A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by Liz Marlantes.

As Democrats take aim at each other, some worry it only helps Trump

Why We Wrote This

In Tuesday’s debate, candidates engaged in sharp exchanges over health care plans, teed up by moderators. Tonight may be just as contentious.

Paul Sancya/AP
From left, Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Dear reader:

The Monitor’s Story Hinckley is in Michigan this week, along with nearly all the Democrats running for president. Last night, she watched the debate from McShane’s Irish Pub in downtown Detroit, where patrons were filling out “debate bingo” cards amid the wafting smell of buttered popcorn. There were whoops and hollers at key moments, such as when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said flatly: “You’re wrong,” in response to former Maryland Rep. John Delaney calling his Medicare for All plan “political suicide.” New Age author Marianne Williamson drew some of the biggest cheers of the night with her answer on reparations. (For those interested in Ms. Williamson – who was the night’s most-Googled candidate – here’s an interview with her by our Washington bureau chief, Linda Feldmann.)

I was watching the debate from home on television – and on Twitter. About an hour in, I noticed some Democratic strategists expressing palpable frustration. “On Thursday, thousands of Michiganders will lose their job when an auto plant 10 miles from this debate site shuts down. President Trump promised the people of Michigan that wouldn’t happen,” tweeted Mo Elleithee, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton. “I cannot understand why no candidate tonight has forced it into the conversation.”

“Malpractice,” agreed Paul Begala, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Begala, for his part, also tweeted this: “Donald Trump has proposed the largest cut in Medicare in history. Every candidate on that stage is, allegedly, running against Donald Trump, and yet they have not mentioned it. Not once. That issue alone could cost him re-election. My guess is he’s laughing his butt off.”

It's understandable that outside Democratic strategists would want the candidates to spend less time attacking each another and more time attacking the president. Some of the criticisms aimed by the more moderate candidates at the progressives – particularly on health care – felt like ready-made Republican attack ads.

But at this stage in the race, Democratic voters need to see how their candidates stack up – and, especially, how they differ. Everyone on that stage was unified in their opposition to President Donald Trump and his policies. But there is real disagreement over how best to challenge him. Does this moment call for big, bold change? Or unifying pragmatism? It will be up to the voters to decide.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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