ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos’s first question of the Democratic debate very quickly exposed some of the divisions among top tier candidates Joseph Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who had some biting exchanges. Things got especially heated when other candidates, namely Julian Castro, joined in.
The acrimony got so great that some candidates warned that the infighting would only hurt the Democrats as they seek to oust President Donald Trump from office.
The issue was where the candidates stand on healthcare, as Biden proposes a plan designed to expand coverage and offer a public option, and Warren and Sanders favor a much larger Medicare for All. Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether his more progressive rivals were going “too far” in their plans.
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Biden tried to draw a contrast from Warren, who steadily gained in the polls over the summer.
“I know the senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack,” he said. He criticized Warren, saying that she has not said how she would pay for her plan. Sanders, he said, has done that, but his plan only gets “halfway there.”
Warren and Sanders defended their approaches, and said that the country needed bolder solutions that wrest control of the healthcare system away the influence from insurance companies.
“I have never actually met anybody who likes their health insurance company. What they want is access to healthcare,” she said.
Sanders noted that healthcare companies, i.e. insurance and pharmaceutical firms, would be advertising during the ABC commercial breaks.
“Maybe you have run into people who love their premiums. I haven’t,” he said.
In contrast to previous debates, Stephanopoulos and other moderators did not stop the back and forth between the candidates, even as they stepped up their attacks on each other. The one minute, fifteen second time limit to answer questions was barely enforced.
Castro stood out in his attacks on Biden. At one point, as he was trying to contrast enrollment in his healthcare plan to Biden’s, he crossed the line into a swipe about the former vice president’s age.
“The difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in,” Castro said. And I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled. That’s a big difference.”
But Biden insisted, “They do not have to buy in.”
Castro shot back, “You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in…Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”
Some in the audience gasped and booed, and a few clapped, at Castro’s dig at Biden’s age.
They didn’t end their tiff there.
“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” Castro said.
“That’ll be a surprise to him,” Biden snapped back.
Other candidates tried to take the high ground.
“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” said Pete Buttigieg. “This everybody of what they can’t stand about Washington.”
But Castro defended the tone. “That’s called the Democratic primary election. That’s called an election.”
Amy Klobuchar then said, “A house divided cannot stand.”
According to the transcript, though, Biden did not say that people would have to buy in. He had just said that “every single person who is diagnosed with cancer or any other disease can automatically become part of this plan.”
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