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Latest Dem debate shuffles deck

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — The dozen Democratic presidential candidates who spent nearly two hours trying to distinguish themselves from the pack Wednesday night succeeded in one thing. They essentially agreed that Donald Trump must go, while offering their own best alternatives for the post-Trump era.

The major changes they offered, in addition to a more civil, circumspect restoration of respect for the presidency itself, were in leadership experience, foreign policy and health care insurance, plus a mild seminar on age vs. youth.

The result was a broad perception that Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has elbowed out former vice president Joe Biden as the frontrunner, seen in the manner in which she became the prime target of the others scrambling to remain pertinent.

Her contention to have a plan for every problem was an invitation to her competitors to challenge her advocacy for Medicare for All, which has been the keystone issue of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is struggling to remain relevant after disclosure of his recent heart attack.

Sanders bounced back in the debate with a strong display of vigor and conviction, but both he and Warren must contend with the fact that their shared defense of Medicare for All would require killing private-industry plans. Premiums for millions of workers are paid by employers or trade unions, which Biden argues holders won’t want to lose.

The argument is a persuasive one in his own continued defense of Obamacare, which he helped enact as vice president and now proposes to expand with a public option to retain private insurance for those who want to keep it. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, at age 37 a surprising survivor in the early going, has his own variation he calls Medicare for All Who Want It, in a bid to cut into Biden’s pitch to retain the support of working stiffs.

Buttigieg, with an aggressive yet respectful demeanor toward his elders, used the debate to advance his bid for the growing millennial vote. He also weighed in as a Middle East war veteran against Trump’s impetuous withdrawal of American troops from Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS.

In all this, Biden appeared to escape much criticism over his son Hunter’s ill-advised decision to serve on the board of a large Ukrainian energy firm, denying his son did anything wrong. Hunter meanwhile has said he will work on no foreign post if his father is elected, a rather thin leaf over a messy political optic.

Another surprising survivor was Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who gently needled Warren on her claim to have a plan for every problem, and pressed her on how she would pay for Medicare for All without raising taxes on recipients while accepting the end of private insurance coverage. Doing so, she told Warren, “You are making Republican talking points right here in this room.”

Klobuchar has argued that, as a Midwesterner who has never lost an election, she can win the key states there won by Trump in 2016, and deny them to him next year. But her immediate political challenge is that she has not matched the higher entry requirements of voter and financial support for the November Democratic debates. Her absence would be a blight on the Democratic National Committee process.

As in the previous such debate this year, the Democratic Party came across as united in its determination to defeat Donald Trump next year, as candidates muted differences that might imperil that prime objective.

So far the candidates have not lived up to the image Will Rogers conjured ages ago when he quipped: “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.”

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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