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Democrats Challenge Sanders on Socialism, Health Care

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Several of the candidates seemed to define themselves against Sanders, reflexively comparing and contrasting their agenda with his. It was a reminder of just how popular the Vermont senators’ ideas have become since his first campaign in 2016: It’s his policies that have dominated discussion for much of the past three years, helping pry open the Democrats’ Overton window, inch by inch.

That’s especially true when it comes to health care. When asked about the pragmatism of progressives’ proposals, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said, “I agree with Bernie” on his goal of universal health care. But “where I disagree is on his solution of Medicare for all.” Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, for his part, criticized what he sees as an impractical shift to a Medicare-for-all system. “Every person in politics who allows that phrase to escape their lips has a responsibility to explain how you are supposed to get from here to there,” Buttigieg said.

When the subject turned to student debt, candidates jabbed at Sanders’s new proposal to cancel all Americans’ student debt, to the tune of $1.6 trillion, with no income or other restrictions. “I believe in free college for those whom cost could be a barrier,” Buttigieg said. “I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires.” Biden explained he’d want to give students tuition-free community college instead.

The candidates, again and again, were playing the game on Sanders’s turf. He didn’t receive the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016, and he might not secure it in 2020. But when the issues he’s long championed are being debated before 15 million Americans, in some ways, he’s already won.

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