“We need real solutions, not impossible promises.”
That sentiment from former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland framed the first Democratic presidential candidates’ debate Wednesday night.
Debate No. 1 saw 10 candidates appear at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. While there was widespread agreement on many issues, those on stage tussled at times over how far left the party – and the country – should go.
For the first hour, broadcast on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, Lester Holt served as a moderator alongside Savannah Guthrie and José Diaz-Balart. During the second hour, Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow served as co-moderators.
The first major disagreement of the night centered on the U.S. health care system, with candidates agreeing on more government involvement, but disagreeing on how much.
Everyone on stage said all Americans should have access to health care, pushing for some form of public option.
But they battled over whether that should be more than just an option. Two candidates, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said they would outlaw private health insurance altogether.
“I’m with Bernie (Sanders) on Medicare-for-all,” Warren said, supporting a bill backed by the Vermont U.S. Senator. He’s set to appear with another nine candidates Thursday night.
“Look at the business model of an insurance company,” she added. “It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care.”
That push to move to a single-payer system was rebuffed by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, among others.
“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health care coverage in four years, which is what this bill says,” Klobuchar argued.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke also said he would not move to abolish private health insurance.
“I think that choice is fundamental,” he argued.
DeBlasio eventually interjected, arguing private health insurance is “not working.”
“Why are you defending private health insurance?” de Blasio asked O’Rourke.
Before O’Rourke could respond, Delaney chimed in, arguing plenty of Americans are content with their private health insurance.
“I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” Delaney said. He pushed for a free public option, but defended keeping private insurance as an alternative.
Diaz-Balart then pivoted to immigration, asking the candidates about the recent deaths of Oscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter, Angie Valeria. They drowned to death in the Rio Grande trying to cross into the country to obtain asylum. Angie was just shy of her second birthday.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro called the images heartbreaking: “It should also piss us all off,” he said.
The candidates also discussed the housing of migrant children in centers such as the one operating in Homestead. Warren and Klobuchar both visited that center earlier in the day Wednesday.
O’Rourke is scheduled to visit the center Thursday. Castro will be among a group of candidates visiting the center on Friday as part of an invite from U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
But both Warren and Klobuchar were shut out from getting an actual tour of the facility. Those tours require advanced notice, officials told them. Previous trips by elected officials, including Mucarsel-Powell, have also ended with them being denied access.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio also touched on the issue of detention, arguing the conditions children are reportedly being held in is unacceptable.
“If you go to Guantanamo Bay, there are terrorists that are held that get better health care than those kids that have tried to cross the border in the United States.”
But beyond that, Castro proposed repealing section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That section makes it a crime to illegally cross the border, rather than just a civil offense. He challenged all other candidates on stage to agree to eliminate criminal liability.
That led to a back-and-forth between Castro and O’Rourke. O’Rourke has not proposed repealing that provision.
“If you truly want to change the system, then we gotta repeal that section. If not, then it might as well be the same policy,” Castro said.
O’Rourke responded the he wanted to ensure drug and human traffickers are deported. That position was echoed by Klobuchar.
De Blasio also used the issue to push his anti-one percent message.
“For all the American citizens out there who feel you’ve fallen behind, who feel the American Dream’s not working for you: the immigrants didn’t do that to you,” de Blasio said. “The big corporations did that to you. The one percent did that to you.”
With Miami playing host to the debate, the moderators also made climate change an issue.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made climate change the central focus of his campaign.
“Does your plan save Miami?” Maddow asked the Governor, referencing studies showing Miami could be underwater by 2100.
“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last that can do something about it,” Inslee argued, saying he was the only candidate to make climate change “the top priority” of his administration.
The moderators also touched on another issue pertinent to Florida: Gun violence.
Todd pressed the candidates on the issue of gun control. He mentioned Parkland, which sits just 45 minutes north of the debate site.
He asked Warren whether a proposed assault weapons ban should result in the federal government seizing those weapons from those who own them already.
After Warren gave her general gun control plan, but did not directly answer the question, Todd pressed her again.
“We need to treat it like a serious research problem,” Warren said of the gun violence issue. But she did not respond to whether she’d use the power of the federal government to take those weapons.
On the issue of gun control reform, O’Rourke argued the effort “must be led” by people like the Parkland students.
“Those students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas (High School) led the charge here in Florida,” O’Rourke said, alluding to the 2018 law passed following that attack.
“They’re making our democracy work, ensuring that our values and our interest and our priorities are reflected in the laws that we pass.”
On Iran, nine of the 10 candidates said they would re-sign the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by Barack Obama. Tensions with Iran have risen since Trump withdrew from that deal and transitioned to a stiffer set of sanctions against the Iranian regime.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was the only candidate who did not raise a hand when asked whether they would re-sign that deal. Booker explained his hesitation.
“I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal,” Booker said.
“If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”
With 10 candidates on stage during the two-hour debate, and a limited amount of time for each candidate to speak, it was a challenge for the moderators to force candidates to answer direct questions rather than stick to their respective stump speeches.
During the portion of the debate dealing with the economy, that struggle came into full focus. Candidates routinely avoided responding to precise questions, instead substituting pre-planned remarks that had little or nothing to do with the question at hand.
A question from Holt to U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii regarding equal pay for women resulted in Gabbard recapping her time serving in the military. She avoided answering the question on equal pay.
Guthrie quizzed O’Rourke on whether he would support a 70 percent tax rate for the highest-earning Americans. O’Rourke instead outlined his general thoughts on the economy.
“This economy has got to work for everyone,” O’Rourke said. “And right now, we know that it isn’t.”
That prompted a follow-up by Guthrie.
“I’ll give you 10 seconds to answer if you want to answer the direct question,” Guthrie said. “Would you support a 70 percent individual marginal tax rate? Yes, no, or pass?”
“I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone,” O’Rourke responded.
“What do you say to those who worry this kind of significant change could be risky to the economy?” Guthrie asked Warren.
She answered: “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.
“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 candidates seemed to agree on broad stroke economic issues: Raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on wealthy Americans, looking into whether some of the largest companies in the country should be broken up.
And Booker confronted the issue of those positive indicators, arguing they were the wrong metrics.
“This economy is not working for average Americans,” Booker said. “The indicators that are being used, from GDP to Wall Street’s rankings is not helping people in my community.”
Thursday’s debate will feature several top-polling candidates, including Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. That debate, also broadcast on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, will begin at 9 p.m.