Biden-Sanders duel on economy stands out at raucous Democratic presidential debate

Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders speak during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Adrienne Arsht Centre for the Performing Arts in Florida, on June 27, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders speak during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Adrienne Arsht Centre for the Performing Arts in Florida, on June 27, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (NYTIMES) - The Democratic Party's moderate flank, led by former vice-president Joe Biden, voiced disagreement and dismay in a debate on Thursday (June 27) about a number of left-wing policy ideas that have moved to the forefront of the party's agenda, including proposals to create a single-payer healthcare system and make public colleges entirely free.

After the party's first debate in Miami on Wednesday, an event defined largely by Senator Elizabeth Warren's blunt populism and ambitious policy agenda, the second forum - featuring a different set of candidates - quickly magnified the misgivings of Democrats closer to the centre.

Mr Biden, the current front runner for the Democratic nomination, avoided clashing directly with his competitors - but in a debate that was sometimes heated and often raucous, he spelled out in plain terms that he would govern as a pragmatist. Citing his own modest upbringing, Mr Biden said he would focus on providing substantial new benefits to the middle class without upending the economy.

"We've got to be straightforward," Mr Biden said, arguing for the creation of an optional government-backed healthcare plan but not a single-payer system. "We have to make sure we understand that to return dignity to the middle class, they have to have insurance that is covered and they can afford it."

Two lesser-known rivals, Senator Michael Bennet and former governor John Hickenlooper, both of Colorado, warned in more ominous terms about the rise of the party's left wing, embodied by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who joined them onstage.

Mr Hickenlooper declared that embracing socialism as a political label would lead Democrats to electoral defeat, while Mr Bennet spoke with evident alarm about Mr Sanders' legislation that would void the private health insurance system.

And Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, raised reservations about creating new universal college tuition benefits, suggesting they could end up providing unneeded financial support to wealthy students.

Yet Mr Sanders had ample company on stage from Democrats aligned with his vision for healthcare and much more, including Senators Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both of whom raised their hands to endorse the replacement of private care with a "Medicare for all" system.

For his part, Mr Sanders defended his agenda with plain enthusiasm. From his first comments of the night, he said voters were demanding "real change" from their government, and suggested without naming names that opponents like Mr Biden were offering paltry half-measures.

Americans, Mr Sanders said, deserved a president who would "stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that healthcare is a human right."

And capturing the mood of ambition among liberals, Ms Harris - a progressive running on somewhat more traditional Democratic policies than Mr Sanders - struck a defiant note early in the debate when moderators asked whether Democrats had a responsibility to detail how they would pay for their plans.

"Where," Ms Harris countered, "was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 per cent and the biggest corporations in this country?"

The forum grew unruly at times as many of the candidates sought to interject comments when they were not called on to speak, creating a din that eventually prompted Ms Harris to deploy a line she plainly had at the ready. "America does not want to witness a food fight - they want to know how we're going to put food on their table," she said to applause.

To the surprise of no one, President Trump sneaked a look at the Democratic debate in between meetings with world leaders in Osaka, Japan. And to the surprise of exactly no one, he professed not to be impressed.

Mr Trump evidently passed a television set just before joining Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

"All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare," he (or perhaps an aide) quickly typed out on his Twitter account. "How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That's the end of that race!"

He then sat with Dr Merkel and went ahead with the same criticism of Democrats as reporters were invited in the room. "They didn't discuss what they would do for American citizens," he said. "That's not a good thing."

For the 76-year-old Biden, who leads the field in national and early-state polling, the first debate was as much about reassuring his party's voters that he is up to the task of serving as commander-in-chief as it was about firing off a pithy one-liner or demonstrating fluency on any policy matter.

Mr Biden's aides have been irritated by the focus of their rivals and the news media on his 35-year record in the Senate, and were hoping Mr Biden could use the forum to remind primary voters of perhaps his most powerful asset: his service as former president Barack Obama's vice-president.

Representative Eric Swalwell of California used his first chance to speak to target Mr Biden, recalling that he had once urged Democrats to "pass the torch" to a new generation of leaders. Mr Biden began chuckling before Mr Swalwell finished his critique and eventually said: "I'm still holding on to that torch." Two other low-profile candidates were just as pointed in their critiques of Mr Sanders.

Mr Hickenlooper called Mr Sanders' "Medicare for all" proposal unrealistic. "You can't expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don't want to give it up," he said.

Mr Bennet went even further in targeting Mr Sanders, noting that he could not even get single-payer coverage passed in his own home state. "Vermont rejected Medicare for all," Mr Bennet said.

Mr Sanders rejected the attacks, noting that the polls show him faring well in a general election and arguing that the best way to defeat Mr Trump was to expose his populist rhetoric as hollow - by providing voters with the genuine article.

But other candidates onstage are laying claim to a different theory of how to beat Mr Trump, one that calls into question whether a white man in his eighth decade is well equipped to motivate the Democrats' diverse and youthful coalition, and whether a candidate who has spent decades in Washington can effectively present a message of change.

Two female senators, Ms Harris and Ms Gillibrand, were potentially well positioned to make that argument. Ms Harris, an African-American, remains a figure of considerable interest to Democratic voters, seeming to hold out the possibility of uniting women, minorities and educated liberals in what could make for a powerful primary coalition.

Ms Gillibrand, polling far behind Ms Harris, is herself a capable orator, and has cast herself explicitly as a champion for women. The debate offered her a chance to draw contrasts with the older men in the race.

No candidate has risen faster in the race than Mr Buttigieg, who on the stump has melded a cerebral and even literary demeanor with calls for broad political reform, enthralling the educated liberals who are a pillar of the Democratic coalition. He has become a particular favourite of the party's wealthy, and overwhelmingly white, donor class. But many in his party are sceptical that he can appeal to minority voters in the primaries and general election.

Introducing an element of volatility into Thursday evening was the presence of two idiosyncratic candidates, Ms Marianne Williamson and Mr Andrew Yang, with no political credentials or campaign experience.

Ms Williamson, a spiritual author with a remote and at times severe demeanor, and Mr Yang, a sharp-elbowed former tech executive, have built modest online followings and generated enough financial support to seize podiums of their own. Mr Yang, whose signature proposal is to guarantee a minimum income for Americans through payments from the government, is seen by other campaigns as a particularly unpredictable figure.