Democratic 2020 candidates clash on healthcare, immigration and economy in first debate, Ten candidates took the stage for the first of back-to-back debates, and cast themselves in sharp contrast with Trump.
Ten Democratic presidential candidates cast themselves in sharp contrast to Donald Trump in the first primary debate of the 2020 election on Wednesday night, even as they disagreed on how far left the next US president should lean.
The candidates took to the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami for the first of back-to-back debates over two nights, which see the 2020 race kick-off in earnest and give the 20 candidates who qualified for the events a national platform, which is likely to clarify the leaders in the enormous and unsettled field.
Candidates savaged Trump’s handling of the US economy and the migration crisis at the US-Mexico border. But despite his tweets, the president did not dominate the debate, which also saw clashes on healthcare, inequality and foreign policy, promises on immigration, reproductive rights and the economy, and a lengthy discussion of the climate crisis – a novel development for US presidential debates.
Elizabeth Warren took center stage in more than one sense, as the only top-tier candidate to appear in the first debate. The Massachusetts senator, who has built momentum by releasing an ever-expanding cache of policy proposals, opened with a strong answer to the first question, on the economy.
She said the economy was doing “great” with the wealthy, for owners of private prisons, “for giant oil companies”, but not for people struggling, earning the first of several applauses.
Other Democrats in Wednesday’s lineup were New Jersey senator Cory Booker; former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke; former housing secretary Julián Castro; Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar; Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Washington governor, Jay Inslee; New York mayor, Bill de Blasio; Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, and former Maryland congressman John Delaney.
For the many Americans who have not followed every twist of an election that is still more than 16 months away, the debate offered a first glimpse of 10 of the Democratic candidates hoping to take the Democratic nomination, to go head-to-head against Trump in November 2020.
The stage reflected the increasingly diverse Democratic party in which women and people of color are ascendent. Three women – two more than have ever shared a stage during a presidential primary debate – a Latino former congressman and a black senator participated.
Booker and O’Rourke occasionally spoke Spanish – a gesture that was ribbed online by some rivals who will appear in Thursday’s debate. Andrew Yang tweeted “My Spanish is terrible” and apologized to his ninth grade Spanish teacher.
One NBC debate moderator, Chuck Todd, launched into a string of questions about the climate crisis, beginning an exchange lasting around seven minutes – more than the entire time spent on climate in the 2016 general election debates.
Miami is seen as one of the US cities most under threat from the effects of climate change. Asked if his plan could “save Miami,” Inslee – who has made the environment the central plank of his campaign – touted efforts he has lead as a governor.
Trump loomed large over the debate – tweeting his thoughts intermittently – but he was not a focus. A quarter of an hour passed before his name was mentioned, by Klobuchar.
As the candidates debated healthcare and discussed immigration, Trump, watching the debate aboard Air Force One on his way to attend the G20 summit in Japan, tweeted simply: “BORING”.
The candidates diverged sharply on how boldly to transform the US economy. Only Warren and DeBlasio raised their hand when asked who would eliminate private health insurance as part of their healthcare plan. And there were subtle disagreements on how heavily to tax wealthy Americans.
The debate was seen as clarifying moment for several candidates who have struggled to break through. Castro appeared to find his voice on immigration and afterward told reporters that he believed his standing would “change after tonight.”
O’Rourke, who entered the presidential race with a higher national profile than many of his rivals, found himself on the defensive. No candidate criticized Warren directly, allowing the Massachusetts senator to largely command the conversation.
In one of the most memorable exchanges of the evening, Inslee touted his record as the “only candidate here” who has passed legislation protecting a woman’s right to access reproductive health through her health insurance.
With a smile, Klobuchar shot back: “There are three women on this stage that have fought pretty hard to protect women’s right to choose.”
Immigration opened a round of fierce debate led by Castro. He grew emotional when responding to a question about the photo of an immigrant father and his toddler daughter found lying face-down after drowning in the Rio Grande, and called the image “heartbreaking”. “Frankly, it should piss us all off,” he said.
He then implored O’Rourke, a fellow Texan who has also made immigration reform a central plank of his campaign, to support his plan to decriminalize border crossings.
The two-hour debate was briefly stalled by a technical difficulty with the moderators’ microphones. The network quickly cut to a commercial break but Trump, ever eager to attack the press, seized on the mishap. “Truly unprofessional and only worth of a FAKE NEWS Organization, which they are!” he tweeted.
After the two-hour special, the Trump campaign called the debate an “in-kind contribution to the President’s campaign”, in a lengthy statement that accused the Democrats of exploiting the crisis at the border while embracing “socialist policies”.
The second night on Thursday could see a contentious debate between the two leading contenders: the former vice-president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. They will appear alongside Senator Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the Colorado senator Michael Bennet, the former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, the California congressman Eric Swalwell, the new age author Marianne Williamson, and the tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, will also feature. Read: Theresa May, Next PM…
The sprawling field of Democratic contenders – which grew last week to 25 – is the largest and most diverse in presidential history. Biden consistently leads the field in polls. He is trailed by Sanders and Warren, progressive firebrands who, according to recent surveys, are neck-and-neck. Rounding out the list are Harris, who had a strong start to her campaign but hasn’t yet taken off, and Buttigieg, who has soared from near anonymity to near the front of the pack.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that a “meme” candidate – Yang – and a bestselling author of new age self-help books – Williamson – will have a chance to make their case for the presidency while a two-term governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, and a decorated US Marine Corps veteran and three-term Massachusetts congressman, Seth Moulton, have both been excluded.
To qualify, each presidential hopeful cleared a threshold set by the Democratic National Committee: they secured donations from more than 65,000 people in at least 20 states across the country and reached at least 1% in at least three separate national or early-state polls.Check Hepatitis C…