can definitely be a good way to win a Democratic presidential nomination. It’s an open question whether it’s also a good way to win the presidency.

This story will be updated throughout the debate.

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Democratic debates: Who is winning so far?

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