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Democratic presidential candidates attacked President Donald Trump’s trade policies Thursday night in a nationally televised debate in Miami, blasting his tariff war as a harmful tax on Americans.

“Manufacturers, and especially soy farmers, are hurting,” said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana.

China is a serious threat that is “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship,” Buttigieg said, “but their fundamental economic model isn’t going to change because of some tariffs.”

The comments came as Trump prepares to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping this weekend at the at the Group of 20 Leaders Summit in Osaka, Japan.

The president has bemoaned the U.S. trade deficit with China and launched a trade war in an attempt to force a more balanced trade relationship. He’s so far imposed 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, prompting retaliatory tariffs.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said Trump has been right to “push back on China, but he’s done it in completely the wrong way.”

Bennet argued the United State should “mobilize with entire rest of the world” that has a shared interest in pushing back on China’s “mercantilist trade policies.”

The debate was the second in as many nights for Democrats, with a field of 20 qualifying candidates spread across two nights in Miami. 

The Thursday night event included Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Rep. Eric Swalwell.

China’s theft of U.S. intellectual policy “is a massive problem,” said entrepreneur Andrew Yang. “But the tariffs and the trade war are just punishing businesses and producers and workers on both sides.”

Tariffs “are taxes,” Buttigieg said, noting he lives in the industrial Midwest where manufacturers and farmers are impacted, much like Michigan.

China is investing in technology “so they could soon be able to run circles around us in artificial intelligence, and this president is fixated on this China relationship as if all that matters is the export balance on dishwashers.”

In an exchange over climate change, former Vice President Joe Biden described a goal to move the country toward a “full electric vehicle future by the year 2030.” 

Biden did not offer many details for achieving a goal that could have significant implications for Detroit automakers, but said he would “immediately” work with state and local leaders to build 500,000 electric vehicle recharging stations across the country.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have been trimming jobs and restructuring operations to free up money to invest in the development of electric vehicles and driver-less cars. But consumers have been more interested in buying trucks and sport utility vehicles than small cars and electric vehicles. 

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox blasted Democrats, accusing them of competing to become “the poster child of their new Socialist Party.”

Democrats promoted government-run health care and environmental policies that would “kill our booming economy, and put tens of thousands of hardworking Michiganders back in the unemployment line,” Cox said in a statement.

“Michigan is thriving under President Trump, and next year voters have a clear choice between continued prosperity, or complete stagnation.”  

Yang, who has built his long-shot campaign around a proposal to provide a universal basic income of $1,000 a month to every American adult, also mentioned Michigan as he bemoaned manufacturing job automation.

“It’s why Donald Trump is president today — we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin," he said. "And we’re about to do the same thing to millions of retails jobs, call center jobs, fast food jobs, trucking driving jobs and others throughout the economy.”

Yang’s universal basic income proposal could cost more than $3 trillion annually, a bill he said he’d pay for with a “value added” consumption tax placed on products whenever value is added at each stage of the supply chain.

It took about 27 minutes for self-help author Marianne Williamson to get a question — how would she lower the cost of prescription drugs? 

"First of all, the government never should have made the deal with big pharma that (Medicare) couldn't negotiate — that was just part of the regular corruption by which multinational corporations have their way with us," said Williamson, a spiritual leader who lived in Metro Detroit for eight years. 

"And it's really nice if you have all these plans, but if you think we're going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you've got another think coming because he didn't win by saying he had a plan. He won by simply saying, Make America Great Again. 

"We've got to get deeper than just the superficial fixes — as important as they are," she added. 

Williamson said the United States doesn't have a health care system but a "sickness care system." 

"We just wait till somebody gets sick, and then we talk about who's going to pay for the treatment and how they're going to be treated," she said. 

Those were among the Michigan-related issues in the two-hour debate, which saw front runners like Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermong spend much of the night talking about national economic issues, health care and immigration. 

Sen. Kamala Harris of California challenged Biden over his comments about productive working relationships with segregationist lawmakers in the past and his opposition to forced school busing. 

Sanders acknowledged his Medicare for All plan would raise taxes on the middle class but said most residents would save overall because of reduced health care costs. He pointed to nationalized health care in countries like Canada, his neighbor 50 miles to the north in Vermont.

"Why do many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses? So many more compared to other countries? And that gets back into the Big Pharma -- not just largest health insurance companies. It has to do with chemical policy. It has to do with environmental policy."

The first night in Miami did not include any direct references to Michigan, but Democrats accused Trump of failing to live up to his promise to protect manufacturing jobs after the tentative closure of three auto plants in Ohio and layoffs in Michigan.  

The Democratic National Committee and CNN will host a second two-night debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31. 

joosting@detroitnews.com

mburke@detroitnews.com

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