DETROIT — The question at the center of Tuesday’s debate among 10 Democratic candidates for president is the same one that has vexed the party for months: Does it win back the White House with daring leaps or pragmatic steps?
Two candidates running in the top tier of polls, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, argued that the Democratic Party needs to offer voters a clear choice, with a more activist federal government enacting liberal values — while a group of challengers seeking a breakout moment countered that advancing airy ideas such as Medicare for All would amount to political suicide against President Donald Trump.
From health care and immigration to climate change, the debate turned on whether it is better to offer transformative plans that shake up the economic and political systems and thrill some voters, or to advocate incremental improvements that are acceptable to a wide swath.
Warren, of Massachusetts, and Sanders, the independent from Vermont, faced sustained criticism from more moderate Democrats trailing far behind them, who argued that they are too extreme to win.
“I don’t understand why anyone goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for," Warren said.
“We need a campaign of energy and excitement and of vision,” Sanders said. He later jabbed, “I get a little tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas.”
But rivals such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock warned against what they called unrealistic promises.
“What I don’t like about this argument right now, what I don’t like about it at all, is that we are more worried about winning an argument than winning an election,” Klobuchar said. “And I think how we win an election is to bring everyone with us.”
Bullock blasted candidates who he said were “more concerned about scoring points or outdoing each other with wish-list economics than making sure Americans know we hear their voices and will help their lives.”
There was no more dramatic illustration of the divide than a long opening melee on health care.
Warren and Sanders favor government-run health coverage that would eliminate private health insurance, while the moderates said Democrats should not take private insurance away from people who like it.
“I’m not going to support any plan that rips away quality health care from individuals,” Bullock said. And in a sign of how far left the party has moved on health care and other issues, he referenced the Affordable Care Act: “It used to be just Republicans who want to repeal and replace,” he said.
Bullock; Klobuchar; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland; and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper all argued for providing a publicly funded option but leaving private health insurance in place.
“We don’t have to go around and be the party of subtraction and tell half the country who has private health insurance that their health insurance is illegal,” Delaney said.
Hickenlooper argued that Americans are “used to being able to make choices,” while Buttigieg, trying to find a middle ground, said that if Democrats allow people to buy into Medicare, eventually private insurance would be effectively eliminated, since most people will choose the public option.
“We are not about trying to take health care away from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do, and we should stop using Republican talking points,” Warren said.
Sanders pointed to Canada, a short drive from the debate hall.
“When you end up in a hospital in Canada, you come out with no bill,” he said. “Health care is a human right, not a privilege. I believe that. I will fight for that.”
On immigration, several candidates pushed back on a move from the party’s left to decriminalize illegal border crossings.
Warren said criminalizationgives Trump the ability to take children from their parents, while others blamed Trump’s leadership but said the law should stand.
Bullock said Warren was “playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” as the GOP has already painted Democrats as a radical party of open borders.
“The challenge isn’t that it’s a criminal offense to cross the border," Bullock said. "The challenge is that Donald Trump is president and is using this to rip families apart. A sane immigration system needs a sane leader.”
Warren responded: “We need to have a sane system that keeps us safe at the border but does not criminalize the activity of a mother fleeing for her safety."
On climate change, there was also some disagreement whether to support the Green New Deal, with Bullock, Hickenlooper, and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan again challenging Warren and Sanders.
Bullock said scientists need to drive policies, rather than “plans written for press releases.”
Ryan, at one point telling Sanders he didn’t need to yell, said that rather than a Sanders plan to end new gasoline-powered cars by 2040, the country should ensure that there are manufacturing incentives that align with environmental goals and that jobs aren’t lost.
“I get a little tired of Democrats being afraid of big ideas,” Sanders shot back. “Republicans are not afraid of big ideas.... They can bail out crooks on Wall Street, so please don’t tell me they can’t take on the fossil fuel industry."
CNN moderators seemed to be trying to stoke heated exchanges wherever possible. The approach at times came off as forced but also dove deeply into policy differences.
From her opening statement, Marianne Williamson played up her role as the outsider on the stage, an author and spiritualist without political experience, as a good thing.
“Conventional politics will not solve this problem because conventional politics is part of the problem,” she said.
Later, when asked to weigh in on an exchange about the Green New Deal, as Sanders and Ryan went back and forth on details, Williamson delivered perhaps her most memorable line of the night:
“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
Dems, you’ve been warned.