Liberals Warren and Sanders unite against moderates: Key takeaways from Night 1 of the Democratic debate

Los Angeles Times political reporter Melanie Mason breaks down the first of two Democratic debates this week.

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Elizabeth Warren gave Bernie Sanders a side hug and an enthusiastic “good to see you!” at the start of Tuesday’s Democratic debate.

And for more than 2 1/2 hours, the nonaggression pact between the progressive standard-bearers held steady.

Warren and Sanders stood at the center of the debate stage in Detroit, and were united in fending off attacks by their moderate challengers, who strove to distinguish themselves as more pragmatic and more electable than the lefty pair.

The other candidates appearing on stage Tuesday were Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and spiritual self-help author Marianne Williamson.


The rest of the field will convene on Wednesday for Night 2 of the debate, which will feature an anticipated rematch between former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who clashed in the previous debate over school busing.

Here’s what stood out as the big takeaways from the crowded 10-candidate face-off:

MORAL SIGNALING THROUGH HEALTHCARE: Democrats dug in on a meaty debate on healthcare policy, which may have left viewers’ heads spinning on the distinctions between a sweeping “Medicare for all,” a smaller-scale public option and many variations in between. It was a lengthy back-and-forth, with debate moderators goading candidates to weigh in on their rivals’ stances.

But along with laying out policy details, candidates framed their healthcare stances in moral terms, trying to cast their approach as more empathetic and moral than their rivals.

For Sanders and Warren, only a government-run healthcare overhaul is sufficient to fix the current system.

“This isn’t funny!” exclaimed Warren, quieting the audience’s titters as she challenged debate moderator Jake Tapper for interrupting her.

“The basic profit model of an insurance company is taking as much money as you can in premiums and pay out as little as possible in healthcare coverage,” she added. “That is not working for Americans.”


But moderates said a more incremental approach — one that is more likely to pass Congress — is more humane in confronting urgent need.

Klobuchar defended her preference for a public option to compete with private health insurance plans.

“That is the easiest way to move forward quickly,” she said.

Democrats debate
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, watches as former Maryland Rep. John Delaney speaks Tuesday night in Detroit.

GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS FOR DELANEY: The former Maryland congressman was the first prominent Democrat to jump into the 2020 contest but has had a hard time winning attention from his better-known rivals. On Tuesday, he got a substantial amount of screen time, a boon to a candidate desperate for exposure.

But Delaney, a centrist, will perhaps be best remembered for setting up strong zingers for his more progressive colleagues.

Going toe-to-toe with his rivals on healthcare, he mocked them for not understanding the business of healthcare.


“It’s not a business!” Sanders swiftly replied, a quick jab to underscore his position that healthcare should be a right, not a product.

Later, when debating on the best way to beat President Trump, Delaney again argued for a more moderate appeal to voters.

That gave Warren an opening to make her central campaign pitch that she’d be a scrappy force for systemic change.

“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 said, drawing a loud round of applause.

Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren states her case.

WARREN’S WINNING ONE-LINERS: Warren’s high school debating experience served her well Tuesday night. The Massachusetts senator turned around a number of polished one-liners that helped her reframe debate questions on her terms.


On healthcare, for example, she shut down more moderate rivals who warned that Medicare for all would result in people losing their insurance.

“We are the Democrats,” she said firmly. “We are not about trying to take away healthcare from anyone.… We should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how best to provide that healthcare.”

And when asked later about racial strife in the country — potentially dicey territory on a night when no candidates of color were on stage — Warren won cheers for her blunt assessment pronouncement: “We need to call out white supremacy for what it is — domestic terrorism.”

Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders turns up the energy Tuesday in Detroit.

SOUPED-UP SANDERS: Sanders made little impression in the Democratic debate last month, but on Tuesday night, the Vermont senator showed much more spark. While largely sticking to his long-held campaign message, Sanders was peppier and quick with the zingers.

Among the most memorable moments: Sanders swatting away Ryan, who was raising concerns that union workers would be worse off under Medicare for All.


“I wrote the damn bill!” Sanders said with exasperation. The Sanders campaign quickly rolled out stickers emblazoned with the slogan.

The more animated Sanders got attention from his fellow candidates, who noted his forceful delivery.

“You don’t have to yell,” said Ryan in an exchange over climate change.

“Throw your hands up!” Hickenlooper said teasingly in a back-and-forth. When Sanders complied, Hickenlooper waved his limbs too, giving the proceedings an uncommonly calisthenic flair. “Oh-ho, I can do it!”

THE YOUTHFUL CLASH THAT WASN’T: Going into the debate, the double-billing of Sanders and Warren stoked the most speculation — but the dynamic between O’Rourke and Buttigieg wasn’t far behind. Pundits wondered whether the two fresh-faced candidates, Buttigieg is 37, O’Rourke is 46, would jostle with each other to lay claim to the mantle of “top youthful candidate,” or swipe at their older counterparts. Instead, neither threw significant punches.

Both had their noteworthy moments. O’Rourke, in explaining his support for reparations, used unsparing language, telling the audience, “The way we became the greatest country on the face of the planet was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force.”

Buttigieg stood out as the only candidate to quote the Bible, lacing into conservatives who do not support raising the minimum wage.


“So-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage, when Scripture says, ‘Whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker,’” said Buttigieg, who regularly talks of his religious beliefs on the campaign trail.

But while Buttigieg has made generational change a centerpiece to his presidential bid, he backed away from making age an issue, demurring when he was asked if Sanders was too old to run.

“I don’t care how old you are,” he said. “I care about your vision.”

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND: Joe Biden has consistently been the front-runner in Democratic polls. You wouldn’t know it from Tuesday’s debate, as his name never came up.

Kamala Harris released her version of Medicare for all earlier this week, setting off a round of sniping among her, Biden and Sanders. It didn’t merit a mention in tonight’s lengthy healthcare debate.

The 10 Democrats on stage Tuesday night trained their focus on one another — or President Trump. But the other half of the field, who will be on stage Wednesday night, was largely invisible.