Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) immediately shot her hand up in the air when asked if she would abolish private insurance for tens of millions of Americans as part of a switch to a government-run health-care system.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) deflected when asked about his prior remarks that politicians should avoid demonizing corporations by name.
And former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.), a former business executive who was widely seen as the most centrist candidate on the debate stage, emphasized liberal policy ideas such as raising the minimum wage and enacting paid family leave.
The 10 candidates in Miami on Wednesday night at the Democratic National Committee’s first debate were pressured, one way or another, to respond to the ideas emanating from the party’s left flank.
The party’s leftward push has been apparent to insiders and political junkies, particularly since the beginning of the 2020 presidential primary, but was in full view Wednesday night in front of a national television audience.
“It’s very clear the candidates understand the so-called Overton window on policy has shifted, and they’re all tripping over themselves to get through it,” said Robert Hockett, an expert in public policy at Cornell University, referring to a term about the range of ideas considered acceptable.
The examples came fast and often. On a slew of major economic policy issues — health care, taxes, education, antitrust action and corporation consolidation — the candidates were pressed to respond to the left’s favored ideas and policies.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has pitched herself as a moderate, was asked why she opposed plans from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to make public colleges tuition-free. She confirmed her opposition but emphasized in her response that her education policies would dramatically expand Pell Grants while making it much easier for students to pay off their loans.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) was twice asked by the debate moderators whether he would support a 70 percent top marginal tax rate on the highest-income earners. That rate would have been unthinkable even to Democratic policymakers a few years ago but has been brought to the forefront of the liberal debate by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). O’Rourke did not answer the question but said America needed to fix an economy “rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest.”
In 2012, Booker criticized an advertisement from Barack Obama that went after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his time working for Bain Capital, a private-equity firm. In May, Booker said he did not “think that a president should be running around, pointing at companies and . . . breaking them up without any kind of process here,” in an apparent break with Warren.
But asked about the more recent remark at the debate stage, Booker highlighted that he would aim to take on corporate America and said he and Warren were in agreement. “I feel very strongly about the need to check the corporate consolidation,” Booker said.
Booker later added: “I will single out companies like Halliburton or Amazon that pay nothing in taxes, and our need to change that.”
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, which promotes primary challenges to Democrats from the left, said: “The main questions in the debate were all about responding to progressive energy and progressive ideas. It’s just clear there aren’t really new ideas from the center of the party.”
Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute, said Republicans should delight in the apparent “arms race to the left” driving the Democratic primary.
“The Democrats are targeting their message to the 15 percent of the hard left: banning private health insurance, taxpayer-funded abortion, massive new government spending,” Riedl said. “Ultimately, I’m hearing a lot of policy pronouncements that will have to be walked back in the general election.”
President Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign had a similar reaction. National press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the debate demonstrated Democrats have embraced “far-left, socialist policies” that she likened to a “mutual political suicide pact.”
Even the candidates with strong liberal credentials sought to burnish them on Wednesday night. Earlier in the campaign, Warren did not answer questions from The Washington Post about whether her support of Medicare-for-all meant she believes in eradicating private health insurance in the United States.
But after that response garnered criticism from the left, Warren said Wednesday that she would support banning it. She noted that people who go broke because of health-care costs are not just those without insurance, but also those with it — an apparent criticism of the private plans.
“There’s been a real move to the left on health care,” said Harold Pollack, a health-care expert at the University of Chicago. “It was really striking — Elizabeth Warren very explicitly announced her support for a single-payer system.”
On taxes, many of the candidates also emphasized their more left-leaning ideas to raise rates on corporations and make the tax system more progressive, while none touted plans to keep taxes low for businesses, noted Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Wamhoff noted that Delaney did not discuss his plan to cut taxes on repatriated earnings, while Klobuchar did not bring up her push to repeal a tax on the medical device industry — two more centrist ideas.
Instead, Delaney spoke of his desire to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit — which primarily benefits low- and middle-income families — while Klobuchar emphasized her willingness to challenge pharmaceutical companies.
“Many of these candidates had held these positions in the past but are not talking about these things now,” Wamhoff said. “They’re talking much more about progressive policy.”