The first night of the second Democratic debate showcased more moderate candidates directly challenging their more liberal and better-known rivals on core issues including health care, immigration and border security, climate, and trade.
On stage Tuesday, with highest-polling candidates in the middle, were author Marianne Williamson; Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); former congressman Beto O’Rourke; former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper; former Maryland congressman John Delaney; and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
The health-care fight: A fiery exchange erupted early over health care, as the centrists charged that Sanders and Warren would lead Democrats into likely defeat by embracing a Medicare-for-all system. [Get a breakdown of three key disputes here.]
When moderator Jake Tapper asked Sanders if he could guarantee that his Medicare-for-all plan would improve coverage for union members, Sanders said yes, prompting Ryan to interject, “You don’t know that, Bernie.” Sanders snapped, “I do know – I wrote the damn bill!”
Delaney, a former health-care executive, suggested his liberal rivals were hopelessly naive. “I’m the only one on the stage who actually has experience in the health-care business, and with all due respect, I don’t think my colleagues understand the business,” he said.
Warren responded that centrists like Delaney and Bullock were sounding like Republicans, a grave insult on this stage. “We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take health care away from anybody. That’s what Republicans are trying to do,” she said.
Want a breakdown of where the candidates stand on key issues around health care, beyond Medicare-for-all? We’ve got you covered.
– David A. Fahrenthold, Sean Sullivan, Annie Linskey
The electability question: The candidates also clashed over who could claim the one trait that polls suggest Democratic voters value most: electability.
Hickenlooper has run Facebook ads saying that Democrats won’t win in 2020 if they nominate a “socialist” — a clear punch at Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic socialist — and he expanded on that Tuesday night, saying plans like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all will make it easy for Trump to prevail.
“That is a disaster at the ballot box, you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” he said. Sanders shot back by pointing to public polls that show him beating Trump in a head-to-head matchup and touting his victories in the 2016 primary in Wisconsin and Michigan, two traditionally Democratic states where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
Ryan had a similar warning. “We’ve talked about decriminalizing the border, and we’ve talked about giving free health care to undocumented workers when so many Americans are struggling to pay for their health care,” he said. “I quite frankly don’t think that that is an agenda that we can move forward on.”
Warren framed such warnings as fear of standing up for principle. “We can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in,” Warren said. “I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.”
Challenge to Republicans: Buttigieg turned an unrelated question into a memorable challenge to Republicans who he said were tolerating the behavior of a racist, immoral president.
The South Bend mayor recalled former Ku Klux Klan leader and onetime Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke. The GOP had denounced Duke in the 1990s, Buttigieg said, but today Republicans were reconciling themselves to Trump’s racist rhetoric.
He addressed Republican members of Congress as though they were watching: “When the sun sets on your career … the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment, [with] this president, you had the courage to stand up to him.”
-David A. Fahrenthold
Arguing for reparations: When the discussion turned to race, some of the candidates offered possibly their most forceful endorsements yet for reparations to be distributed to descendants of slaves.
O’Rourke said he would sign a congressional reparations bill, and he talked about the legacy of Jim Crow era. Williamson cast her plan as a blueprint to provide a “200 to 500 billion-dollar payment of a debt that is owed.”
Sanders, who is not advocating reparations, said he favors a bill backed by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) that would address some of the impacts of slavery still being felt today.
In what could be seen as a dig at Warren — whose mantra is that “I have a plan” to deal with many big issues — Sanders said, “In terms of education, I also have a plan,” which would combat racial disparities.
The candidates sharply condemned Trump’s comments about minority members of Congress and his hardline policies toward immigrants and Muslims. And they underscored the challenges African Americans continue to face across the country due to racism.
“You walk into an emergency room and your reports of pain will be taken less seriously,” Buttigieg said, part of his enumeration of the added challenges faced by African Americans.
– Sean Sullivan
Decriminalizing border crossings: Continuing the clash between the liberals and centrists, the more moderate Democrats criticized Sanders and Warren for proposing the decriminalization of forbidden border crossings and took aim at Sanders’s proposal to offer free health care to undocumented immigrants.
“We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give free healthcare to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that,” said Bullock. By appearing to encourage illegal immigration, he added, “You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands.”
Ryan agreed: “If you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s a stretch for us to ask undocumented people to pay for their healthcare.”
Sanders responded by citing the desperate plight of many immigrants: “If a mother and a child walk thousands of miles on a dangerous path, in my view, they are not criminals.”
– David A. Fahrenthold
Climate change: The candidates also differed over the Green New Deal to tackle climate change.
“The climate crisis is the existential crisis for our world — it puts every living thing on this planet at risk,” said Warren, who supports the plan. She said she would spend $2 trillion on research to create new clean-energy technologies, adding, “Anyone in the world can use it, so long as you build it right here in America.”
Several others took a more modest approach. Ryan proposed a mass changeover of gas-burning cars to electric autos, prompting Sanders to respond with a call for even bolder efforts. “I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas!” Sanders said.
“You don’t have to yell,” Ryan said, noting that their aims were similar.
Buttigieg seized the opportunity to argue that since the candidates’ aims were so similar on climate, the question came down to who was most likely to win in 2020. “We will deal with climate if and only if we win the presidency,” he noted.
– David A. Fahrenthold
Attack and counter-attack on trade: Warren was pressed to defend her far-reaching plan dictating that the United States would sign trade deals with only countries that embrace specific policies, like reducing greenhouse gases, improving worker protections and fighting corruption.
Delaney, the low-polling former Maryland congressman who emerged as the night’s chief antagonist of the liberals, took aim. “We can’t isolate ourselves from the world. We can’t isolate ourselves from Asia,” he said, asserting that Warren’s plan would be so restrictive that “we would not be able to trade with the United Kingdom.”
Warren responded that the current system was in effect more radical, since it focused on the needs of large multi-national corporations instead of average workers. “What the congressman is describing as ‘extreme’ is having deals that are designed by American workers for American workers,” Warren said.
Hickenlooper implied that Warren’s approach resembles Trump’s, adding, “Trade wars are for losers.”
-David A. Fahrenthold
Williamson’s unusual message: Williamson continued her approach from last month’s debate of arguing that the country’s problems run deeper than politics and policy, but involve psychological and spiritual issues.
After a discussion of infrastructure, the author also said that the Democratic field needs to move away from the weeds of detailed policies and plans.
“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days,” Williamson said.
The debate rules: CNN is hosting and broadcasting the event; Tuesday night included candidate opening and closing statements, as well as introductions, and the program started at 8 p.m. and ended after 10: 30 p.m. ET. CNN journalists Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper are moderating both nights.
Unlike last time, the rules stipulate that there will be no questions requiring a show of hands from the candidates. Frequent interruptions by a particular candidate will result in reduced time for that candidate to speak on other occasions. Candidates have 60 seconds to respond to questions and 30 seconds for rebuttals.
Night two will feature a rematch between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who clashed in last month’s debate. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who has sparred with Biden in recent days, will join them and could challenge one or both on criminal justice policies.
The Wednesday lineup is Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.); Biden; Booker; former housing secretary Julián Castro; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii); Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.); Harris; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; and businessman Andrew Yang.