(Bloomberg) -- Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren set the terms of debate in a crowded field of candidates Tuesday, defending their progressive brand of politics against attacks from low-polling moderates.
On health care, immigration, trade and climate, Sanders and Warren staked out positions at the far left of the Democratic spectrum: Abolishing private health insurance, decriminalizing border crossings, tearing up trade deals and spending trillions to eliminate carbon emissions.
Appearing together at center stage by virtue of their higher poll numbers, Sanders and Warren acted chummy and refrained from attacking each other. Warren gave Sanders a half-hug when she was introduced, and the two frequently agreed with each other on policy.
Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said the two candidates have a close relationship -- “not one of these Capitol Hill friendships” but said there was no pre-arranged agreement to form an alliance.
”There was no pact,” he said after the debate. “Look, questions came. I think all the candidates on the stage spoke to their values. Bernie Sanders spoke to his. Elizabeth Warren spoke to hers. The others spoke to theirs.”
He said the attacks from the edges of the stage -- places reserved for those with the lowest poll numbers -- came from candidates desperate to increase their visibility so they can qualify for the next round of debates in September.
That often put the two most liberal firebrands on one half of CNN’s split-screen, with more moderate and conservative Democrats like Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Beto O’Rourke and Tim Ryan.
“The thing I would get nervous about is if I saw people punching below the belt. These were discussions about policy, and to me that’s fair game,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told CNN on Wednesday. “I think voters had a really good sense of where people were coming from. That’s what debates are about.”
CNN rule changes from the first debate also gave lower-ranked candidates more time, ensuring a lively debate that went a half-hour beyond schedule.
Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, began the attacks on the Sanders/Warren duo by calling their big-spending social programs “wish-list economics.”
Warren shot back, “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. I don’t get it.”
The result: A stark display of the central tension in the Democratic nomination race, as two factions battled over both policy and electability, with moderates claiming they were in the best position to beat President Donald Trump.
Red-state Democrats like former Representative O’Rourke of Texas and Governor Steve Bullock of Montana emphasized their ability to bring their states over to the blue, or Democratic, column. Sanders said his “political revolution” would energize new and young voters and would allow him to win critical swing states. “We need to have a campaign of energy, excitement and of vision,” he said, touting promises of free health care, free college and student debt forgiveness.
Sanders said that he leads Trump in some polls of hypothetical general election match-ups. “The reason we are going to defeat Trump and beat him badly is that he is a fraud and a phony, and we’re going to expose him for what he is,” Sanders said.
Warren said the time for the party to pursue half-measures has passed. On health care, for instance, the U.S. has already tried a system of Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance that hasn’t worked, she said.
Hickenlooper said policies backed by Sanders and Warren such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal amount to “a disaster at the ballot box.”
“You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” he said.
Health-care plans and immigration, two major issues for Democratic voters, provoked some of the sharpest clashes of the night.
“We have tried this experiment with the insurance companies and what they’ve done is they’ve sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system and they force people to have to fight to try to get the health care coverage that their doctors and nurses say they need,” Warren said.
Medicare for All
One of the testiest exchanges came when Ryan, an Ohio congressman, warned that Medicare for All could hurt union members who had negotiated for generous health insurance programs. But Sanders insisted that his plan would be better than private insurance by eliminating copays and deductibles and adding benefits like hearing aids and eyeglasses.
“You don’t know that, Bernie,” Ryan interjected.
“I do know that,” Sanders shot back. “I wrote the damn bill.”
Delaney described Medicare for All as bad policy and bad politics.
“You’re wrong,” Sanders said.
The differences also became evident in a discussion about climate change, primarily regarding the Green New Deal that has been a defining proposal of progressive lawmakers. It calls for switching to 100% renewable energy in 10 years at a cost of trillions of dollars.
Ryan said the United States could become a leader in green technologies, but only with the help of the private sector.
“We need to make sure people can actually make money off the new technologies that are coming forward, and then cut the worker in on the deal,” he said. Bullock said too many workers -- coal miners and auto workers, for example -- were being left out of the transition.
Green New Deal
Sanders and Warren defended the Green New Deal as necessary to counter the existential threat of climate change. “We have got to be super-aggressive if we love our children,” Sanders said.
And after Hickenlooper said the Green New Deal was too expensive, Warren said her plan would help both the economy and the climate.
“I put a real policy on the table to create 1.2 million jobs in green manufacturing. And no one wants to talk about that. What you want to do instead is talk about a Republican talking point,” she said.
The second round of debates allowed the candidates to take a firmer tone on illegal border crossings than last month’s debate.
Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro’s proposal to shift immigration enforcement from criminal to civil penalties pulled the Democratic field to the left in the first debate in June. But a month later, candidates like Buttigieg and O’Rourke clarified that civil penalties were part of comprehensive reform and criminal laws would still be used for the worst offenders.
“Right now, if you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell,” Ryan said. “It’s a shame what’s happening, but Donald Trump is doing it. So we’ve got to get rid of Donald Trump.”
But Sanders remained committed to decriminalizing border crossings -- and to providing health insurance to those who do.
“What Trump is doing though his racism and xenophobia is demonizing a group of people. And when I’m president I will end that demonization,” he said. “I talk about health care as a human right, and that applies to all people in this country. And in a Medicare for All system we can afford to do that.”
Warren also said she would wouldn’t charge border crossings criminally, leading Bullock to shoot back, “You’re playing into Trump’s hands.”
Debate viewers could see a mirror image of Tuesday night’s dynamic on Wednesday, when former Vice President Joe Biden takes center stage. Campaigning as a experienced moderate, Biden will confront challenges to his record on health care, criminal justice and race from younger, more liberal candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
(Updates with Democratic chairman in eigth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.
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