Since the gains made by progressives in the 2018 midterms, analysts and political commentators have pointed to a growing dissonance between the progressive and moderate blocs of the Democratic party. As the candidates continued to refine their campaigns during the second Democratic debate, this divide was made even more apparent.
Split across two nights on account of the large number of candidates, the debate was held on July 30 and 31 at the Fox Theater in Detroit with 10 candidates debating each night. The top four candidates were split across the two nights with Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, candidates from the party’s loose progressive bloc, debating on the first and former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, candidates said to represent the more moderate side of the party, debating on the second.
Each night of the debate took on the tone of its top candidates. The first night took on the progressive character of Sanders and Warren with the debate centered on issues of climate change, Medicare for all and the growing wealth disparity between classes in the United States.
Sanders and Warren did face criticism, notably from former Rep. John Delaney, but without the presence of Biden or Harris the two candidates were able to spend less time defending their policies and more time attacking the status quo.
“We have a choice,” Delaney said in his opening statement. “We can go down the road that Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren want to take us with bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected.”
Later in the debate, Warren responded to criticism of Medicare for all.
“Let's be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That's what the Republicans are trying to do,” she said. “And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.”
Sanders and Warren both expressed support for significant tax increases for the wealthiest Americans, doubling down on their expressed commitment to lessening the disparity between economic classes. The two also focused on taking extensive measures to combat climate change.
“Here is the bottom line. We've got to ask ourselves a simple question, ‘What do you do with an industry that knowingly, for billions of dollars in short-term profits, is destroying this planet?’” Sanders said. “I say that is criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue.”
Warren proposed a $2 trillion plan to invest in fighting climate change. On education, Sanders and Warren both supported cancelling existing student loan debt in contrast with the policy proposed by Harris that day.
Following the debate, several commentators on CBS described the first night as being as much of a debate against President Trump as a debate between the candidates. With a smaller progressive presence, the second night of the debate did not dwell on issues of wealth and class disparity.
Characterized by Biden and Harris the second night took on a less radical tone, one more focused on a return to the pre-Trump political playing field. The candidates spent more time on the defense: Biden defending his history concerning race and immigration, Harris defending her past as a prosecutor.
On the topic of healthcare, Harris touted her proposed policy of Medicare for all without abolishing private insurance while Biden reaffirmed his opposition to universal healthcare.
“There is no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $3 trillion,” Biden said. “You will lose your employer-based insurance. And in fact, you know, this is the single most important issue facing the public. And to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can't beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.”
Harris rebutted by saying that Medicare for all is the only way forward.
“Under our plan, we will ensure that everyone has access to health care,” she said. “[Biden's] plan, by contrast, leaves out almost 10 million Americans.”
The issues of tuition and student loans were barely touched upon the second night, except for a brief line of questioning about education in the context of undocumented immigrants and Harris’s plan to erase student debt for those who operate a business in under-privileged communities three years. Her plan has been criticized for being too exclusionary.
On Climate Change, Biden said that he would rejoin the Paris accords but he did not specifically embrace any particular policies to combat climate change. Harris embraced the Green New Deal along with Sen. Kristen Gillibrand.
While economic inequality was a major talking point among candidates the first night, Biden and Harris focused more on social issues of justice and immigration. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a political outsider, did however focus on economics.
“If you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants, you will find wall-to-wall robots and machines,” Yang said. One of Yang’s most notable stances is the creation of a Universal Basic Income of $1,000 a month to each American. This, he says, is necessary to combat the economic effects of automation.
The differences between the two nights of debate speak to two vastly different ideologies growing within the Democratic party: The progressives who believe that extreme systemic reform is necessary to combat the issues of our time and the moderates who feel that going too far might alienate swing voters and instead focus on a return to the political norms and solutions found in the pre-Trump era.
More simply put, for progressives Trump is the result of a failed system that needs replacing, whereas for moderates completely overhauling the American system because of Trump is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.