In the opening moments of Thursday night’s Democratic debate, frontrunner Joe Biden and his rivals issued a searing denunciation of Donald Trump’s economic agenda — discussing their differences, with some occasionally rowdy moments, while criticizing the President for pushing tax cuts and other policies that have helped the wealthy and harmed working families.
But the first stand out moment of the debate came when California Sen. Kamala Harris quieted a chaotic debate stage, telling her colleagues, “America does not want a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
In an answer that showed how the party is drifting further to the left, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders unapologetically advocated for his plan for “Medicare-for-All” and made no excuses for the fact that taxes for the middle class would go up under his plans while arguing their health care costs would go down.
“We have a new vision for America,” Sanders said. “At a time when we have three people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America while 500,000 people are sleeping on the streets today. We think it is time for change.”
Biden followed by making a safer argument that he could lead major change in the economic system by reversing Donald Trump’s tax cuts. “Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America; ordinary middle class Americans built America,” Biden said. “Too many people in the middle class have seen the bottom fall out. … Look, Donald Trump put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality. The one thing I agree on is we can make massive cuts in the $1.6 billion in tax loopholes and I would be going about eliminating Donald Trump’s tax cut for the wealthy.”
Harris immediately took the opening to weigh in with the core argument of her candidacy: “Working families need support and need to be lifted up and frankly, this economy is not working for working people,” he said. “For too long, the rules have been written in favor of the people who have the most and not in favor of the people who work the most.”
Several of the lower tier candidates however took on Sanders and his ideas — predicting that average Americans would be spooked by the fact that he identifies as a Democratic socialist.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper warned that the specter of socialism would give Republicans an opening to “come at us every way they can.”
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said he agreed with Sanders about the importance of addressing income inequality: “Where I disagree is on his solution of Medicare-for-All,” he said, proposing a slower approach toward universal health care. “Bernie mentioned the taxes we would have to pay… Vermont rejected Medicare-for-All,” he said.
But Sanders defended his potential to take on Trump by citing the latest head-to-head matchups with the President as proof.
“The polls have us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump because the American people understand that Trump is a phony; Trump is a pathological liar and a racist, and he lied to the American people during his campaign,” Sanders said. “President Trump you are not standing up for working families when you try to throw 32 million people off their health care that they have; and 83% of your tax benefits go to the top 1%. That is how we beat Trump. We expose him for the fraud that he is.”
After a feisty and vigorous fight night among the other 10 candidates in Miami Wednesday night, Biden is sharing the stage Thursday, with his closest rival Sanders, as well as Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have piqued the interest of Democrats looking for a fresh generation of leadership in the White House. It’s the first test for the former vice president since he left government in January 2017, and he is aiming to show that he has the kind of message discipline that has been lacking in some of his past debate performances over his lengthy career in politics.
Biden, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg are onstage with six candidates who have gained far less traction in the polls: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Bennet, Hickenlooper, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and spiritual author Marianne Williamson who all met the threshold set by the Democratic National Committee.
Biden fends off the other candidates
Moments into Thursday night’s Democratic debate, it was clear that Joe Biden faces a tall task in the months before the Iowa caucuses — proving to Democratic voters that he can fill the mantle of being “progressive enough” as other leaders continue to drag the party further and further to the left.
While Biden burnished those credentials as Barack Obama’s vice president, he now stands closer to the center than contenders like Bernie Sanders, along with Elizabeth Warren, who has made an impassioned case for “Medicare-for-All” and doing away with private health insurance — a dramatic policy shift that is unlikely to go over as easily with the moderates and independents that Democrats must win to retake the White House.
For months, Biden has been on a glide path as the Democratic front-runner, holding far fewer events than his rivals and engaging in relatively few one-on-one interviews. That’s made it easy to avoid the mistakes and gaffes that marred his previous attempt to win the White House, even if he’s still stepped on his own feet a few times with his shifting position on federal funds for abortions and his comments about working with segregationist senators.
Those missteps allowed some of Biden’s lesser-known competitors to make headlines at his expense. Biden and Sanders could clash onstage tonight, not only because they have major policy differences, but also because the Vermont senator must do something to reverse his decline in the polls as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has ascended.
Biden has topped the polls nationally because most Democratic voters see him as the most viable candidate to take on Trump. But candidates like Harris are looking to show that same kind of mettle.
In recent weeks, the California senator has leaned heavily into her background as a prosecutor to argue that she can prosecute the case against Trump. She will try to show both her policy depth as a progressive and her unique biography taking on an array of foes, from rapists and murderers in the courtroom, to big banks as California’s attorney general.
Buttigieg — the mayor of South Bend, who has dazzled some Democrats with his charisma and background as a former Rhodes scholar, who also speaks seven languages and served as a naval intelligence reserve officer in Afghanistan — is looking to regain his footing after a tough week. Buttigieg has eschewed campaigning in recent days while working in his hometown, where the mayor has been trying to soothe racial tensions after a police officer shot and killed a black man.