MIAMI — Fiery liberal Bernie Sanders slapped back at his party’s centrist candidates Thursday night in a raucous presidential debate that underscored deep ideological divisions that are starting to shape the party’s winding search for a nominee to take on President Donald Trump.
The Vermont senator, a self-described democratic socialist, admitted that his plans for universal health care and free college would require a tax increase on America’s middle class. But he insisted that fundamental change is needed to address growing inequality across America. His critics warned that such an approach would leave the party open to attacks from Republicans who call them socialists.
“We think it is time for change, real change,” Sanders declared.
While the tone was mostly civil, just beneath the surface a fierce debate was simmering about the party’s future — and what kind of candidate should lead it. A generation divide was displayed early on as younger candidates called on 76-year-old Joe Biden, their party’s early front-runner, to pass the torch.
Some candidates want to fight fire with fire in the age of Trump. They’re embracing Sanders’ call for a revolution that would transform the private health care system into a government-financed one and mandate a redistribution of wealth — even as Republicans attack them as socialists. A smaller group, led by Biden, favors a far more pragmatic approach to address the nation’s problems within the current framework. They emphasize bipartisanship and moderation, hardly an exciting concept for liberal activists crying for dramatic change after years of Trump.
A day after the first wave of 10 Democrats debated, the second 10 faced each other and the nation for the first time in a prime-time confrontation that gave many voters their first peek inside the Democratic Party’s unruly 2020 presidential campaign.
At the start, Biden downplayed his establishment leanings.
The former vice president, along with the other candidates on stage, raised his hand to say his health care plan would provide coverage for immigrants in the country illegally.
Thursday’s showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least.
Sanders’ appeal relies on emotion, often anger. He stood alongside Biden, who preaches pragmatism and relative moderation.
Biden, like Sanders, who is 77, also represents a different generation from several candidates on stage. The age difference was noted by California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who said, “Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago.”
Others on the stage Thursday night included South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who have shown support in opinion polls. Also on stage: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New York businessman Andrew Yang, California Rep. Swalwell and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.
The showdown played out in Florida, a general election battleground that could well determine whether Trump wins a second term next year.
Biden sought to sidestep the ideological debate altogether, training his venom on Trump.
“Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle-class Americans built America,” said the former vice president. He added: “Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality.”
For much of the early campaign season, Biden has ignored his Democratic rivals, training his attention instead on the man he hopes to defeat in the general election next fall: Trump.
Biden’s strategy is designed to highlight his status as the front-runner, and as such, the Democrat best positioned to take down the president at the ballot box. Above any policy disagreement, Democratic voters report that nothing matters more than finding a candidate who can beat Trump.
If nothing else, Thursday’s slate highlights the diversity of the Democratic Party’s 2020 class.
Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders, and has been framing his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party. Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage. Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president.
Yet Biden and Sanders have received far more attention and shown higher standing than their less-experienced rivals.
The party will have to decide whether it wants a candidate based on resume over aspiration.