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Democrats Again Spar Over Taxes and Health Care at Sixth Debate

Yuval Rosenberg

Seven Democratic candidates took on a wide range of issues in their sixth presidential primary debate, from impeachment to the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to climate change to foreign policy — though in the aftermath, their substantive clashes on specific issues may be overshadowed by their arguments over electability and fireworks over campaign fundraising.

If you didn’t watch — viewership hit a 2020 campaign low — or even if you did, here’s a recap of a few of the top tax and health care issues that came up in the debate.

Warren says economists who say her taxes on the rich would stifle growth are “just wrong”: Asked how she would answer “top economists” who say that her tax plans would hurt growth and investment, Warren had a pithy answer: “Oh, they’re just wrong.” That drew applause from the audience. Warren went on to list the ways in which her Ultra-Millionaire Tax, which she refers to as a two-cent tax (though she proposes a 6% tax on the wealth of billionaires) could fund investments in programs from universal childcare and pre-K to canceling student debt. “You leave two cents with the billionaires, they're not eating more pizzas, they're not buying more cars,” she said. “We invest that 2 percent in early childhood education and childcare, that means those babies get top-notch care. It means their mamas can finish their education. It means their mamas and their daddies can take on real jobs, harder jobs, longer hours.”

Pete Buttigieg tried to differentiate himself from Warren. “I think we’re being offered a false choice that you either have to go all the way to the extreme or it’s business as usual. Yes, we must deliver big ideas and, yes, taxes on wealthy individuals and on corporations are going to have to go up,” he said. “We can also be smart about the promises we're making, make sure they're promises that we can keep without the kind of taxation that economists tell us could hurt the economy. … On issue after issue, we've got to break out of the Washington mindset that measures the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it adds to the budget or the boldness of an idea by how many fellow Americans it can antagonize.”

Sanders, Biden and Klobuchar sparred over Medicare for All: Health care, which has featured prominently in previous debates, only came up toward the end of this one. Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked if there are “smaller specific measures” he would take immediately to expand health care coverage and reduced costs, under the assumption that, if elected, he wouldn’t be able to get the votes to pass his Medicare-for-All plan.

Sanders insisted that he could sell his plan to the American public, and that Congress would fall in line as a result. “I think we will pass a Medicare for all single-payer system, and I will introduce that legislation in my first week in office,” he said.

Vice President Joe Biden countered that Sanders’s plan is unrealistic — and expensive. And Amy Klobuchar said Sanders would struggle to get moderate Democrats to embrace his plan: “Your fight, Bernie, is not with me or with Vice President Biden. It is with all those -- bunch of those new House members, not every one by any means, that got elected in that last election in the Democratic Party. It is with the new governor, Democratic governor of Kentucky, that wants to build on Obamacare. … [I]f you want cross a river over some troubled waters, you build a bridge, you don't blow one up. And I think that we should build on the Affordable Care Act.”

Sanders responded that Biden’s plan would maintain the status quo and suggested that the former vice president and Klobuchar should be more focused on the fundamental problems in the profit-driven U.S. system: “My fight, Amy, is not with the governor of Kentucky. My fight and all of our fights must be with the greed and corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, with the greed and corruption of the insurance industry. These guys last year made $100 billion in profit and tens of millions of Americans cannot afford to go to a doctor tonight.”

The candidates didn’t hit Trump and Republicans for attacking Obamacare: An appeals court this week handed down a decision invalidating the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and punting the rest of the law back to a Texas judge for further review. The case will almost certainly wind up before the Supreme Court, and it could foster renewed debate around Obamacare and key elements such as its protections for patients with preexisting medical conditions. But the seven candidates on stage didn’t mention the politically charged case. “Instead of pivoting to defend the law and branding Republicans as existential threats to the ACA — a strategy that helped Democrats win control of the House last year — the candidates continued their months-long disagreement over whether a single-payer health-care system would be best for the country,” write Amy Goldstein and Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post.

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