If nothing else, the Democratic debate in Las Vegas showed there really is a battle for the soul of the party.
On one side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who wants to level the income gap between rich and poor, guarantee health care to all, provide free public college or university and erase student debt.
On the other: former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the patrician, blue-blooded, New York City billionaire businessman who sells himself as the anti-Donald Trump.
For Sanders, the key to victory nationally is a huge turnout in an energized community of working-class voters, minorities and younger voters motivated to take the government back from oligarchs.
For Bloomberg, that’s a fallacy. “I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any chance whatsoever. And if he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years. And we can’t stand that.”
Central to Bloomberg’s case is Sanders’ trademark “Medicare for All” plan, which would replace private insurance with single-payer health care, eliminating deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance and other out-of-pocket costs.
That position got Sanders in trouble with Culinary Local 226, which is fiercely defensive of its hard-won health benefits. A flyer distributed by the union said Sanders would “end Culinary healthcare.”
Sanders took heat at the debate but promised his way was better: “So let me be very clear to my good friends in the Culinary workers union, a great union,” Sanders said. “I will never sign a bill that will reduce the health care benefits they have. We will only expand it for them, for every union in America and for the working class of this country.”
Later in the debate, Bloomberg did something unique: He brought the hall to silence with a simple question: “I’m the only one here that’s ever started a business. Is that fair?”
Sanders wasn’t impressed: “We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income,” he said. “Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral. That should not be the case when we’ve got half a million people sleeping out on the street.”
Asked about a Sanders 2019 tweet — “billionaires should not exist” — Bloomberg said, “I’ve been very lucky, I’ve made a lot of money and I’m giving it all away to make this country better,” adding later, “I’ve worked very hard for it.”
Sanders shot back later: “You know what, Mr. Bloomberg? It wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some kind of role in that as well.”
Sanders said those workers should be given seats on corporate boards. “And it is important that those workers are able to share the benefits, also,” he said.
That was too much for Bloomberg: “I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”
There’s some evidence to show voters feel the same: In a poll released earlier this month, just 45 percent of voters said they’d be willing to vote for a “well-qualified” candidate if that person was a socialist.
“We are living in many ways in a socialist country right now,” Sanders said. “The problem is, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”
One candidate, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, framed the entire discussion differently as the debate got underway.
“We’ve got to wake up as a party,” he said. “We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage.
“And most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks money ought to be the root of all power.”
Playing on the fact that Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, and Bloomberg is a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat, Buttigieg suggested an alternative: “Let’s put somebody forward who’s actually a Democrat.”
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.