MIAMI — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised her hand as one of the only Democratic presidential contenders willing to abolish her own private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan, demanding “structural change” in the economy and the government as Democrats met on the debate stage for the first time in the 2020 presidential season.
Warren’s position highlighted a rift within her party’s most ambitious contenders over how to approach inequality in America in a prime-time meeting that marked the unofficial starting line for the Democratic Party’s quest to wrest the White House from Donald Trump and deny him a second term.
The debate marked a new phase in the 2020 presidential season as Democrats seek to break out from the crowded field. While the candidates have been courting voters in key states for several months already, the vast majority of the nation has yet to pay close attention to the diverse field.
On immigration, the Democratic presidential hopefuls were united in blaming Trump for the deaths of a migrant father and his toddler daughter whose bodies were seen in searing photographs after they drowned in the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro said, “Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter Valeria was heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off.”
But the candidates didn’t agree on everything. Castro assailed fellow Texan and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke for not calling for fully decriminalizing crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
O’Rourke said he doesn’t support fully decriminalizing such border crossings because of fears about smugglers of drugs and people.. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also sided with Castro, arguing for full decriminalization
Most of Warren’s rivals Wednesday night, including former O’Rourke and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, called for universal health care, but also favored preserving the private insurance market. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will be in a second debate group Thursday night, has proposed a “Medicare for All” system without private insurance, and Warren said she agreed with him.
On economic fairness in general, Warren declared, “Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. … That is corruption pure and simple … and we need to make structural change.”
One of the few voices for the moderate wing of the Democratic Party on stage, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, pushed back: “We should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” he said. “Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who joined Warren in raising his hand on health insurance, cast the debate as part of “the battle for the heart and soul of our party.”
Wednesday night featured a collection of 10 candidates, led by Warren, on national television for two hours. The overall field is so large that a second group of 10 Democrats, led by early front-runner Joe Biden, are to debate 24 hours later.
The groupings were chosen at random by debate host NBC.
Democrats are unified in their deep desire to beat Trump but divided on what kind of candidate is best positioned to do so.
On one side: candidates like Warren who are demanding dramatic change that includes embracing liberal policy priorities like free universal health care, debt-free college, a forgiving immigration policy and higher taxes on the rich. On the other: pragmatic-minded Democrats like Biden — and little-known former Maryland Rep. John Delaney — who are calling for modest policy solutions that could ultimately attract bipartisan support.
Wednesday’s slate also featured Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio, along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Trump, the elephant not in the room, was in the air traveling to Japan for a round of trade talks as Democrats faced the nation for the first time in the 2020 campaign.
Earlier in the day, he confirmed that he would watch the debate from Air Force One.
His first tweet of the night: “BORING!”