DETROIT (AP) — Liberal firebrands Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren slapped back against moderate rivals who ridiculed "Medicare for All" during Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate in which lesser-known pragmatists warned against "wish-list economics."
"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, a Massachusetts senator, said in a critique of her detractors.
One of the moderates, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, took a swipe at Sanders: Working people "can't wait for a revolution," he charged. "Their problems are here and now."
The tug-of-war over the future of the party will decide exactly what kind of candidate Democrats put up against President Donald Trump in November 2020. It is a high-stakes debate that pits voters' hearts against their heads as they weigh their desire for an aggressive response to Trump with finding a safe choice who's best positioned to win.
The fight for the political left was just one subplot on the first night of the second round of Democratic debates. Twenty candidates are spread evenly over two nights Tuesday and Wednesday. The second night of debates will feature early front-runner Joe Biden as well as Kamala Harris. The groupings were chosen by debate host CNN at random.
In many respects, the debate is only beginning.
The Democratic nomination won't be secured until the party's national convention next July in Wisconsin.
Despite the long road ahead, there is an increasing sense of urgency for many candidates who are fighting for survival. More than a dozen could be blocked from the next round of debates altogether — and effectively pushed out of the race — if they fail to reach new polling and fundraising thresholds implemented by the Democratic National Committee.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is participating in the first debate, is likely to qualify, even as he tries to stop his sharp slide in the polls. But those especially at risk among Tuesday's lineup include Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the only governors in the running, and Midwestern natives such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. Also on stage: former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and author and activist Marianne Williamson.
The better-known contenders such as Warren, Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg face a less dire challenge: to stand strong but avoid any major gaffes in a marathon campaign season against Trump that has only just begun.
In targeting Medicare for All, the more moderate candidates consistently sought to undermine the signature domestic policy proposal of the top two progressives on the stage, Sanders and Warren. They variously derided Medicare for All as too costly, ineffective and a near-certain way to give Republicans the evidence they needed that Democrats supported socialism.
The New England senators did not back down. They are known for their unapologetic embrace of aggressive plans to overhaul health care, higher education, child care and the economy — ambitious and expensive steps that may be popular among many Democrats but give Trump and his Republican allies ample opportunity to cast all Democrats as extreme.
Buttigieg called on his party to stop the infighting.
"It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say," Buttigieg declared. "It's true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they're going to do? They're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. So let's just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it."
Sanders' plan to create a free, universal health care system, known as Medicare for All, has become a litmus test issue for liberal candidates, who have embraced the plan that would transform the current health care system despite the political and practical risks. Medicare for All would abandon the private insurance market completely in favor of a taxpayer-funded system that would cover all Americans.
It was the candidates with the most to lose who were most aggressive with their fellow Democrats early on Tuesday night.
"They're running on telling half the country that their health care is illegal," Delaney said.
"We have a choice: We can go down the road that Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare for All, free everything and impossible promises," he continued. "It will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected."
Yet Sanders and Warren did not back down.
And while they are competing for the same set of liberal voters, there seemed to be no daylight between them early in Tuesday's debate.
"Health care is a human right, not a privilege. I believe that. I will fight for that," Sanders said.