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US Democrats diverge on economy and immigration in first debate

The strength of the party's progressive wing was on vivid display in South Florida, starting in the first minutes of the debate when Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts branded the federal government as thoroughly corrupt

By Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns
Published: Jun 27, 2019

US Democrats diverge on economy and immigration in first debateCandidates take the stage for the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday night, June 26, 2019. From left: Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York; Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio; Julián Castro, the former housing secretary; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington; and former Representative John Delaney of Maryland. Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

MIAMI — Democratic presidential candidates leveled a stark critique of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and the condition of the American working class in the first primary debate Wednesday but split in unmistakable terms over just how aggressively the next president should seek to transform the country along more liberal lines.

The strength of the party’s progressive wing was on vivid display in South Florida, starting in the first minutes of the debate when Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts branded the federal government as thoroughly corrupt. Warren, the highest-polling candidate onstage, called for the government to bring to heel oil companies and pharmaceutical companies, and embraced the replacement of private health insurance with single-payer care.

“We need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country,” Warren said, setting the tone for the handful of populists in the debate.

Joining Warren in driving hard from the left were two lesser-known candidates — Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York — who sought to jump-start their campaigns by confronting rivals who hesitated to match their progressive demands on immigration, health care and national security policy.

The debate, the first of two featuring 10 candidates each, underscored just how sharply Democrats have veered in a liberal direction since Trump’s election. On issues ranging from immigration and health care to gun control and foreign policy, they demonstrated that they were far more uneasy about being perceived as insufficiently progressive by primary voters than about inviting Republican attacks in the general election.

But there were also several avowed pragmatists who voiced hesitation or outright disagreement over some of their party’s most ambitious policy demands. Most prominent among them was Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who expressed doubts about liberal plans for single-payer health care and free college education; she instead called for more modest alternatives like the creation of an optional government-backed health insurance plan.

“It’s a bold approach; it’s something that Barack Obama wanted to do,” Klobuchar said, linking her more moderate views to those of one of the most popular Democrats in the country. She added, of a single-payer bill written by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont: “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years.”

Although Warren and Klobuchar did not engage the other by name, Warren drew loud applause by retorting that politicians who suggest “Medicare for all” is impractical are really telling Americans “they just won’t fight for it.”

Other candidates tried to chart a middle path between those poles on health care, with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey saying that he supported single-payer care but would embrace more incremental options as well. “We have to do the things, immediately, that are going to provide better care,” he said.

At times the forum became a free-for-all of cross talk among candidates desperate to wedge their personalities and signature ideas into brief snippets of television airtime. But even the disagreements were squarely over matters of policy substance: There were no personal attacks or criticisms of character, and nothing resembling the Trump-style personal taunts that came to define the last crowded presidential primary, waged among Republicans in 2016.

There were Democrats boasting about their executive résumés — Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington trumpeted the laws he had personally enacted, on matters like health care and abortion rights — and those who focused on sharing aspects of their personal biographies; Klobuchar, for instance, spoke of her father, who attended community college.

Perhaps mindful of the debate’s South Florida venue, several took pains to flaunt their Spanish-language skills, particularly when it came time to discuss immigration. Among those were Booker, Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

“The situation now is unacceptable,” Booker said in Spanish, of the crisis unfolding on the Mexican border. “This president has attacked, he has demonized immigrants. I am going to change this.”

After drawing little notice initially, Booker offered a series of commanding answers in the second hour of the two-hour debate on issues such as guns and LGBT rights, and he repeatedly highlighted his residency in heavily black Newark, New Jersey.

Booker is one of two African Americans in the debate field, along with Sena. Kamala Harris of California, who will appear Thursday. Former Vice President Joe Biden enjoys an early lead in the polls thanks in part to his support among black voters.

Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, dominated the segment devoted to immigration, promoting his proposal to decriminalize illegal immigration — a policy that Warren has adopted in recent days and that Republicans have gleefully highlighted to argue that Democrats support open borders.

Turning to O’Rourke, whose unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid and presidential candidacy have overshadowed him, Castro asked his fellow Texan why he would not support making illegal immigration a civil offense. “I just think it’s a mistake, Beto,” said Castro.

O’Rourke noted that he had introduced legislation in Congress to decriminalize “those seeking asylum” and said that he had unveiled a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

But Castro interjected that it was not sufficient to only relieve those seeking asylum from criminal penalty because many of those charged for crossing the border illegally are “undocumented immigrants.”

Booker made clear that he sided with Castro on the question, an illustration of the party’s shifting center of gravity on perhaps the dominant issue of the Trump era.

While the candidates looking to break out were most eager to confront others onstage, the better-known and better-financed contenders were less eager to duel with one another.

When the debate turned to tech companies, Booker stopped short of endorsing Warren’s call to break up the biggest firms, like Facebook and Google, while saying it was clear that the economy “is not working for average Americans.”

When Booker was reminded that he had attacked Warren this year for naming some of the corporations she would break up, he retreated. “I don’t think we disagree,” he said, adding that he also felt strongly about “the need to check corporate consolidation.”

O’Rourke also declined to hit back when he found himself under attack, first by de Blasio and then by Castro.

When the moderators asked the 10 candidates which of them would support eliminating private health insurance as part of a single-payer health care plan, only Warren and de Blasio raised their hands.

“How can you defend a system that’s not working?” de Blasio demanded of O’Rourke.

Klobuchar was the most firm in staking her claim to moderate terrain and also got off a handful of one-liners that drew applause and laughs.

When Inslee boasted about his record in support of abortion rights, Klobuchar noted the gender diversity of the candidates.

“I want to say there’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said.

And she scorched Trump for his erratic Twitter posts. “I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning,” she said.

There was little discussion of foreign policy until near the end of the debate when two little-known House lawmakers, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio, clashed over how aggressively to target the Taliban.

Ryan also used his limited time to challenge his own party.“We are not connecting to the working-class people in the very states that I represent in the industrial Midwest,” he said, scorning Democrats’ “Ivy League” attitude.

De Blasio was the most aggressive candidate when it came to confronting his rivals. But it was unclear if the New York mayor, who polls indicate is disliked by those Democrats who have heard him, would reap the benefit from his carrying the liberal banner.

Warren’s repeated denunciations of economic elites and Washington’s governing class won repeated ovations. But her unabashed willingness to terminate private health care, a question she had evaded in the past, alarmed some members of her own party who fear that embracing a single-payer system would hand Republicans a political weapon in a country where nearly 60% of people are on private plans.

Warren was less precise when she asked how she would push through her agenda if Republicans still control the Senate in 2021. And while she never mentioned her rivals by name, it was clear Warren is building a case for why Democrats should reject Biden’s consensus-oriented politics.

For the most part, though, the contenders trumpeted their own proposals and résumés while training their fire on Trump and Republican economic policies, which they said were favoring the wealthy.

“He says wind turbines cause cancer. We know they cause jobs,” Inslee said.

The debate came at a moment when party activists were unified on the urgency of ejecting Trump from the White House but deeply divided over the best approach.

Dating to the day after Trump’s inauguration, when millions of women marched in U.S. cities, Democratic contempt for the president has produced a supercharged liberal activism — and prompted a new level of engagement culminating in last year’s elections, which saw the largest turnout for a midterm campaign in a half-century.

This energy has carried over into 2019, as many of the Democratic hopefuls have attracted unusually large crowds at early rallies and forums, large numbers of small-dollar donors and hundreds of volunteers who are already following every dip and rise in the race.

And for many of the party’s primary voters, the back-to-back debates represented their first extended look at the Democrats’ historically large, and diverse, field.

So far, the race has been chiefly defined by a central question: Should Democrats rally behind Biden, a moderate who is the field’s best-known candidate, or find a more progressive alternative? While Biden has proved to be resilient in the polls since entering the race in April, he is a fragile front-runner and has already seen his advantage ebb in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sanders has retained much of the grassroots and financial network that powered him to unexpected success in the 2016 Democratic race, but he has struggled to expand his appeal beyond his committed supporters.

That is in part because the party’s left flank now has a wealth of alternatives, including Warren, who has recently surged in a number of surveys after months of laying out a series of ambitious policy proposals.

©2019 New York Times News Service