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Carl Leubsdorf 

The latest Democratic debate provided a dramatic display of the divide between the advocates of revolution and restoration in the party’s presidential race. It also illustrated the contest’s revised pecking order

On one side, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued the country needs major structural reforms and defended far-reaching proposals epitomized by the plan offering “Medicare for all.”

On the other side, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined former Vice President Joe Biden in seeking more modest programs and warning that costly new programs could jeopardize Democratic chances of defeating President Donald Trump.

Tuesday night’s prime target was Warren, who has led recent polls. Her most aggressive attackers were Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who still harbor hopes of penetrating what has essentially been a three-candidate race among Warren, Biden and Sanders.

Their performances showed they were “really vying for the votes Joe Biden has now” in the hope his recent decline in the polls will continue, said CNN commentator David Axelrod, who was an aide to former President Barack Obama.

If their strength grows, he added, “it could be at Biden’s expense.”

Beyond reflecting differences in the best Democratic path for 2020, the debate sponsored by CNN and the New York Times illustrated some potential problems facing the more sweeping Sanders and Warren proposals.

For one thing, polls show the proposal to supplant current health care systems with the government-run Medicare for all, while popular with Democrats, has less support from the broader electorate. As Klobuchar pointed out when Warren defended her proposal, “you’re making Republican talking points right now in this room.”

For another, the president elected next year will inherit a federal budget deficit of close to $1 trillion and a gridlocked political landscape. Even if Democrats win a large enough victory to overturn current GOP control of the Senate, they’ll have at best a small majority, requiring Republican support to enact major proposals.

The debate covered a range of issues, from the impeachment inquiry, which all 12 candidates supported, to the complex Middle East situation. But it didn’t take long for Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden to put Warren on the defensive over the cost of her health care proposals.

Warren insisted that her proposal, which would eliminate private health insurance, will “lower costs for middle-class families.” She plans to pay for the expensive new program with a “wealth tax” on the nation’s richest families but has not provided details.

That prompted Buttigieg to contend her answer showed “why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular.” He said, “No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion dollar hole in the Medicare for all plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get done.”

Klobuchar noted Sanders conceded taxes will go up for his Medicare plan and criticized Warren for failing to acknowledge she would be “kicking” 149 million people off private insurance. “I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice,” she said.

“It’s awfully important to be straightforward” with the American people, Biden agreed, contending Warren’s proposal would cost $30 trillion over 10 years — a characterization she rejects. “That is more on a yearly basis than the entire federal budget.”

The candidates displayed their broadest philosophical differences when CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked why their approaches would attract the votes to defeat Trump.

“We all have good ideas,” Biden said. “The question is: Who is going to be able to get it done?” He listed his record in passing the Violence Against Women Act, the Affordable Care Act and the assault weapons ban.

“You know what you also got done,” Sanders said pointedly. “You got the disastrous war in Iraq done. You got a bankruptcy bill, which is hurting middle class families all over the country.”

He argued the public favors his more expansive program — in fact, a questionable thesis — and declared, “The way you win an election in this time in history is not the same old, same old.”

Warren said her experience in enacting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau legislation during Obama’s administration would help her succeed. “I know what we can do by executive order and I will use it,” she said. “In Congress, on the first day, I will pass my anti-corruption bill … and repeal the filibuster,” two promises that may, in fact, prove difficult to achieve.

Buttigieg sought to bridge the divide, calling their rival arguments a “false choice” and urging viewers to think of “the day after Trump has stopped being president,” when a new president could “unify a new American majority” to achieve progress on health care, immigration, an assault weapons ban and free college for low- and middle-income students.

A pre-debate Quinnipiac University poll showed Democrats favored Warren by a small margin and felt she had the best policy ideas but believed Biden was the best leader and could best defeat Trump.

That, after all, is the idea.

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