MIAMI — Democratic presidential candidates leveled a stark critique of President Donald Trump’s management of the U.S. economy and immigration system 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 far more liberal lines.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts set the tone for the party’s progressive wing, declaring in her first answer of the night that the economy was tilted overwhelmingly toward the wealthy, diagnosing that as “corruption, pure and simple.” She was joined by two other lesser known candidates seeking to grab attention — Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York — in challenging other candidates from the left on matters like health care and border control.
“We need to attack it head on,” Warren said in reference to what she described as a rigged system. “And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”
But other candidates proceeded more cautiously: Without criticizing Warren or other liberal populists by name, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota suggested that certain ambitious progressive plans — to provide free college tuition, for instance, or to treat unlawful border crossings as a civil rather than criminal offense — might go too far.
And Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, while endorsing broad liberal aims, suggested he would take a determined but pragmatic approach to pursuing goals like the creation of a single-payer health care system.
The debate at moments became a free-for-all of cross talk between 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 between Republicans in 2016.
There were Democrats boasting about their executive resumes — Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington trumpeted the laws he had personally enacted as governor, 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 attending community college, and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, a wealthy businessman, emphasized his more modest roots.
And, 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.”
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, dominated the segment devoted to immigration, repeatedly 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 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 he had unveiled comprehensive immigration overhaul.
But Castro interjected that that was insufficient to only relieve those seeking asylum from criminal penalty because many of those charged for crossing the border illegally are “undocumented immigrants.”
When the debate turned to tech companies, Booker stopped short of endorsing Warren’s call to break up the biggest tech companies, 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 said “I don’t think we disagree,” adding that he also felt strongly about “the need to check corporate consolidation.”
A more clarifying moment came 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.
“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of Americans off their health insurance in just four years,” said Klobuchar, linking her more incremental approach to that of former President Barack Obama.
However, Warren won loud applause from the audience when she called health care “a human right” and, without mentioning any of her rival’s names, said that those against Medicare for All we’re really telling Americans that “ they just won’t fight for it.”
Trying to win attention from liberal voters, de Blasio went even further, interrupting the explanation by O’Rourke about why he was opposed to ending private insurance.
“How can you defend a system that’s not working?” de Blasio demanded.
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,” said Inslee.
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.
But 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. On Wednesday, 10 of the candidates took the stage at a performing arts center in Miami and another 10 were set to follow Thursday, an accommodation that still left out a few contenders.
The initial debates were not expected to pique the sort of broad interest that the first Republican faceoff did four years ago, when the anticipation of seeing a bombastic reality television star on a political debate stage drew 24 million viewers. But the forums could bring more definition to the Democratic contest.
So far, the race has been chiefly defined by a central question: Should Democrats rally behind former Vice President Joe 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, thanks in large part to his appeal with older and moderate Democrats, he is a fragile front-runner and has already seen his advantage ebb in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In recent weeks he has also come under fire from some in his party, including many of his rivals, for only reluctantly embracing public funding for abortion, and for speaking fondly of making policy in a Senate that included a pair of notorious segregationists.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont 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 — partly at Sanders’ expense — after months of laying out a series of ambitious policy proposals. But not all of these candidates will be on the same stage this week.
For Wednesday’s forum, Warren loomed well above the other nine candidates flanking her on either side. She has gained considerable strength as a champion for the party’s progressive wing, stitching together a still-developing coalition heavy on young people, women and educated liberals. In some national and early-state polls, Warren has caught up with Sanders as the second-place challenger to Biden, or come close to doing so.