Democratic hopefuls shake hands and talk after the party’s first debate ahead of the 2020 elections. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
There are people who argue that the Democratic Party’s steady leftward progression during the Trump years is largely an optical illusion—a distorted impression one gets from assigning too much significance to social media noise or flamboyant figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ten Democrats making their case to be president on a debate stage in Miami Wednesday night suggest a much different conclusion. Story Continued Below
This is a party eager to go on the ideological offensive not just against Donald Trump (whose name did not dominate the evening even as he was invoked plenty) but against an economic and political power structure that candidates argued is deeply corrupt. Liberals must be empowered to bring bad actors to heel through robust intervention of government.
Over the course of two hours, people who are inarguably some of the party’s most consequential and ascendant figures endorsed the mandatory abolition of private health insurance, sharply higher taxes on the wealthy, the decriminalization of illegal border crossings. They spoke with contempt about the alleged profiteering, manipulation, and cruelty of corporations. They argued that ordinary Americans are right to feel screwed, and multiple candidates boasted that they are tough enough to turn the screws on the victimizers, for a change.
Elizabeth Warren, because of her climb in this year’s polls, arrived on the first-night stage as the most commanding figure, and that impression seemed to be reinforced at the outset by the attention she got from NBC’s team of moderators and by the fluency and force of many of her answers, especially on economic matters.
An early defining moment came when anchor Lester Holt asked for a show of hands of “who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” Warren was one of two (New York mayor Bill de Blasio the other) who clearly raised her hand.
She is a cosponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ legislation to create single-payer “Medicare for All,” but on other occasions including a CNN town hall, she had left fuzzy whether that necessarily means that private health insurance would become illegal, as Sanders believes. “Yes,” Warren told Holt, “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All.”
She will either have to fuzz the issue up again, or fight the nominating contest and potentially general election with a clear, sharp line of demarcation on a subject that for generations has counted as among the most divisive domestic policy questions.
The absence of frontrunner Joe Biden—he and other top-tier candidates including Sanders and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg don’t take the stage until Thursday—prevented a full engagement on this and other ideological flash points.
What was notable on Wednesday night was that even the candidates who are plainly more cautious than Warren about expanding government’s role—Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, for example—struck rhetorical tones designed to convey that they are every bit as ambitious and ready to fight as she is.
At times the evening carried whiffs of the 1970s, with promises to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and several references to “industrial policy,” a phrase that was in vogue then but less so these days. But the debate seemed almost entirely to skip over the 1990s, when Bill Clinton stood for a brand of progressive centrism that often blurred ideological edges, emphasized free trade and fiscal discipline, and took a more supportive stance toward business.
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With only a few exceptions, this group of Democrats believes that more urgent problems (economic inequality, climate change) and more malevolent foes (Trump, Mitch McConnell) have changed the landscape. The party’s now seemingly subordinate centrist wing clearly will wonder: are you sure these have changed everything?
At times, NBC moderators seemed to be exploring for ideological friction, and several questions seemed on the theme of, Are you worried your opponent is too far out there?
But they often had trouble getting takers. Sen. Cory Booker was asked about his apparent disagreement with Warren about calling out individual companies by name for public censure.
“I don’t think I disagree,” he responded, underscoring the point by inveighing against Amazon, Halliburton, and “monopolistic” drug companies, many of which are headquartered in his state.
Klobuchar, pressed by a questioner, acknowledged mildly that she is concerned about the costs of some rivals’ plans, such as free four-year college, but she didn’t accept the invitation to be an evangelist for fiscal responsibility. Instead she touted her own plan for free community college and struck a populist note: “If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans.”
It fell largely to emphatically back-of-the-pack candidates like former Rep. John Delaney to stand up for something like the political gospel of Clinton or even Barack Obama (since mandatory Medicare for All amounts to a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.) “100 million Americans say they like their private health insurance,” Delaney said. “We should give everyone in this country health care as a basic human right for free, full stop. But we should also give them the option to buy private insurance. Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people?”
O’Rourke also said that private insurance, especially that negotiated by unions for their members, has an important role.
As much as specific policy proposals, it was the language that suggested changing winds within the party. De Blasio vowed he would stand up to Trump’s argument that illegal immigrants are damaging America with a different argument to working class voters: “For all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind or feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you. The big corporations did that to you. The one percent did that to you.”
He also described sharply higher taxes on upper incomes – which once would have provoked fears of the dreaded stereotype of “tax-and-spend” Democrats – as almost a default position for this year’s field: “Yes, we are supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy.”
Julian Castro, Obama’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary, made his imprint on the ideologically assertive tone of the evening on two issues: abortion and immigration.
He emphasized government insurance should pay for abortions: “I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice. And, you know, what that means is that just because a woman — or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female, is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose.”
It was on immigration that the former San Antonio mayor was most animated. He said family separations under Trump’s border policy “should piss us all off,” and spent much of his time on a position that until recently was not embraced by most liberals, making undocumented border crossings a civil matter rather than a criminal one. Warren has also endorsed this.
Although the Massachusetts senator was often less crisp on matters not relating to economy, and seemed to fade after a strong start, she became animated when asked how as president she would stand up to an obstructionist Mitch McConnell if he were still the leader of a Senate with a Republican majority.
“We are democracy and the way a democracy is supposed to work is the will of the people matters,” Warren declared. “We have for far too long had a Congress in Washington that has just completely dismissed what people care about across this country. They have made this country work much better for those who make giant contributions and better for those who hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers and have not made it work for the people…..We have to push from the outside and have leadership from the inside and make this congress reflect the will of the people.”
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