South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was probably right Tuesday night when he said said that no matter what kind of agenda Democrats adopt, Republicans and President Donald Trump are “gonna say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.”
Trump has transmitted that strategy in his tweets and rallies even though Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the only avowed democratic socialist in the presidential race and on Wednesday he took a cue from Buttigieg, tweeting “The lesser of two Socialists is still a Socialist!” which he attributed to Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana.
This will be a recurring theme as Democrats sort through their large primary field.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a more moderate Democrat, said the word capitalist has “gotten a negative connotation” among Democrats and warned in an interview after the debate that his more progressive colleagues were “demonizing business in America.” He said solving health care and climate change problems will require business working with government.
Elizabeth Warren, who has just as many big ideas to increase the role of government in Americans’ lives, swears she’s a capitalist.
CNN’s Jake Tapper asked her if that’s her “way of saying you’re a safer choice than Sen. Sanders.”
“Nope,” she said. “It’s my way of talking about I know how to fight and I know how to win.”
Not all of the policy disputes onstage Tuesday were precisely debates over socialism, although that’s how Trump and Republicans will portray them. They are debates about what the government should do for people, and there is a very real and important conversation going on in US politics right now about whether the US system of government and economy are working, and what can be done about it.
It is certainly true that on the debate stage, Democrats split into distinct camps on how much more government should do for Americans on a variety of topics.
Should private health insurance be outlawed?
Hickenlooper, asked at the debate about his warnings against socialism in a recent Facebook ad, returned the conversation to health care.
“I’m saying the policies of this notion that you’re going to take private insurance away from 180 million Americans who many of them don’t want to give it,” he said, would be a “disaster at the ballot box and you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.”
Sanders, who later threw up his arms in frustration at the charge, argued that he had won Democratic primaries in swing states like Michigan and that he could beat Trump.
Hickenlooper argued not that something like “Medicare for All” is not likely to pass through the Senate, which it isn’t, but that people won’t accept massive new programs.
“I think if we’re going to force Americans to make these radical changes, they’re not going to go along,” he said.
John Delaney, a wealthy businessman and former congressman from Maryland who has run on the fringe of the campaign, joined relative moderates like Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in arguing not just that some of the progressive proposals backed by Sanders and Warren are not feasible, but also that they’re wrong.
Sanders and Warren want to end private health insurance in the US, believing that the government can do a better job.
Sanders wrote the Medicare for All proposal – which would put every American, whether they want it or not, on a government-run health insurance plan – because, as he said, health care should be a right for everyone and private plans would be outlawed.
Warren helped him make the case.
“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 health care coverage. That is not working for Americans,” she said.
But the plan goes too far, according to others on the stage.
“When we created Social Security we didn’t say pensions were illegal,” said Delaney, making the argument that the private sector and the government should both have roles in health care.
“At the end of the day I won’t support any plan that rips away quality health care from individuals,” said Bullock.
Warren argued that Republicans like Trump who have endorsed ending Obamacare without a replacement are closer to taking health care away.
“We are the Democrats,” she said. “We are not about trying to to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do. And we should stop using Republican talking points.”
Should wealth be taxed?
Delaney and Warren also disagreed over Warren’s plan to pay for her proposals with a tax on wealth. Currently, the federal government taxes income and other things but does not track or tax individual wealth. Warren would create a new 2% tax on fortunes over $50 million. She turned to Delaney and said he could keep all the money he had under that amount, but for each dollar over, he’d have to pay 2 cents.
Delaney said he has no problem taxing the wealthy, but he questioned whether the government should or would be able to track and tax fortunes in that way.
Should trade deals further human rights?
They had a similar scrape over trade deals, when Delaney argued in favor of agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was pushed by President Barack Obama but killed by Trump. Warren, who opposed the plan, said the US should use trade deals to raise standards for workers worldwide.
“For decades we have had a trade policy that has been written by multinational corporations to help multinational corporations,” she said. “They have no loyalty to America. They have no patriotism. If they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico, they would do it in a heartbeat.”
Delaney said the US can’t isolate itself from the world market.
Is the entire US system amoral?
Marianne Williamson, the self-help author running an outsider bid, said in her opening statement that the entire US economy needs to be rethought.
“It is time for a generation of Americans to rise up again for an amoral economic system has turned short-term profits for huge multinational corporations into a false god,” she said. “And this new false god takes precedence over the safety and the health and the well-being of we the American people and the people of the world and the planet on which we live.”