Ten Democrats railed against a national economy and a Republican administration they argued exist only for the rich as presidential candidates debated onstage for the first time in the young 2020 season, embracing inequality as a defining theme in their fight to deny President Donald Trump a second term in office.
Health care and immigration, more than any other issues, led the first of two debates on Wednesday, with another to follow Thursday night. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, more than anyone else, stood out — on her own at times — in calling for “fundamental change” across the nation’s economy and government to address a widening gap between the rich and the middle class.
“I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” Warren declared shortly before raising her hand as one of the only Democrats on stage willing to abolish her own private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan. “Health care is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights.”
The debate marked a major step forward in the 2020 presidential campaign as Democrats fight to break out from a crowded field that has been consumed by one question above all: Who’s best positioned to defeat Trump? The candidates will spend the next eight months before primary voting scrapping over that question and the broader fight for the direction of their political party.
Among the 10 Democratic candidates set to debate Thursday is early front-runner Joe Biden.
While Trump is the ultimate target of many Democratic voters, the president wasn’t a major feature for most of Wednesday night. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was one of the few to go hard after Trump, declaring, “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.”
Instead of Trump, Democrats leaned into the issue that helped deliver the party the House majority last year: Health care. All supported the concept of providing universal health care, but they differed on how they would reach that goal.
Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio backed abolishing private health insurance. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota favored preserving the private insurance market.
O’Rourke said people who like their health care plans should be able to keep them: “We preserve choice,” he said.
The exchange is almost certain to be revived on Thursday when Bernie Sanders is among the candidates who will be on stage. The Vermont senator has proposed a “Medicare for All” system without private insurance while Biden, who will also be debating, hasn’t gone that far.
Immigration was also on the candidates’ minds as they pointed to the searing photos of a drowned Salvadoran father and his toddler daughter at the Rio Grande and blamed Trump and his policies concerning migrants crossing into America illegally.
“Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter Valeria was heartbreaking,” said former Obama administration housing chief Julián Castro. “It should also piss us all off.”
He also assailed O’Rourke for not calling for fully decriminalizing crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
“I just think it’s a mistake, Beto,” he said, adding that O’Rourke would agree with him “if you did your homework on this issue.”
O’Rourke says he doesn’t support fully decriminalizing such border crossings because of fears about smugglers of drugs and people.
Castro told MSNBC on Thursday that his performance “showed that I can more than handle myself” at a time when voters are seeking a Democrat who can take on Trump.
Other than those skirmishes, Democrats waged a largely civil debate with few instances of the type of bitter confrontation that has dominated politics in the Trump era. The candidates — at least for one night — were content to focus on their views of what America is and should be. No one openly stumbled.
Absent the ugly attacks or missteps of debates in past elections, the two-hour discussion allowed the party to show off its extraordinary diversity. Wednesday’s lineup featured three women — Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in addition to Warren and Klobuchar — one black man and another man of Mexican heritage. Three candidates and a moderator spoke Spanish at times, while New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who’s black, talked about the violence that left seven people in his own urban neighborhood shot last week.
Inslee boasted that he alone among the 10 had signed a bill on reproductive rights for women.
Klobuchar spoke up for the women on stage: “I just want to say there’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”
Warren spent the evening at center stage, a top-tier candidate whose campaign has gained ground in recent weeks. She was flanked by several candidates, including O’Rourke and Booker, who needed a breakout moment. That proved elusive on a crowded stage with moderators pressing candidates to stick to strict time limits.
The sober policy discussion underscored a much louder internal fight over how aggressive Democrats should be on the nation’s most pressing issues.
On one side: candidates like Warren who are demanding dramatic change that includes embracing liberal policy priorities like government-run health care, debt-free college, a forgiving immigration policy and higher taxes on the rich. On the other: pragmatic-minded Democrats like Biden — and little-known former Maryland Rep. Delaney — who are calling for modest policy solutions that could ultimately attract bipartisan support.
“Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people?” asked Delaney, one of the few Democrats on stage who represented his party’s moderate wing.
Trump, the elephant not in the room, was in the air traveling to Japan for a round of trade talks as Democrats faced the nation for the first time in the 2020 campaign. From Air Force One, he tweeted his take on the night: “BORING!”