The long-simmering tensions between the Democratic presidential field’s progressive standard-bearers and moderate hopefuls burst out into the open during the second primary debate on Tuesday night, as candidates from both flanks challenged one another on issues central to the race.
From the outset, a confrontation between the competing factions appeared imminent. John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who is among the primary field’s lower-tier candidates, delivered a direct rebuke of the contest’s leading progressives, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in his opening remarks, warning that the two would lead the Democratic Party down a poorly charted path.
“We can’t go down the road that Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren want to take us, which is with bad policy like Medicare for All,” Delaney said.
That touched off a series of similar comments from the primary field’s centrist candidates. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper insisted that he was a progressive, but was “a little more pragmatic” than those in the contest’s liberal lane.
Instead of clashing as some political observers had predicted, Warren and Sanders banded together in a sort-of unified front, defending many of the liberal positions that have defined their respective presidential campaigns, as well as the overarching notion that transformational proposals will be the most powerful tool in Democrats’ efforts to defeat President Trump.
"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," Warren quipped after Delaney referenced the “fairy tale” proposals put forth by progressives.
The debate was the clearest display to date of the choice Democrats face in choosing their next presidential nominee.
The party’s ascendant progressive wing has pointed to establishment-minded Democrats’ failure to woo voters with substantial and sweeping policy proposals as part of the reason for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016. By contrast, they argue, disaffected voters cast their ballots for Trump because of his apparent willingness to blow up political norms.
More moderate Democrats, however, hold that voters are more eager to return to regular order in Washington and elect politicians willing to work across the aisle to bring about incremental change. That faction has so far been helmed in the presidential field by former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner in the race.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a centrist who was on the debate stage for the first time on Tuesday, was quick to mention that he was the only candidate in the race who had won a statewide election in a state that Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
It was that record, he argued, that would propel him to victory in 2020.
“I’m a pro-choice, pro-union populist Democrat that won three elections in a red state, not by compromising our values but by getting stuff done,” Bullock said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said as much, casting herself as capable of appealing to voters in crucial Midwestern states with her embrace of bipartisanship.
And another moderate, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), ignited a heated exchange with Sanders on the issue of health care, arguing that the Vermont senator’s proposed single-payer system would rip high-quality insurance away from the very union workers that Sanders has courted aggressively in his presidential bid.
“This plan that's being offered by Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders will tell those Union members who gave away wages in order to get good healthcare that they're going to lose their healthcare because Washington's going to come in and tell them they got a better plan,” Ryan said.
When Sanders said that Medicare for All would offer more comprehensive health care than private, employer-based insurance, Ryan insisted that the senator did not, in fact, know that to be the case.
“I do know it,” Sanders sniped in response. “I wrote the damn bill.”
While the divisions among Democrats was put on display on Tuesday, Warren and Sanders were remarkably united.
The two occupy similar lanes in the primary field, and most recent polls show the two vying neck and neck for second place behind Biden. That competition prompted speculation ahead of the debate that the progressive senators may be on a crash course towards a confrontation.
By the end of the night, however, that anticipated clash never materialized.
Some candidates warned that, in adopting far-left positions on everything from health care to immigration to gun control, progressives risked being branded socialists by Republicans, who have already seized on that label as part of their election strategy for 2020.
At one point, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg pushed back against that critique. Democrats, he said, should “stop worrying what the Republicans will say.”
"Let's just stand up for the right policy and go out there and defend it," Buttigieg said.
Ten other Democratic presidential candidates are slated to take the stage on Wednesday night, including Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who’s fierce exchange over school busing in the first debate last month has raised speculation of another confrontation.