The first Democratic presidential debate offered the clearest picture yet of where candidates are divided — well, about half of them anyway.
The 24 candidates vying for the nomination to succeed President Donald Trump have been circling each other in the early primary states, releasing competing proposals and vying for attention. Ten of them stood side by side for the first time Wednesday night, the first of two debates this week televised on NBC.
Over the course of two hours, it was clear where they agreed: that the economy benefits the most wealthy, that women should be paid equally to men and have access to abortion, and that climate change poses a grave threat.
But the debate also revealed dividing lines in the primary. Here are six areas where the presidential hopefuls differed:
How do you solve a problem like McConnell?
Trump wasn’t the only GOP leader name-checked on the debate stage, with a handful of candidates discussing how they would get judicial nominations and other proposals approved with Mitch McConnell as majority leader of the Senate.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren answered simply, “I do,” when asked if she had a plan to deal with the Kentucky Republican. She said Democrats must win back the Senate, but did not say much else about how she would directly work with McConnell, aside from keeping up public pressure.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker first noted the importance of Democrats winning back the Senate, when asked whether Senate Republicans would confirm his judicial nominees. Booker said South Carolina and Iowa, both early primary states, were Senate battlegrounds.
The New Jersey Democrat specifically named former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison, who has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to take on GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham. Booker did not mention Theresa Greenfield, who’s running for the nomination to challenge Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst. Greenfield has also been endorsed by the DSCC, as well as EMILY’s List and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is also running for president.
“If you want to beat Mitch McConnell, this better be a working class party,” Ryan said. “If you want to go into Kentucky and take his rear end out, and if you want to take Lindsey Graham out, you gotta have a blue-collar party that can go into the textile communities in South Carolina.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was the only candidate on stage to call for the elimination of the filibuster, which is shorthand for the 60-vote threshold required to end debate on legislation in the Senate. A majority of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have previously said they either support eliminating the filibuster or are open to it, according to the Washington Post.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney said Democrats need to work with Republicans on major pieces of legislation. And Booker pointed out that he worked across the aisle to pass an overhaul of the criminal justice system known as the First Step Act.
A health-y debate
Asked who would do away with private health insurance in favor of a Medicare for All single-payer system, just two candidates raised their hands: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Warren. But three other candidates on stage — Booker, Ryan and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — are all current co-sponsors of “Medicare for All” legislation that would essentially do that.
Among those who’d like to see an in-between system that retains private insurance but gives the uninsured a public option, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the first to speak.
“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years, which is exactly what this bill says,” Klobuchar said, alluding to the “Medicare for All” legislation.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who at times had expressed support for Medicare for All during his 2018 Senate race, also said people such as members of unions who had negotiated for specific health plans should be able to keep their private health insurance.
But he didn’t get long to speak. De Blasio, with the first big interjection of the night, interrupted the former congressman to say that private insurance isn’t working. It was the first of several times the New York mayor tried to distinguish himself by talking over or challenging other candidates.
Delaney, perhaps the most moderate candidate on stage Wednesday night, seized the moment to say Democrats should keep what’s working and fix what’s not. The back-and-forth highlighted the differences between Democrats who support a single-payer system and those who want to establish a public option, a debate that is likely to remain one of the biggest areas of policy disagreement throughout the primary.
Warren’s remarks were some of her strongest in favor of a single-payer plan since she entered the race. She gave a nod to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading voice on establishing a single-payer plan who will be on stage Thursday night. Warren called health care a basic human right, but also raised it as an issue of economic security. She took pointed aim at health insurance companies, attacking them for having “sucked $23 billion in profits out of the health care system.”
“We have a giant industry that wants our health care system to stay the way it is, because it’s not working for families, but it’s sure as heck working for them,” Warren said.
Inslee, as he did several times throughout the night, tried to prove he isn’t a single-issue candidate focused just on climate change. He talked about women’s reproductive rights, which Klobuchar picked up on.
“I just want to say there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said.
Texans trade border barbs
The two Texans on stage clashed over immigration, with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro criticizing O’Rourke for not backing a proposal that would decriminalize “improper entry” into the country.
Castro has proposed eliminating Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which stipulates that “improper entry into the United States by an alien” is a criminal offense. Castro would rather that be a civil offense.
The former San Antonio mayor said the Trump administration has used Section 1325 as the basis for its “zero tolerance” policy of arresting those crossing the border illegally. As part of this policy, undocumented immigrants who were arrested faced criminal charges and were taken into federal custody and then separated from their children.
“If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section,” Castro told the former El Paso congressman, who has previously rejected eliminating that provision of the law.
O’Rourke has argued that Section 1325 holds to account human and drug traffickers who illegally cross the border. O’Rourke noted that while in Congress he introduced legislation “that would ensure that we don’t criminalize those who are seeking asylum and refuge in this country.”
Castro countered that there are other laws that can address the issue of human trafficking and drug smugglers, and Booker chimed in, in agreement. In addition to Castro and Booker, eight other candidates support repealing criminal penalties for illegally crossing the border, according to the Washington Post. Castro called on every other candidate in the race to back his proposal.
The ‘I’ word
Impeachment — a subject that’s roiled the Democratic Party in recent months — got relatively little and late attention. The first question went to O’Rourke, who was asked if the House chooses not to pursue impeachment whether he’d do anything about potential crimes Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III outlined in his report. Mueller said Justice Department policy bars indicting a sitting president, but he laid out actions Trump took that hundreds of former prosecutors say meet the definition of obstruction of justice.
O’Rourke reiterated his support for beginning impeachment “now,” and said that if that didn’t happen the Department of Justice in his administration would “ensure there are consequences.”
Moderator Rachel Maddow then threw the topic at Delaney, asking whether he thought Trump should be prosecuted for crimes after leaving office. Delaney, who retired from Congress to run for president, expressed the sentiment of House leadership and many vulnerable Democratic members, who are wary of impeachment. He praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s spoken out against pursuing impeachment right now.
“I think she knows more about the decision as to whether to impeach the president than any of the 2020 candidates combined,” Delaney said.
Elected to Congress in 2012, Delaney represented a district that was drawn for Democrats and that Hillary Clinton carried by 15 points. But the former Maryland congressman made the argument that Democratic strategists and lawmakers from more competitive districts have long been making: impeachment is not what voters care about.
“When you are out doing as much campaigning as I have done — four hundred events, all 99 counties in Iowa — this is not the No. 1 issue the American people ask us about; it's not,” Delaney said.
Pocketbook issues, he said, are what he hears about most from voters.
“They never ask about the Mueller report,” he said.
The deal with the Iran deal
One of the starkest visuals of the night came when the candidates were asked whether, if elected, they would sign onto the original 2015 nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Iran reached by the United States and five countries and the European Union. Booker was the only candidate who did not raise his hand, although he said it was a mistake for Trump to withdraw from the agreement and opposed a Senate effort to scuttle the agreement.
“I'm not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally, I'm going to rejoin that deal,” Booker said. He later added that “if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I'm going to do it.”
The former Newark mayor wrote in a 2015 op-ed for that city’s Star Ledger that he would support the Iran nuclear agreement, but criticized the deal for “falling short of permanently eliminating Iran’s pathways to a nuclear” weapon.
Klobuchar also said during the debate that the Iran nuclear agreement was “imperfect,” but quickly pivoted to blasting Trump’s approach to foreign policy and saying the president is “one tweet away from going to war.” She was also the lone candidate to name Iran as a major geopolitical threat, pointing to recent escalating tensions with the country.
50 miles from Parkland
Wednesday’s debate was held less than 50 miles from Parkland, where a gunman killed 17 people in a school last year. Moderator Chuck Todd threw the first question on gun control to Warren, asking what role the federal government should play in getting guns off the streets.
“We can't treat this as an across-the-board problem,” Warren said, clearly wary of being maligned as a gun grabber in parts of the country where her economic ideas might resonate but her Massachusetts liberalness might not. She called gun violence a “virus that’s killing our children,” but drew a distinction between reckless gun trades and collectors who don’t fire their guns and keep them safely.
Asked about his federal gun buyback proposal, Booker capitalized on the opportunity to repeat a familiar refrain about how his residence in Newark makes him unique in this Democratic field. In the process, he subtly tried to differentiate himself from Warren, highlighting how his personal experience makes addressing the gun issue about more than policy proposals.
“First of all, I want to say my colleague and I both have been hearing this on the campaign trail. But what’s even worse is that I hear gunshots in my neighborhood,” Booker said. “I think I'm the only one, I hope I’m the only one, on this panel here that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week.”
He blamed the gun lobby for setting the terms of the debate and called for “bold actions.”
“I will get that done as president of the United States because this is not about policy,” Booker said. “This is personal.”
Tanvi Misra and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.
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