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Detroit — Democrats sparred over health care, vision and electability Tuesday in a  presidential debate that saw progressive front runners defend against criticism from moderate candidates who warned too “radical” of an approach could re-elect Republican President Donald Trump.

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for big, bold and structural changes to the domestic economy and health care system, railing against corporate influence and the status quo during a two-and-a-half hour debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

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Detroit News politics editor Richard Burr and Lansing Bureau reporter Jonathan Oosting break down the first night of the Democratic debates. The Detroit News

But former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland targeted the duo from the outset, using his opening statement to warn Democrats against embracing “bad policies like Medicare for All, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected.”

Delaney argued against eliminating private insurance in favor of a government-run single-payer health insurance system backed by both Sanders and Warren, saying Democrats should not be the party of “subtraction.”

Warren shot back in one of the night’s most memorable moments, saying Democrats are not in the business of trying to take away health care from anyone.

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Elizabeth Warren questions why John Delaney would run for president "just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for." The Detroit News

“That’s what Republicans are trying to do, and we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk to each other about how to best provide that health care,” she said.  

In one exchange with Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sanders said he understands the policy implications of Medicare for All because, as he put it, “I wrote the damn bill.”

Sanders narrowly won Michigan’s Democratic primary in 2016 over eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, but is competing with Warren for progressive votes in the fractured 25-candidate field.

The first of back-to-back debates in Detroit, the Tuesday night event featured 10 candidates jockeying for attention. Another 10 will debate Wednesday night, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend Indiana, largely avoided confrontation on Tuesday but touted his youthful vision as he warned against the impacts of climate change, housing prices and attacks on female reproductive rights.

“We’re not going to be able to beat this moment by recycling the same arguments, policies and politicians that have dominated Washington for as long as I’ve been alive,” Buttigieg said. “We’ve got to summon the courage to walk away from the past and do something different. This is our shot.”

Several of the more moderate candidates. particularly lesser-knowns fighting to qualify for the Democratic National Committee's third debate in September, sought to make their mark by going after Sanders and Warren.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper doubled down on his charge that “socialism isn’t the answer,” and that the “extreme” choices would let Trump get reelected for four more years.

“We gotta focus on where Donald Trump is failing,” Hickenlooper said, arguing that lawmakers in Congress don’t know what it’s like to try to implement a wide-ranging revolutionary plan.

“Us governors and mayors — we’re the ones who have to pick up all the pieces,” he said. “Suddenly the government’s supposed to take over all the responsibility, and there’s no preparation and the details don’t work. You can't just spring a plan on the world and expect it to succeed.”

Delaney said Democrats need to run on “real solutions, not impossible promises.”

“Look at the story of Detroit — this amazing city that we're in. This city is turning around because the government and the private sector are working well together. That has to be our model going forward,” he said.

Sanders replied to the criticism by saying “every credible poll” he’s seen has him beating Trump in the key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“And the reason we are going to defeat Trump, and beat him badly, is that he is a fraud and a phony, and we're going to expose them for what is,” Sanders said.

Republicans who have worked to paint Democrats as extreme liberals appeared to revel in the debate jabs.

"On tonight’s Democrat debate stage, Americans witnessed a doubling down on Democrats’ radical, socialist proposals," Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. "From a government takeover of health care to decriminalizing illegal immigration, Democrat candidates put their out-of-touch priorities on full display.”

Michigan connections

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who won the state last year with a campaign focused on practical issues like fixing crumbling roads, helped warm up the crowd in the Fox Theatre roughly a half hour before debate, touting the state’s diversity and importance in the presidential election.

“The world now knows that the path to the presidency goes through the Great Lakes state, the great state of Michigan,” Whitmer said on live television.  

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Marianne Williamson on the Flint Water Crisis: 'What happened in Flint would not happen in Grosse Pointe," calling it a racial injustice. The Detroit News

Democratic candidates have visited Michigan early and often this cycle as they compete to take on Trump, who won the state by 10,704 votes over Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Asked how he would retrain workers affected by General Motors Co. decision to idle four U.S. plants, including two in Michigan, Buttigieg said: “This happened in my community 20 years before I was born and when I was growing up we were still picking up the pieces.

“Empty factories, empty houses, poverty. I know exactly what happens to a community where these closures take place, and there will be more. It’s why we need to put the interest of workers first.”

Democrats also debated climate change and the impact of plans like the Green New Deal, which would eliminate new gas-powered car sales by 2040, on the auto industry, which Michigan depends heavily on.

“Climate crisis is the existential crisis for our world,” Warren said, making the case for bold action. “It puts everything on our plant at risk.”

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Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders -- the youngest and oldest candidates in the race -- sidestep the question of age. The Detroit News

More moderate Democrats were skeptical of the controversial Green New Deal plan, which Republicans have painted as too liberal for states.

“I think the guarantee for a public job for everyone who wants one is a classic part of the problem. It’s a distraction,” Hickenlooper said.

Ryan said the auto industry will play a big role in the future of the climate change debate, citing the importance of electric vehicles in hitting any reduced emission marks.

“If we get our act together, we won’t have to worry about it,” Ryan said. “My plan is to create a chief manufacturing officer so we can actually start making things in the United States again. That would pull the government, the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, work with the private sector, work with investors, emerging tech companies, to dominate the electric vehicle market. 

"China dominates now, 50-60%. I want us to dominate the battery market, make those here in the United States and cut the workers in on the deal.”

Sanders dismissed critics of the Green New Deal and other liberal environmental policies. 

“I get a little bit tired of Democrats tired of big ideas,” said the self-declared democratic socialist. "Republicans are not tired of big ideas. They can hand a trillion dollars of tax breaks to billionaires and profitable corporations, they can bail out the crooks on Wall Street, so please don’t tell me we can’t take on the fossil fuel industry, and nothing happens unless we do that.”

The debate comes as the Trump administration is embroiled in a debate with California over gas mileage rules. The administration is in the middle of a two-year push to freeze fuel-mileage rules at about 39 miles per gallon for model years 2021 to 2026. The White House has also pushed to revoke a longstanding waiver allowing California and other states to set their own stricter auto emissions standards.

But in a high-profile rebuke against the Trump administration's efforts to roll back stringent gas-mileage rules, Ford Motor Co. and three other major carmakers have reached an agreement on fuel economy rules with California.

Under the terms of the deal, negotiated directly between the California Air Resources Board and Ford, Volkswagen AG, Honda Motor Co. and BMW AG, the carmakers would voluntarily increase the average fuel economy of their fleets to about 50 miles per gallon by the end of the 2026 model year.

Marianne Williamson, the spiritual author who led Renaissance Metro Detroit for several years, warned that the Flint water contamination crisis was the “tip of the iceberg” for infrastructure and environmental failures that will disproportionately affect communities of color.

“I assure you, I lived in Grosse Pointe,” Williamson said. “What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe … We need to say it like it is. It’s bigger than Flint.”

Health care

The night's sharpest exchanges occurred during a prolonged exchange over health care and the potential costs of moving to a government-run insurance system. 

Sanders told Delaney he is “wrong” that Medicare for All could be political suicide for Democrats. The 77-year-old senator promised a single-payer system without deductibles or co-pays that would let Americans choose their own doctors or hospitals.

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Tim Ryan and Bernie Sanders clash on whether Medicare-for-all would be bad for union autoworkers who bargained for good benefits. The Detroit News

“The fact of the matter is millions of people lose their health insurance every single year when they change jobs or their employers change their insurance,” Sanders said. “Nobody can defend the functionality of the current system.”

Sanders traveled from Detroit to Windsor on Sunday with diabetics seeking cheaper insulin, and cited Canada’s national health care system as a potential model for the United States.

“They guarantee health care for every man, woman and child as a human right,” he said. “They spend half of what we spend. And by the way, when you end up in a hospital in Canada you come out with no bill at all.”

Ryan warned that the Medicare for All plan pushed by Sanders and Warren would eliminate private health insurance plans that union members in his state fought and bargained for, sometimes making other concessions to secure the benefit for their families.

“These union members are losing their jobs, their wages have been stagnant, their world is crumbling around them, and the only thing they have, possibly, is really good health care,” the Ohio congressman said. Taking it away from them is “bad policy.”

Sanders argued Medicare for All would provide those union workers with better insurance than they have now.

“Many of our brothers and sisters are now paying high deductibles and co-payments, and when we do Medicare for All, instead of having their company putting money into health care, they can get decent wages instead,” he said.

Moderators pressed candidates on whether they’re willing to raise taxes on middle-class Americans to guarantee health care and eliminate insurance premiums.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock noted his 12-year-old son had a heart attack and had to be flown to Salt Lake City for care.

“He's here with me tonight,” Bullock said. “I'm not going to support a plan that rips away quality health care from individuals. This is an example of wish-list economics. It used to be just Republicans who wanted to repeal and replace —  now many Democrats do as well. We can get there with a public option and negotiating drug prices.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas disagreed that the middle class would have to pay more in taxes in order to ensure that every American is guaranteed “world class” health care.

“I think we're being offered a false choice,” O'Rourke said. “Some (Democrats want) to improve the Affordable Care Act at the margins, others who wants a Medicare for All program that will force people off of a private insurance. I have a better path. Medicare for America. Everyone who's uninsured is enrolled in Medicare tomorrow.”

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Pete Buttigieg answers question about how he might convince African-American voters to make him the nominee. The Detroit News

Buttigieg, who has pushed the more flexible idea of “Medicare for All who want it,” said a providing a public option to consumers would be “not only more comprehensive but more affordable than any of the corporate options around.”

When some candidates warned that embracing universal health care would give Republicans an attack point, Buttigieg disagreed.

“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. It’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” he said.

Buttigieg noted that his mother-in-law, who lives in Traverse City, has battled cancer and said she was “saved” by the Affordable Care Act that Republicans have attempted to repeal and undermine.

 “Let’s just stand up for the right policy and go out there and defend it. That’s the policy I’m putting forward, not because I think it’s the right triangulation between Democrats and Republicans there, because I think it’s the right answer.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

mburke@detroitnews.com

klaing@detroitnews.com

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