MANCHESTER, N.H. — Pete Buttigieg accused Bernie Sanders of dividing the country with his policies and the political culture around his campaign during Friday night’s Democratic debate just days before the New Hampshire primary.
The head-to-head clash between the former South Bend mayor and the Vermont senator came at the end of a week in which both claimed victory in the Iowa caucuses and polls showed them to be neck and neck in the Granite State.
Asked by the moderators whether he believes the term “democratic socialist” could be a liability at the top of the ticket in the coming election, Buttigieg said he was more concerned that the Democratic nominee would continue to divide the country.
Buttigieg said what’s needed is someone who can unify the country, not someone who is “dividing people with the politics that says ‘if you don’t go all the way to the edge, it doesn’t count;’ a politics that says ‘my way or the highway.’”
When asked if he was referring to Sanders, Buttigieg said he was.
Sanders disputed Buttigieg’s claim, and said that his platform to rebuild the working class is the correct way to bring people and the U.S. together.
“The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country not for the billionaire class,” Sanders said.
“The way you bring people together — Republicans, independents, Democrats, progressives, conservatives — you raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. The way you bring people together is to make it clear that we’re not going to give tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations, they’re going to start paying their fair share of taxes. That’s what the American people want,” he added.
Sanders then defended his Medicare for All proposal as both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said it was too expensive and a pipe dream.
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Biden said it would cost more than the entire current federal budget and referenced Vermont’s failed effort to establish a single-payer health care system.
“When they did it in Vermont, what happened, they doubled the state income tax and then had a 14% tax on withholding, and they finally did away with it,” Biden said.
Klobuchar chimed in by saying the whole discussion was moot because the Senate would not take it up, even if Sanders becomes the next president.
“I keep listening to the same debate and it is not real. It is not real, Bernie, because two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate are not on your bill and because it would kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance in four years,” Klobuchar said.
Moderators also asked the candidates about recent comments made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that none of Sanders’ Senate colleagues like him and that he has never accomplished anything in all his time in Congress.
As Klobuchar began to answer, Biden gave Sanders a warm hug while they both smiled at each other.
“I like Bernie just fine,” Klobuchar said.
Sanders himself took the opportunity to address Clinton’s comments, saying that he would prefer not to relitigate the 2016 election and that he hoped the former presidential standard-bearer could look to 2020 instead.
“Our job is to look forward, not back,” Sanders said.
The strategy by Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar to attack Sanders comes as he has become the clear frontrunner in the still crowded Democratic field. In New Hampshire, Sanders is leading in the polls — with just days to go before Tuesday’s primary — and finished in a virtual tie with Buttigieg in Iowa.
During a campaign event Friday morning, Sanders sought to keep Buttigieg’s recent surge at bay, criticizing the former Indiana mayor for seeking support from super PACs and accepting corporate campaign contributions.
At a debate-watch party for Sanders supporters, there were loud boos when Buttigieg and Klobuchar attacked the Vermont senator.
Before the debate began, Nina Turner, Michael Moore and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., all spoke to the crowd of several hundred gathered in an athletic center in Manchester.
“All that we love is on the line,” said Turner, a former state senator from Ohio, to cheers from the people gathered to watch the debate.
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Moore, the documentary filmmaker, condemned the Democratic Party and the chaos that occurred in tabulating results from the Iowa caucuses.
“If we are depending on the old guard of the Democratic Party, we are doomed; we will not win,” Moore said.
“We need to get people out to vote and we do not have time to try to have arguments with Trump voters,” he said. “If they are still for Trump after three years, god love them.”
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