Democratic presidential primary contenders sparred over how to expand US healthcare benefits to more Americans and roll back Donald Trump’s immigration policies in the first of two back-to-back party primary debates — the first big showdown in the 2020 campaign season.
Wednesday’s debate was billed as a prime opportunity for Elizabeth Warren, the former Harvard law professor and Senate progressive, who was the only candidate on stage to poll among the top-five.
For the first half of the night, Ms Warren managed to keep a tight grip on the conversation, with many of the other candidates forced to spend their time on stage answering whether or not they agreed with her specific policy proposals, including an ultra-tax on millionaires whose families have a net worth of more than $50m and a plan to break up the country’s biggest technology companies.
On stage, the Massachusetts senator was one of just two candidates who said she would get rid of Americans’ private health insurance, an issue that has fiercely divided the Democratic Party, the other being New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.
“There are a lot of politicians who say, oh, it’s just not possible, we just can’t do it, have a lot of political reasons for this,” Ms Warren stated. “What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it. Well, healthcare is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights.”
While the majority of the Democratic contenders have argued that they are in favour of federally funded universal healthcare, only a handful have floated the possibility that such a plan would require Americans to get rid of their private health insurance coverage — an issue that could potentially alienate moderate and independent voters in the general election.
“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,” warned Amy Klobuchar, the more moderate Minnesota senator.
Mr Trump’s re-election campaign immediately seized on Ms Warren’s declaration that she planned to abolish private insurance companies, if elected.
“The far-left, socialist policies Democrats embraced tonight were akin to a mutual political suicide pact,” Kayleigh McEnany, Mr Trump’s campaign press secretary, said.
“They want to throw 200 million people off their current private healthcare plans, put them into a government-run system that would eliminate choice, and crush innocent Americans with an enormous tax burden to pay for it.”
While many political analysts gave Ms Warren an edge in the debate, Julian Castro, the former secretary for housing and urban development under Barack Obama, who has struggled to make headway in the polls, also earned praise, with NBC News reporting that the candidate’s name had seen a 2,400 per cent uptick in Google searches over the course of the night.
“On January 20, 2021, we’ll say ‘adiós’ to Donald Trump,” vowed Mr Castro, the only Latino candidate in the primary, who condemned the president’s policies at the US southern border — and the deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, whose bodies were found this week after drowning in the Rio Grande.
“Watching that image of Óscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off,” Mr Castro said.
He said if elected he would classify immigration offences as civil rather than criminal offences, and attacked Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman and fellow Texan, when he said he would not do the same.
Mr O’Rourke, who enjoyed a brief surge in the polls earlier this year but has struggled to regain his footing, had used the debate to flaunt his Spanish language skills — as did Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator, who spoke frequently about the gun violence problems facing his low-income Newark neighbourhood.
Much of the debate, however, served as a referendum for how to best take on Mr Trump, with some of the field arguing that the party should embrace a more progressive vision that would appeal to the party’s base, and others arguing that the party should hew more closely to the centre to win back middle-of-the-road voters.
“We’ve got a perception problem with the Democratic Party,” Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman, argued. “We’ve got to change the centre of gravity of the Democratic Party from being coastal, elitist and Ivy League, which is the perception to someone from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years.”
Mr de Blasio put himself firmly in the other camp.
“This is supposed to be the party of working people,” he argued. “Yes, we are supposed to be for 70 per cent tax rate on the wealthy and free college and free public college for our young people. We are supposed to break up big corporations when they are not serving our democracy.”
While Joe Biden, the former vice-president and current primary frontrunner, has dominated much of the 2020 US campaign coverage, none of the candidates onstage Wednesday addressed Mr Biden. Only one person — Mr O’Rourke — made an indirect swipe at Mr Biden, when he called for a generational change in leadership.
“We can’t return to the same old approach. We’re going to need a new kind of politics, one directed by the urgency of the next generation,” Mr O’Rourke said.
Mr Biden will be among 10 other Democrats who will appear in Thursday’s night debate, facing off against candidates including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.