Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper took to the Democratic presidential debate stage Thursday night to try to reel in former Vice President Joe Biden from a double-digit lead in the polls.
But instead of taking early shots at Biden, they went after another front-runner: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was the only self-identified democratic socialist on the stage of 10 candidates.
Earlier this month, Hickenlooper denounced socialism at the California Democrats’ state convention and was booed by the left-leaning crowd. He embraced his anti-socialist stance at the debate.
“The bottom line is if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said.
He went on to criticize Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, saying, “I believe that health care is a right and not a privilege, but you can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up.”
Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would provide public health care for all Americans and abolish private insurance completely. While Sanders said a tax on Wall Street would pay for many of the social programs he favors, he admitted that taxes on middle class families would also increase.
In March, Bennet told The Atlantic, “It’s possible to write policy proposals that have no basis in reality, and you might as well call them candy.”
When a debate moderator asked Bennet if the statement was directed at one of his competitors, he seemed surprised to receive one of the first questions of the night.
“Is that (question) directed at me? It sounded like me,” said Bennet from the second lectern from the right of the stage.
Bennet agreed with Sanders that income inequality is one of the country’s most urgent issues, but then took aim at Medicare for All.
“We need to get to universal health care,” Bennet said. “I believe the way to do that is by finishing the work we started with Obamacare and creating a public option” for families to keep their private health insurance.
The candidates from Colorado were at their strongest when addressing the immigration crisis on the border.
“If you’d ever told me any time in my life that this country would sanction federal agents to take children from the arms of their parents, put them in cages, actually put them up for adoption – in Colorado we call that kidnapping – I would have told you it was unbelievable,” said Hickenlooper to a chorus of cheers.
Bennet made immigration reform one of his signature issues in 2013 when he and the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators crafted a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate by a wide margin. The bill contained a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a “sophisticated, 21st-century border security, not a medieval wall,” Bennet said. The bill didn’t receive a vote in the U.S. House.
Bennet began a passionate rebuke of President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration by saying child separation at the border reminded him of his mother, who was separated from her parents during the Holocaust in Poland.
“The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility that the whole world is looking at, when what we should be represented by is the Statue of Liberty, which brought my parents to this country to begin with,” Bennet said to a roar of applause from the audience.
While Hickenlooper and Bennet made their points about health care, immigration and climate change, it was Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Biden who shared the debate’s defining moment.
As a freshman senator in the 1970s, Biden led the charge against the U.S. Department of Education implementing a nationwide policy of school busing, which is a way to help racially integrate public schools.
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “That little girl was me.”
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.