Health care sparked some of the most intense exchanges in the first debate among Democratic presidential candidates, who agreed that Americans must have universal insurance coverage but differed about whether that means the demise of private plans.
Among the 10 candidates on the stage in Miami on Wednesday, only Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands when all were asked who would abolish private insurance plans in favor of a government-run system.
Warren, who supports a plan to use the government’s Medicare program to provide health coverage, said insurance companies have a profit motive to raise as much as they can in premiums while not making payments, and “Medicare for all solves that problem.”
De Blasio, who’s been struggling to gain a following in the crowded Democratic race, interjected when former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he doesn’t support abolishing private insurance. “Hey, wait, wait, Congressman O’Rourke, Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans,” he said.
It was the biggest area of disagreement among 10 of the Democrats seeking the party’s nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in the first of two nights of debate. Many of the candidates are generally aligned on major issues, if not always solutions.
The debate started with general agreement that the U.S. economy is too tilted to benefit the wealthy. The health care debate provided the first chance for lower-polling candidates such as de Blasio and former Representative John Delaney, who represent the ideological ends of the Democratic field, to get the attention of a national audience.
Delaney got big applause when he questioned why the candidates would take away private employer insurance when it’s working. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also said she doesn’t support undermining private insurance, and tried, without success, to join the debate while moderators regularly called on Warren.
Despite the disagreement on health insurance, the candidates largely eschewed directly challenging Warren, the top-polling candidate on the stage. Warren started the first debate among Democratic presidential candidates with a robust defense of her plans for “structural” change to the U.S. economy, saying the current system is tilted far too much to benefit the wealthy.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy, that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption pure and simple,” Warren said. “We need to call it out, we need to attack it head on and we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”
The economy, taxes, income inequality and the question of breaking up big companies dominated the opening rounds of the debate.
Trump, who is traveling to Japan for a summit of the Group of 20 nations delivered his verdict in a tweet sent during a stopover in Alaska: “BORING!”
The debates come at a fraught time internationally and domestically. There are heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran after an unmanned American drone was shot down, and Trump is engaged in a trade war with China while fighting with Democrats on immigration amid a humanitarian crisis on the southern border.
Warren, Harris and Klobuchar are among the Democratic candidates who visited a detention center in Florida this week to highlight the wrenching conditions for migrants, including children, as Congress debates different versions of an aid bill that must be reconciled.
Castro and O’Rourke, who’ve crossed paths for years as rising stars among Texas Democrats, tussled over whether to eliminate a law that criminalizes unauthorized border crossings, something Castro urged all the candidates on the stage to support. O’Rourke opposes it.
“I just think it’s a mistake, Beto, I think it’s a mistake,” Castro said, challenging O’Rourke to support eliminating a criminal statute. The congressman responded with a defense of keeping the law in place, arguing that he’d add to it a carve-out to protect asylum seekers while keeping in place a law used to combat human and drug traffickers.
Hinting at the frequent knock on O’Rourke as insufficiently focused on policy, Castro told him: “I think that you should do your homework on this issue. If you did your homework on this issue, you would know we should repeal this section.”
The nationally televised debates in Miami is splitting the candidates into groups of 10 on Wednesday and Thursday, with each face-off including a mix of top-tier and lower-polling contenders. Warren is the highest-polling candidate on Wednesday night, trailing front-runner Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who appear on Thursday.
It is the first time so many of the Democratic hopefuls will appear together on the same stages after months of individual town halls and events in early primary and caucus states. With so many of the candidates largely aligned on the big issues, the debates provide an opportunity to set themselves apart, especially for those at the back of the pack.
At least a dozen debates are scheduled. A slip by one of the front-runners or a breakout performance by one of the lower-polling contenders has the potential to shake up the race, which has been dominated by Biden, Sanders, Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Howard Dean, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and candidate for the party nomination, said he expects the field of 24 candidates will eventually be cut to 10 candidates before the first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses in February.
Donna Brazile, another former DNC chairwoman who appeared with Dean at a Washington Post forum on Wednesday, agreed that no more than half of the current candidates will remain in the race by early next year. She said the first rounds of debates will give lower-tier candidates enough exposure to determine in a matter of months whether they can raise enough money and gain a big enough following to sustain their campaigns.
“We’ll be down to a rational number by Easter,” Brazile said.
The candidates aren’t being given much time to make their cases in the first debates. There are no opening statements, and they’ll be allotted 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to any follow-ups.
The party is also divided about whether to pursue impeachment proceedings against Trump, with Special Counsel Robert Mueller set to testify before Congress on July 17. While many in the field have called for it, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has resisted without an “ironclad” case and out of concerns about bolstering Trump’s re-election.
Warren shared Wednesday stage with O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who are polling behind the top five, as well as seven candidates who are generating less that 3% in most polls: Klobuchar, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan, de Blasio, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Delaney.
The Massachusetts senator has steadily risen in polls over the last two months and distinguished herself in the crowded field so far with a breadth of policy positions. They include a proposed annual tax on households with a net worth of more than $50 million and a 7% tax on company profits of more than $100 million.
Warren has been focused on claiming the mantle of leader of the party’s progressive faction, and she contrasts her plans with the more incremental approach of Biden, who is focusing his campaign almost entirely on Trump.
Biden and Sanders will join rivals including Harris and Buttigieg in Thursday night’s debate.
Three candidates did not qualify for the debates: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Florida, and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton. Bullock’s campaign says he has already met the qualifications to be on stage for the second round of debates, set for Detroit on July 30 and 31 and hosted by CNN.