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DETROIT — Tuesday night was Bernie and Liz vs. the world.
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren sharpened their knives on a pack of second-tier candidates during the second round of Democratic debates, a sign that they may continue to team up to push the party left and take on the moderates who may have a better shot at the nomination.
Warren and Sanders parried attack after attack from a number of centrists desperate to claw their way into the next debate, counter-punching hard as they defended their stridently progressive policies.
The debate served as a proxy battle for the pair of lefty senators as they fended off claims from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper that their policies were too liberal, too destabilizing, too expensive, too politically divisive and too risky for a party desperate to beat Donald Trump.
“I don’t know why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren fired back after Delaney accused her and Sanders of making “impossible promises” and “fairy-tale economics.”
Sanders was just as feisty. He elicited laughs from the crowd by telling Delaney “You’re wrong” when asked about the former congressman’s criticisms on his Medicare for All plan. And when Ryan tried to argue Sanders didn’t know how the plan would impact union workers, he retorted, “I do know. I wrote the damn bill!”
The progressive pair more than held their own Tuesday night. But many of the candidates they were taking on haven’t qualified for the next round of debates in September and likely won’t be around for the long haul. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, all of whom had fairly quiet nights, are the only other candidates from Tuesday’s debate who look like they’ll be onstage in Houston in September.
Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, told VICE News Sanders and Warren made an effective tag team against candidates he identifies with the corporate wing of the party.
“There's still this lingering sort of corporate wing of the party which is hanging on. It's on life support, but it's dying and withering away,” Weaver said. “What you didn't see on the stage tonight were other leading candidates who are much more of the corporate wing of the party, and people, I think, will have the opportunity to see those debates in the future.”
The real question is how Warren and Sanders fare down the line when matched up directly against former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, the two other candidates polling in the double digits. Both of their more top-tier foes are making similar arguments that Sanders and Warren are too far left to win, a charge that Warren and Sanders will have to continue to refute. The two stuck together for the night — but it remains to be seen when and if they eventually turn on each other as they fight for the nomination. Biden and Harris will will square off in Wednesday’s debate.
Warren sought to take on the electability argument directly, acknowledging some Democrats’ fears that nominating a candidate too far to the left could doom them to another Trump term.
"We can't choose a candidate we don't believe in just because we're too scared" of losing, she said. "I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can't be afraid either."
Buttigieg delivered a similar line — one of his more effective moments of the night.
“It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. Look, 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, do you know what they’re going to say? That we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” Buttigieg said to applause. “So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”
The question of the right policy is a big one for Democrats, however. The big debate of the night was over Medicare for All, which Sanders and Warren embraced and the moderates derided, but the candidates also sparred over whether Warren’s plan to decriminalize border crossings was a bridge too far for voters.
Still, after Tuesday’s debate, one thing is clear: The distinction between Sanders and Warren will not be revealed in direct attacks between the two, as debate moderators may have hoped. Liberal-minded voters will instead have to decide for themselves who is a better spokesperson for progressivism — and they were both pretty damn effective Tuesday night.
Sanders’ wrecking-ball mockery and Warren’s incisive scorn, both directed at one-percent-polling candidates who have likely seen their last presidential debate stage, elevated their vision for the party and their individual candidacies.
The question of whether they can continue that streak against more formidable candidates, such as Biden and Harris, will have to wait until the next debate, in September.
Cover: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk during in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)