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Trump sets sights on Sanders on eve of Democratic debate in Des Moines

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a climate rally with the Sunrise Movement at The Graduate Hotel, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. Bernie Sanders, the gesticulating, septegenarian senator with the mad-scientist hair and fixation with Canada's universal health-care system, seems to have caught the attention of Democrats in Iowa, as well as a certain U.S. president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Andrew Harnik

WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders, the gesticulating, septuagenarian senator with the fixation on Canada’s universal health-care system, seems to have caught the attention of Democrats in Iowa — as well as a certain U.S. president.

This past weekend had barely begun when, just three weeks out from next month’s Iowa caucuses, a coveted poll placed Sanders, 78, atop the Democratic field, a significant improvement for the self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont over his third-place showing in the same poll in November.

It didn’t take long for Donald Trump to notice.

“Wow! Crazy Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls, looking very good against his opponents in the Do Nothing Party,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “So what does this all mean? Stay tuned!”

“It means,” Sanders tweeted back, “that you’re going to lose.”

Polls, of course, come with caveats. They are only snapshots in time and carry sometimes-hefty margins of error — 3.7 percentage points, in this case, more than the three-point lead the CNN/Des Moines Register survey gave Sanders over his fellow progressive, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

But there have been clear signs Sanders, who has recently been out-fundraising his Democratic rivals, would be a preferred foil for Trump, who used his 2019 state of the union speech to declare, “America will never be a socialist country.” His recent rallies have mentioned Sanders repeatedly, singling out what the U.S. president describes as a dangerous policy of appeasement towards Iran. 

“Should he actually become the nominee, I think that it would definitely change the national conversation significantly,” said Capri Cafaro, a politics lecturer at American University in Washington and the former Democratic leader of the Ohio State Senate.

“If indeed a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren becomes the nominee, does that mean that the nation is more ready than we thought for these progressive policies? Or does it mean that they think these people can beat Donald Trump?”

If nothing else, the poll makes one thing clear: it’s tight at the top in the Hawkeye State.

Pete Buttigieg, the upstart mayor of South Bend, Ind., who had been enjoying a surge in support late last year, suddenly landed in third, followed by former vice-president Joe Biden, the moderate widely seen by many as the party’s best chance to win the White House.

And as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and businessman Tom Steyer prepare to join the front-runners on tonight’s debate stage at Drake University in Des Moines, the dynamic between Sanders and Warren — both vocal champions of a universal medicare system — has changed markedly.

Until now, the two have taken pains to avoid attacking each other. That all appeared to change in the wake of Friday’s poll.

First came reports that the Sanders campaign had been urging volunteers to tell voters Warren is a candidate for elites. Then, on Monday, CNN cited anonymous sources who accused Sanders of telling Warren in a 2018 meeting that he didn’t believe a woman could be elected president.

“I thought a woman could win,” Warren told CNN in a statement late Monday. “He disagreed.”

Sanders has denied both reports, denouncing the latter charge as “ludicrous.”

Health-care experts are similarly dismissive of the notion that, should either one find their way to the White House, Americans could ever expect to see a true medicare-for-all system that would be the envy of their Canadian neighbours.

“American health-care financing is such a convoluted mess that we’re not going to be tipping over to a fully funded federal system,” said Dr. Allen Zagoren, a professor of public administration at Drake University.

“It’s virtually unthinkable that that could happen.”

Zagoren and Cafaro both agree that even if both the House of Representatives and the Senate were controlled by Democrats after 2020, Congress would never approve the monolithic, multitrillion-dollar legislative overhaul such a system would require.

“I think the real question is how much he could get done through executive orders, through directives,” Cafaro said.  

Sanders and Warren also disagree over the best way to finance their respective plans, which carry pulse-quickening 10-year price tags of between $20 trillion and $30 trillion.

Warren would implement what she calls an employer Medicare contribution to generate some $8.8 trillion in the first decade. Sanders, fearing such a levy would cripple job growth, prefers his 7.5 per cent payroll tax, designed to hit higher earners harder than lower-income employees.

The debate illustrates another a fundamental difference between the U.S. and Canada, a country where the sanctity of universal health care makes it a subject political leaders would rather avoid. In American politics, it’s a mandatory talking point.

“I look at that stuff and I go, ‘Really? That’s crazy talk,'” said Zagoren, who consulted on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign — and tried to steer her away from talking about health policy entirely.

“I always advised against even discussing that. Why have discussions about things that are just untenable? There’s just no way, in any scenario, that’s ever going to happen.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2020.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press