The theme of Tuesday’s debate was the highest-polling candidates — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — were getting ahead of their party’s leftward shift. The theme Wednesday was former vice president Joe Biden — that night’s highest-polling candidate — was too far behind that shift, still sticking to Obama-era or even pre-Obama ideas that Democrats had abandoned.
On stage were Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), former housing secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Biden, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), businessman Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Booker vs. Biden on criminal justice: Biden’s rivals attacked throughout the night, sometimes in personal terms. In one sharp exchange, Booker and Biden traded jabs over criminal justice, with Booker seeking to remind voters in cutting terms that Biden had spearheaded a crime bill that Booker said contributed to the mass incarceration of black Americans. [More on the attacks over criminal justice records]
“This is one of those instances where the house was set on fire, and you claimed responsibility for those laws,” Booker said.
Biden tried to flip the attack, saying it was Booker who had a problematic history on criminal justice given the poor record of the Newark police department when he was mayor, including a controversial stop-and-frisk policy.
Booker shot back that Biden didn’t know the context. “If you want to compare records--and frankly I’m shocked that you do — I am happy to do that,” Booker said. He added: “There’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into Kool Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.” [Get a full rundown of this exchange here]
Biden and women’s issues: Gillibrand went after Biden in what appeared to be a prepared attack, reading from an article that Biden once penned saying that women working outside the home would lead to the “deterioration of family.”
Gillibrand asked Biden if he believes that. After trying to explain the article, Biden pivoted to talking about his own history as a single parent after his wife and daughter were killed. He noted that he “raised three children for five years by myself,” adding that both of his wives have worked outside the home.
And he went on the offense against Gillibrand, saying she had praised him on gender issues in the past. “I don't know what's happened, except that you're now running for president,” Biden said.
Health-care fight: When a back-and-forth erupted over health care, Biden was ready with a criticism of Harris, who’d aggressively challenged him in the first debate. He criticized her for what he said was her shifting stances on healthcare, and for her new plan that Biden said sought to hide its true costs. [The Fact Checker looks at taxes under Harris’s proposal]
“To be very blunt, and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan,” Biden said. Harris responded in general terms, saying health care is a right and that “the cost of doing nothing is far too expensive.”
She also challenged Biden for touting the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, noting that Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary for health and human services, was supporting her plan.
But dropping that name prompted an attack from another candidate, Gabbard, who said Sebelius now holds a job where she benefits from the health insurance industry.
- David A. Fahrenthold and Annie Linskey
Castro brings up Eric Garner: In another emotional moment, Castro invoked the case of Eric Garner, the New York man whose 2014 death due to a chokehold became a national rallying cry against police brutality. Castro said he’s the only candidate to offer a police reform plan.
Noting that the Trump administration recently declined to pursue federal charges against the officer involved in the Garner case, Castro argued for an end to “qualified immunity” for police officers to hold them more accountable.
De Blasio, asked by New York City hasn’t fired the officer, suggested his hands were tied as the city waited to see what the Justice Department would do. “There's finally going to be justice, I have confidence in that, in the next 30 days in New York,” de Blasio said. “There will never be another Eric Garner, because we're changing fundamentally how we police.”
De Blasio then tried to point a finger at Biden, arguing that some of the delays occurred during the Obama administration.
“Everybody's talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” Biden replied, but “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me. He chose me, and said it was the best decision he ever made.”
- Holly Bailey
Gillibrand on whiteness: Gillibrand spoke about a topic that isn’t often explicitly discussed on a debate stage: whiteness. Calling herself a “white woman of privilege,” the New York senator said she has an extra responsibility to educate other white people on the structural racism in American society.
“I can talk to those white women in the suburbs that voted for Trump and explain to them what white privilege actually is,” said Gillibrand, who was onstage with two black senators, a former cabinet secretary who is Hispanic, an Asian American and a Samoan American. “It is also my responsibility to lift up those voices that aren't being listened to.”
Biden and Obama: Biden’s opponents sought to turn one of his chief strengths — his connection with Obama — against him, asking whether he supported Obama’s wide-scale deportations of undocumented immigrants.
“I didn't hear whether you tried to stop them or not, using your power your influence in the White House,” de Blasio said. “Did you think it was a good idea or do you think it was something that needed to be stopped?”
Instead of answering, Biden praised Obama for his advocacy of broad immigration reform, so de Blasio came at him a second time. “I don't hear an answer from the vice president,” he said. “Mr. vice president, you want to be president of the United States, you need to be able to answer the tough questions. I guarantee you, if you're debating Donald Trump, he's not gonna let you off the hook. So did you say those deportations were a good idea?”
Biden responded in effect that the answer was a secret. “I was vice president. I was not the president. I keep my recommendation in private,” he said.
That brought another attack from Booker, who told Biden, “You invoke President Obama more than anyone in this campaign. You can’t do it [only] when it’s convenient.”
- David A. Fahrenthold
Immigration: Yet another exchange erupted between Biden and Castro, who both served in the Obama administration, over immigration.
Castro defended his controversial plan to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, putting him at odd with Biden, who remarked, “I never heard him talk about any of this” when he served as Obama’s housing secretary.
When Castro said, “What we need are some politicians who have some guts on this issue,” Biden retorted, "I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.”
Biden argued for having some criminal penalties for unauthorized border crossings. "The fact of the matter is, when people cross the border illegally it is illegal to do it, unless they are seeking asylum,” he said.
Castro hit back: "It looks like one of us has learned the lesson of the past and one of us hasn’t."
[Trump tweeted during the debate, repeating a false claim that Obama started the family separation policy, which the Fact Checker has given Four Pinocchios to.]
Climate change: Inslee, who has built his campaign around the urgency of fighting climate change, charged that Biden’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases was “just too late” and too half-hearted to match the threat. If Biden believes his plan is “realistic,” Inslee said, that is a sign he isn’t thinking big enough to succeed: “I believe that survival is realistic.”
Biden protested that he’d never described his plan as “realistic” and said it was in fact quite bold. Asked by the moderators if he would aim to get the United States off fossil fuels, Biden said he would, but added, “We can work it out.”
“We cannot work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire,” Inslee responded. “Get off coal and save this country and this planet.”
Yang jumped in with an even more dire message--that climate change has already moved beyond a tipping point and that some of its worst effects are already impossible to stop. He said his plan for distributing $1,000 a month to Americans would allow them to move to higher ground, away from rising oceans.
-David A. Fahrenthold
Tuesday: The first night showcased moderate candidates directly challenging their more liberal and better-known rivals on core issues including health care, immigration and border security, climate, and trade.
Sanders and Warren, two leading liberal candidates, fended off attacks from more centrist contenders struggling to gain traction in the contest. The Sanders campaign announced Thursday that it had raised $1.1 million since Tuesday, as it touted the senator’s performance.
Ratings for Tuesday’s debate were down from last month, according to numbers from Nielsen.
On stage Tuesday, with highest-polling candidates in the middle, were author Marianne Williamson; Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); former congressman Beto O’Rourke; former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper; former Maryland congressman John Delaney; and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
The health-care fight: A fiery exchange erupted early over health care, as the centrists charged that Sanders and Warren would lead Democrats into likely defeat by embracing a Medicare-for-all system. [Get a breakdown of three key disputes here.]
When moderator Jake Tapper asked Sanders if he could guarantee that his Medicare-for-all plan would improve coverage for union members, Sanders said yes, prompting Ryan to interject, "You don't know that, Bernie." Sanders snapped, "I do know – I wrote the damn bill!"
Delaney, a former health-care executive, suggested his liberal rivals were hopelessly naive. “I’m the only one on the stage who actually has experience in the health-care business, and with all due respect, I don’t think my colleagues understand the business,” he said.
Warren responded that centrists like Delaney and Bullock were sounding like Republicans, a grave insult on this stage. “We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take health care away from anybody. That’s what Republicans are trying to do,” she said.
Want a breakdown of where the candidates stand on key issues around health care, beyond Medicare-for-all? We’ve got you covered.
- David A. Fahrenthold, Sean Sullivan, Annie Linskey
The electability question: The candidates also clashed over who could claim the one trait that polls suggest Democratic voters value most: electability.
Hickenlooper has run Facebook ads saying that Democrats won’t win in 2020 if they nominate a “socialist” — a clear punch at Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic socialist — and he expanded on that Tuesday night, saying plans like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all will make it easy for Trump to prevail.
“That is a disaster at the ballot box, you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” he said. Sanders shot back by pointing to public polls that show him beating Trump in a head-to-head matchup and touting his victories in the 2016 primary in Wisconsin and Michigan, two traditionally Democratic states where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
Ryan had a similar warning. “We've talked about decriminalizing the border, and we've talked about giving free health care to undocumented workers when so many Americans are struggling to pay for their health care,” he said. “I quite frankly don't think that that is an agenda that we can move forward on.”
Warren framed such warnings as fear of standing up for principle. “We can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in,” Warren said. “I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.”
Challenge to Republicans: Buttigieg turned an unrelated question into a memorable challenge to Republicans who he said were tolerating the behavior of a racist, immoral president.
The South Bend mayor recalled former Ku Klux Klan leader and onetime Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke. The GOP had denounced Duke in the 1990s, Buttigieg said, but today Republicans were reconciling themselves to Trump’s racist rhetoric.
He addressed Republican members of Congress as though they were watching: “When the sun sets on your career … the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment, [with] this president, you had the courage to stand up to him.”
-David A. Fahrenthold
Arguing for reparations: When the discussion turned to race, some of the candidates offered possibly their most forceful endorsements yet for reparations to be distributed to descendants of slaves.
O’Rourke said he would sign a congressional reparations bill, and he talked about the legacy of Jim Crow era. Williamson cast her plan as a blueprint to provide a “200 to 500 billion-dollar payment of a debt that is owed.”
Sanders, who is not advocating reparations, said he favors a bill backed by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) that would address some of the impacts of slavery still being felt today.
In what could be seen as a dig at Warren — whose mantra is that “I have a plan” to deal with many big issues — Sanders said, “In terms of education, I also have a plan,” which would combat racial disparities.
The candidates sharply condemned Trump’s comments about minority members of Congress and his hardline policies toward immigrants and Muslims. And they underscored the challenges African Americans continue to face across the country due to racism.
"You walk into an emergency room and your reports of pain will be taken less seriously,” Buttigieg said, part of his enumeration of the added challenges faced by African Americans.
- Sean Sullivan
Decriminalizing border crossings: Continuing the clash between the liberals and centrists, the more moderate Democrats criticized Sanders and Warren for proposing the decriminalization of forbidden border crossings and took aim at Sanders’s proposal to offer free health care to undocumented immigrants.
“We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give free healthcare to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that,” said Bullock. By appearing to encourage illegal immigration, he added, “You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands.”
Ryan agreed: “If you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s a stretch for us to ask undocumented people to pay for their healthcare.”
Sanders responded by citing the desperate plight of many immigrants: “If a mother and a child walk thousands of miles on a dangerous path, in my view, they are not criminals.”
- David A. Fahrenthold
Climate change: The candidates also differed over the Green New Deal to tackle climate change.
“The climate crisis is the existential crisis for our world — it puts every living thing on this planet at risk,” said Warren, who supports the plan. She said she would spend $2 trillion on research to create new clean-energy technologies, adding, “Anyone in the world can use it, so long as you build it right here in America.”
Several others took a more modest approach. Ryan proposed a mass changeover of gas-burning cars to electric autos, prompting Sanders to respond with a call for even bolder efforts. “I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas!” Sanders said.
“You don’t have to yell,” Ryan said, noting that their aims were similar.
Buttigieg seized the opportunity to argue that since the candidates’ aims were so similar on climate, the question came down to who was most likely to win in 2020. “We will deal with climate if and only if we win the presidency,” he noted.
- David A. Fahrenthold
Attack and counter-attack on trade: Warren was pressed to defend her far-reaching plan dictating that the United States would sign trade deals with only countries that embrace specific policies, like reducing greenhouse gases, improving worker protections and fighting corruption.
Delaney, the low-polling former Maryland congressman who emerged as the night’s chief antagonist of the liberals, took aim. “We can’t isolate ourselves from the world. We can’t isolate ourselves from Asia,” he said, asserting that Warren’s plan would be so restrictive that “we would not be able to trade with the United Kingdom.”
Warren responded that the current system was in effect more radical, since it focused on the needs of large multi-national corporations instead of average workers. “What the congressman is describing as ‘extreme’ is having deals that are designed by American workers for American workers,” Warren said.
Hickenlooper implied that Warren’s approach resembles Trump’s, adding, “Trade wars are for losers.”
-David A. Fahrenthold
Williamson’s unusual message: Williamson continued her approach from last month’s debate of arguing that the country’s problems run deeper than politics and policy, but involve psychological and spiritual issues.
After a discussion of infrastructure, the author also said that the Democratic field needs to move away from the weeds of detailed policies and plans.
“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days,” Williamson said.