Deep divides over health care and economic policy dominated the first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday, as 10 candidates jousted in Miami over the best formula for beating President Trump and fixing the economic struggles of the middle class.
The result was a prime-time display — the first national event of the election season — showcasing economic and regulatory differences that have riven the Democratic Party, including transformative plans to eliminate private health insurance, fund free college for most Americans, break up giant corporations and impose sharp tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.
The ambitious slate of proposals highlights the Democrats’ leftward shift, a trend Republicans are seeking to take advantage of by linking the party with socialism and government control. The generally sober event also highlighted one of the key dilemmas that Democrats face in their attempt to oust Trump — a bombastic showman whose name was only occasionally mentioned but whose presence loomed large over the proceedings.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), standing center stage with the most early attention from moderators, drove much of the debate with a passionate defense of disruptive plans that would face long odds of passage in Congress. She framed each of the issues as a question of determination, saying she was willing to fight and take on the “corruption in this system” that had created the problems.
“We’ve had the laws out there for a long time to be able to fight back. What’s been missing is courage, courage in Washington to take on the giants,” she said. “I want to return government to the people, and that means calling out the names of the monopolists and saying I have the courage to go after them.”
Her rivals were forced to respond, though they avoided taking her on directly, trying to explain their plans as different routes to the same goal.
“I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids; I do,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), a thinly veiled reference to plans supported by Warren to make public colleges free for all Americans.
But the two-hour debate proceeded without a significant viral or humorous moment to rival the kind of spectacle created by Trump during the 2016 debates that were dominated by the real estate developer’s shocking comments, off-color jokes and biting attacks on his rivals.
Trump’s campaign characterized the debate as “the best argument for President Trump’s reelection,” arguing that Democrats were proposing “a radical government takeover of American society that would demolish the American Dream so many are gaining access to under the growing Trump economy.”
Rather than paint a hopeful vision of the nation’s future, the Democrats onstage focused on the grim challenges facing the country — warning of a long list of serious threats to the nation’s well-being, such as corporate power, global warming, the humanitarian crises on the southern border and the growing economic power of China.
Perhaps seeking to introduce themselves to a national audience, the candidates only rarely addressed one another directly or strayed from well-rehearsed lines.
When Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) was asked about previous comments criticizing politicians who pledge to break up specific companies — as Warren has — he seemed to shift in Warren’s direction, saying “I don’t think I disagree” that corporate consolidation is a problem.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke gave his first answer in both Spanish and English, but he struggled to respond directly to the question about how high he would bring the marginal tax rate for the wealthy. He spoke instead about ending gerrymandering while bolstering the Voting Rights Act and same-day voter registration.
“I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone,” he said, after the question was repeated to him.
Wednesday’s debate marked the first of 12 scheduled by the Democratic Party, including at least two split over two nights, with 10 more candidates scheduled to appear in Miami on Thursday. Polls show a wide-open race, even as most of the 23 candidates struggle to register even 2 percent support.
Warren was the only candidate to appear polling in double digits, with clear momentum after months of tireless campaigning. Three other candidates, O’Rourke, Klobuchar and Booker, have been struggling to maintain the early expectations of their campaign announcements. Six more, including Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have found themselves struggling to be noticed in the crowded field.
But all of the candidates were given a chance to weigh in on the key divides in the party. Only Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands when asked whether they would get rid of private health insurance.
“I understand: There are a lot of politicians who say , ‘Oh, it’s just not possible.’ . . .,” Warren said, fully embracing the single-payer health-care plan backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who will be onstage Thursday. “What they’re really telling you is that they just won’t fight for it. But health care is a basic human right. And I will fight for it.”
The issue of immigration, an area of relative agreement in the Democratic Party, prompted one of the few fierce exchanges of the night — between the two Texas politicians on the stage. Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro sought to draw a contrast with O’Rourke by saying the former congressman opposed repealing part of U.S. immigration law that allows for criminal prosecution of migrants who come to the United States without proper documentation. Castro has called for decriminalizing undocumented immigration, a position Republicans have branded “open borders.”
“I think that you should do your homework on this issue,” Castro said, turning to O’Rourke. “If you did your homework on this issue you would know that we should repeal this section.”
O’Rourke said he favored immigration policies that ended the family separations that have taken place during the Trump administration, and to ensure that migrants seeking asylum are not detained.
For most of the candidates onstage, the debate marked one of only two chances they will have, in addition to the July debates, to spark the interest necessary to get them on the September debate stage, when the polling and donor qualification requirements will dramatically tighten.
Several candidates made clear attempts to grab and hold the spotlight in the hopes of breaking through.
At both ends of the stage, de Blasio and former Maryland congressman John Delaney, who poll the lowest, forced their way into the conversation repeatedly, with the former arguing he was the most passionate liberal on the stage and the latter playing the role of the most practical moderate.
“What we are hearing here already in the first round of questions is that battle for the heart and soul of our country,” de Blasio said. “This is supposed to be the party of working people. Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy.”
Delaney responded by calling such ideas unrealistic. “I think we have to do real things to help American workers and the American people. Right?” he said.
Booker’s strategy in the debate was to repeatedly personalize the issues that were raised. When talking about guns, he spoke about his Newark neighborhood where seven people were recently shot. “I live in a low-income black and brown community,” he said when asked about corporate consolidation. “I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans.”
Candidates focused mostly on policy but also spent time attacking Trump for his governing style and his record since taking office in 2017. Trump’s erratic approach to foreign policy came in for blistering attacks.
“I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning,” Klobuchar said.
“This president and his chicken hawk Cabinet have led us to the brink of war with Iran,” Gabbard said.
“The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump,” Inslee said to applause.
Ryan was one of several candidates who blamed Trump for conditions at the border, where migrants from Central America have been traveling in family groups, overwhelming U.S. facilities meant to house adults. Lawyers visiting some of the facilities have said that children in the facilities were living in squalor without access to basic hygiene items.
For his part, Trump weighed in from Air Force One, where he was en route to the Group of 20 summit in Japan. He focused on technical difficulties that forced NBC to cut to a commercial break when audio problems surfaced.
The president didn’t attack any specific Democrat during the debate, instead focusing on a candidate who was not on the stage.
“Ever since the passage of the Super Predator Crime Bill, pushed hard by @JoeBiden, together with Bill and Crooked Hillary Clinton, which inflicted great pain on many, but especially the African American Community, Democrats have tried and failed to pass Criminal Justice Reform,” Trump tweeted from his presidential plane before the debate even started. “Please ask why THEY failed to the candidates!”
The president has repeatedly weighed in on the Democratic primary, and he spent part of Wednesday doing the same. His focus has largely been on Biden, who in early polling has been leading Trump in some key states. Biden will join Sanders and eight other Democratic candidates at Thursday’s debate.
On Wednesday, with Biden not on the stage, Trump appeared less interested in the actual substance of the debate.
“BORING!” he tweeted as the candidates began discussing the deaths of a father and daughter at the border.