2020 Election

The Biggest Highlights From Night One of the First 2020 Democratic Debate

21 minute read
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Elizabeth Warren said she’d abolish private insurance, while Amy Klobuchar questioned “kicking half of America off of their health insurance.” Julián Castro attacked Beto O’Rourke for not supporting proposals to treat border crossings as civil and not criminal issues. And nearly everyone on stage went after President Donald Trump at one point.

The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election quickly divided the 10 candidates on stage Wednesday night from those supporting more progressive proposals to those who chose a more moderate path, even as they broadly agreed on their goals.

Moderated by “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt, “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and “Noticias Telemundo” host José Diaz-Balart, the debate was held in Miami.

In the early moments of the debate, a couple candidates ducked the moderators’ attempts to get them to criticize fellow Democrats. O’Rourke, for example, declined to say whether he supported a marginal individual tax rate of 70% — first proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — on individuals who earn more than $10 million per year.

But the debate soon turned heated, as their policy differences were put under a heat lamp.

Along with Warren, Klobuchar, Castro and O’Rourke, the debate featured Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.

Here’s a look at what went down at the first debate.

Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio said they would abolish private health insurance

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In First Debate Of 2020 Election Over Two Nights
(L-R) Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke take part in the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.Joe Raedle—Getty Images

When Lester Holt asked the Democratic presidential candidates who supported getting rid of private insurance in favor of a government-run plan, only two candidates raised their hands: Warren and de Blasio.

Warren’s hand shot up. She has made instituting “Medicare-for-All” an important part of her platform.

“There are a lot of politicians who say it’s not just possible, we can’t do it … They are really telling you they won’t fight for it. Health care is a basic human right and I will fight for basic human rights,” Warren said.

The New York mayor was a bit slower to raise his hand, but soon showed his support for the idea.

A few moments later, O’Rourke started to comment that choice is important for health insurance but de Blasio cut him off, chastising him for failing to acknowledge problems with the existing health insurance system.

“Congressman O’Rourke, health insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the co-pays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out-of-pocket expenses,” de Blasio said. “It’s not working. How can you defend a system that’s not working? Congressman, you’ve got to start by acknowledging that the system is not working for people. Why are you defending private insurance to begin with?”

Klobuchar, meantime, raised doubts about moving to an entirely government-run health care system.

“It’s a bold approach — it’s something Barack Obama wanted to do when we were working on the ACA, and that is a public option,” she said. “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years, which is exactly what this bill says.”

Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and Julián Castro spoke in Spanish

Appropriately enough for a debate that was simultaneously broadcast on Telemundo, three of the candidates broke out in Spanish at various points in the debate: O’Rourke, Booker and Castro.

Castro, who does not speak fluent Spanish, sounded most at ease with it when he delivered a few simple words toward the end of the debate. O’Rourke, who represented a border district, speaks Spanish fluently and has run campaign ads in Spanish, was the first to use it right out of the gates.

Ironically, Booker, who has given an interview in Spanish on Univision and learned it in an immersion studying Ecuador, fumbled a little in the delivery.

Early in the debate, in response to a question about the top individual tax rates, O’Rourke said: “Necesitamos incluir cada persona en el éxito de este economia. Pero si queremos hacer eso, necesitamos incluir cada persona en nuestro democracia. Cada votante necesitamos la representación, y cada voz necesitamos escuchar.”

Loose translation: “We need to include every person in the success of this economy. But if we want to do that, we have to include every person in our democracy. Every vote needs representation and every voice needs to be heard.”

Moderator Savannah Guthrie then gave O’Rourke more time to answer the specific question, which was whether he would support a top marginal tax rate of 70% on the very highest earners.

“I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone. Tax capital at the same rate that you tax ordinary income. Take that corporate tax rate up to 28% you would generate the revenues you need to pay for the programs we’re talking about,” he said.

Later, in response to a question about what he would do about the immigration crisis on day one as president, Booker also answered in Spanish: “La situacion ahora es inaceptable. Es de presidente a atacado a demonozado los imigrantes es inaceptable voy a cambiar este.”

Loose translation: “The current situation is unacceptable. For the president to attack and demonize immigrants is unacceptable. I’m going to change this.”

He then switched to English, adding “On Day One, I will make sure that, No. 1, we end the ICE policies and the CBP policies that are violating human rights. When people are coming into this country they will not leave their human rights at the border.”

O’Rourke also answered the question in Spanish, which debate moderator José Días-Balart also put to him in Spanish: “Vamos a tratar cada persona con el respeto y dignidad que merecen como humanos.”

Loose translation: “We will treat each person with the respect and dignity they deserve as human.”

Switching to English, he added: “We would not turn back Valeria and her father, Oscar. We would accept them into this country and follow our own asylum laws. We would not build walls, we would not put kids in cages.”

In his closing statement, Castro, the only Hispanic in the race, added some Spanish of his own: “Me llamo Julián Castro y estoy postulando por presidente de los Estados Unidos.”

Loose translation: “My name is Julian Castro and I am running for president of the United States.”

Read More: ‘Adios to Donald Trump.’ Democratic Candidates Address Voters in Spanish in First Debate

Amy Klobuchar got off some effective one-liners

Democratic debate
Democratic presidential candidates New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (L-R), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), former housing secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, take the stage during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.Christopher Morris for TIME

Klobuchar proved effective during the debate at turning out one-liners.

After Inslee tried to bill himself as “the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health through health insurance,” Klobuchar responded: “I just want to say there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” referring to herself, Warren and Gabbard.

Later, criticizing President Donald Trump’s handling of foreign policy, she said: “This president is literally every single day … one tweet away from going to war, and I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at five in the morning.”

And she used a homespun Minnesota phrase to criticize Trump’s proposals to cut prescription drug prices, saying “that’s what we call at home ‘all foam and no beer.'”

She was not the only one with a one-liner at the ready. Early in the debate, Inslee took aim at Trump’s frequent criticism of wind turbines, which he has claimed — in what can only be described as wildly inaccurately — cause cancer.

“Donald Trump is simply wrong,” Inslee said. “He says they cause cancer. I say they cause jobs.”

Warren scored in the debate later when moderator Chuck Todd noted that she has a plan for a lot of different issues, asking if she had a plan to deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if he remained in control of the upper chamber.

“I do,” she said, pausing a beat as the crowd cheered.

Castro hit O’Rourke over immigration policy

Election 2020 Debate
Democratic presidential candidate former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami.Wilfredo Lee—AP

Castro and O’Rourke sparred in the first hour of the debate over repealing Title 18 of Section 1325, a part of U.S. code that makes entering the country illegally a misdemeanor. A highlight of Castro’s “People First” immigration plan is repealing the rule entirely, turning illegal border crossing into a civil and not criminal issue.

During the tense moment, Castro assailed O’Rourke for not wanting to repeal the title due to concerns over human trafficking. Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, told the former representative from a border region of Texas that human trafficking is still dealt with elsewhere in the code. “Do your homework,” the former Housing Secretary said.

Castro’s plan also calls for a rollback of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border.

O’Rourke’s immigration plan proposes similar measures to decriminalize immigration, also calling for addressing and analyzing the causes of migration in South American nations.

Warren’s progressive plan goes further with a proposal to decriminalize illegal border crossings entirely, saying that she wants to also repeal a similar proviso which makes entering the country after deportation without proper papers a felony.

Read More: Julián Castro Finally Had His Big Moment at the First Debate

The discussion of climate change fell short

Democratic presidential hopeful former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro (L) and Former US Representative for Texas' 16th congressional district Beto O'Rourke (R) address each other as US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker and US Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren look on during the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

Climate change may have only received a brief discussion, but it was enough time for several mistakes, misstatements and misunderstandings of the issue.

Todd asked who pays for climate change mitigation, pointing to the cost of rebuilding homes. But the term climate change mitigation actually refers to reducing emissions. Later, he asked about how to fund climate change programs given the challenges to imposing a carbon tax or other carbon pricing mechanisms. But the primary purpose of carbon pricing isn’t to raise revenue but rather to push companies to reduce emissions.

The candidates stumbled too. O’Rourke said we need to keep temperatures from rising 2°C more this century. But in fact scientists say we need to keep temperatures from rising 2°C — and ideally far below that level — above pre-industrial levels. Temperatures have already risen 1°C.

On the substance, candidates didn’t get into many of the details, though a few did manage to slip in some elements of their climate plans.

Inslee mentioned his work to create a 100% clean electricity grid in Washington state. O’Rourke said he would “mobilize” $5 trillion over ten years to green the economy. Castro said he would get the U.S. back in the Paris Agreement, widely considered to be the bare minimum of what a potential Democratic president could do to address the issue. Delaney referenced a carbon tax plan he pushed in Congress.

O’Rourke made a forceful case for impeachment

Democratic presidential hopefuls former US Representative for Texas' 16th congressional district Beto O'Rourke participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on June 26, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

The issue of impeachment came up briefly during the first debate, and only at the end. All of the candidates onstage said they believed no one was above the law.

But it was O’Rourke who came out most vocally for impeachment, claiming that proceedings in Congress need to begin immediately and that Trump should face legal consequences after he leaves office.

“If we set another precedent now that a candidate who invited the participation of a foreign power, a president who sought to obstruct the investigation into the invasion of our democracy, if we allow him to get away with this with complete impunity then we will have set a new standard and that is that some people because of the position of power and public trust that they hold are above the law and we cannot allow that to stand,” he said.

Delaney then answered, calling for a more cautious approach to the question of impeachment, echoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I support Speaker Pelosi’s decisions that she is making in the House of Representatives right now as speaker,” he said. “I think she knows more about the decision as to whether to impeach the president than any of the 2020 candidates combined.”

Tulsi Gabbard hit Tim Ryan over Afghanistan

Democratic presidential hopeful US Representative for Hawaii's 2nd congressional district Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard clashed on American involvement in Afghanistan in the second half of the debate. When Maddow asked Ryan what he would do about U.S. troops in Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban recently claimed responsibility for killing two American service members there, the Ohio Congressman said he would keep up an American presence.

“You have to stay engaged in these situations,” he said. He acknowledged that “nobody likes it, it’s long, it’s tedious” but said his career in Congress had taught him “we must be engaged.”

Gabbard did not like that answer at all. She hit back, asking him if that’s what he would tell the parents of the American soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

“As a soldier, I will tell you that answer is unacceptable. We have to bring our troops home from Afghanistan,” she said.

When Ryan tried to defend his answer, he said the Taliban would grow stronger if the U.S. pulled out. “When we weren’t in there they started flying planes into our buildings,” he added. But this only prompted another criticism from Gabbard. “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11, al Qaeda did,” she said.

The exchange ended when Ryan said he believed the U.S. couldn’t withdraw from the world as he said Trump has done.

There were some technical audio problems

Moderators Chuck Todd (L) speaks to audience during a technical problem alongside Rachel Maddow as they host the first night of the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on June 26, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

At the top of the second hour of the debate, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd tried to ask a question about gun control at the top of the second hour, but the candidates shook their heads, apparently unable to hear him.

After Todd and Rachel Maddow tried in vain for several agonizing seconds, they abruptly television viewers back to commercial break.

The candidates worked hard to tell their personal stories

Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

Throughout the debate, many of the candidates used their personal stories to introduce themselves to the audience. Gabbard frequently brought up her military service, for example, while other candidates mentioned their children or family members to emphasize their commitment to various policy issues.

At the start of the debate, Gabbard got a question about the gender pay gap but instead spoke about her military background and promised that she knew the costs of war.

“I enlisted in the Army National Guard after the al Qaeda terror attacks after 9/11 so I could go after those who attacked us on that day. I still serve as a major. I served over 16 years, deployed twice to the Middle East,” she said.

Klobuchar, in her first answer of the night, brought up her family’s education experience in response to a question about whether Democratic proposals for free college are realistic.

“I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids. I do. But I think my plan is a good one. And my plan would be to, first of all, make community college free and make sure that everyone else besides that top percentile gets help with their education,” she said. “My own dad and my sister got their first degrees with community college. There’s many paths to success, as well as certifications.”

Some of the most personal moments came during answers about gun violence and race relations in the United States.

Early in the debate, Booker referenced his neighborhood in New Jersey, saying “I live in a low-income black and brown community. I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans.”

Then when he was asked about his aggressive gun-control proposals, he again related the policies to his personal experiences. “I hear gunshots in my neighborhood,” Booker said. “I think I’m the only one, I hope I’m the only one on this panel here who had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week.”

He went on to say that he wants to take immediate action. “For millions of Americans, this is not a policy issue, this is an urgency,” Booker said. “And for those who have not been directly affected, they’re tired of living in a country where their kids have to go to school to learn about reading, writing and how to deal with an active shooter in their school.”

Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, grew emotional and spoke about his daughter when asked what he would do to address the problem of school shootings.

“I’m the dad of a 10-year-old girl, Carina, who’s here tonight. And the worst thing is knowing that your child might be worried about what could happen at school, a place that’s supposed to be safe,” he said. He went on to say that he believes he could accomplish “common sense gun reform” in 2021 if elected President.

And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also took the time to bring up his son when discussing gun policy.

“There’s something that sets me apart from all my colleagues running in this race and that is for the last 21 years I’ve been raising a black son in America,” said de Blasio, who is white. “I have had to have very, very serious talks with my son Dante about how to protect himself on the streets of our city and all over this country, including how to deal with the fact that he has to take special caution because there have been too many tragedies between our young men and our police too.”

“We need to have a different conversation in this country about guns, but also a different conversation about policing,” he said.

The candidates took some extra measures to get attention

Project Angel Food's Angel Awards 2015, Honoring Marianne Williamson & Founding Team As Well As Entertainment Industry Foundation
Marianne Williamson attends the Project Angel Food's Angel Awards 2015, Honoring Marianne Williamson & Founding Team as well as Entertainment Industry Foundation at Taglyan Cultural Complex on August 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California.Araya Diaz—2015 Getty Images

In the lull before the action began Wednesday, 2020 candidates –– both those who would be on the stage and those who didn’t make it––tried to get a little attention on social media.

Marianne Williamson sent out her own version of a debate-night drinking game.

The self-help author — who is one of Thursday night’s contenders — recommended in a press release that journalists working during the debate “substitute a yoga move for a shot of booze.” The press release suggested poses for each mention of common policy points like the Green New Deal (eagle pose) and infrastructure (low plank). “When they say Medicare For All, you just meditate,” Williamson’s release said.

In another attempt at humor, Julian Castro’s press secretary Sawyer Hackett went along with a joke about Miami Vice on Twitter. Playing the iconic Detective James Crockett, Don Johnson typically wore white or beige suits throughout the classic ‘80s series. When someone on Twitter asked if any candidates would honor Johnson’s character while in Miami, Hackett joked that his staff “may or may not have participated in a Miami Vice themed prep session earlier this week.”

John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, took a different route. After he was reportedly not recognized by security upon his arrival at the debate, Hickenlooper took to Twitter to contrast himself with President Donald Trump. “Last time, we elected the most famous candidate,” he wrote hours before Wednesday’s debate. “Let’s try something new.”

Though he did not qualify for the debates, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton announced a plan to run TV spots during MSNBC’s broadcast of both nights of debates in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa, and Nevada. “I served four combat tours in Iraq, a war I spoke out against,” Moulton wrote in a tweet on Wednesday. “I’m progressive, I’m practical, and I can beat Donald Trump.”

Steering clear of controversy, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California shared a photo with his wife and young children. “May not be the candidate who gets the most sleep tonight, but we are thrilled to be in South Florida for tomorrow’s DNC debate,” he said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Trump called the debate ‘boring’

Trump's twitter timeline in front of a screen with the Twitter logo in a patten
In this file photo, the Twitter timeline of President Donald Trump is seen on June 29, 2017, in Bydgoszcz, Poland after the President insulted TV show host Mika Brzezinski on the platform, claiming he was bullied by Mrs. Brzezinski and her co-hosts on their show Morning Joe on MSNBC.NurPhoto — Getty Images

Trump decided not to live tweet the entire first Democratic debate from aboard Air Force One on his way to Japan for the G-20 summit. Less than an hour into the debate, he weighed in with a simple criticism: “BORING!”

His campaign released a more detailed statement at the conclusion of the two-hour debate, saying, “This debate was the best argument for President Trump’s re-election and should really be counted as an in-kind contribution to the President’s campaign. The Democrats proposed a radical government takeover of American society that would demolish the American dream so many are gaining access to under the growing Trump economy.”

The statement, attributed to Trump’s 2020 national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, specifically critiqued the Democrats’ push to eliminate private health insurance (only Warren and de Blasio said they would do away with private health insurance entirely), and their immigration proposals, saying the Democrats need to promote stronger border security measures.

“The far-left, socialist policies Democrats embraced tonight were akin to a mutual political suicide pact,” the statement said.

Trump had been talking about some of the candidates ahead of their first appearances onstage, including to TIME. In an interview in the Oval Office with TIME on June 17, Trump said “Biden is not the same Biden.” He said, “Harris has not surged” and “Bernie is going in the wrong direction.” He acknowledged that Warren is “doing pretty well,” but continued calling her by his derisive nickname for her, “Pocahontas.” And he said, “I don’t believe Mayor Pete has a chance.” Whether or not the president weighs in on Twitter as the debates go on, he offered one overall prediction to TIME: “I would say that probably a progressive wins” the primary.

About an hour before the first debate, on his flight to Japan, Trump criticized Biden on Twitter for his role in passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bipartisan bill that Trump claimed “inflicted great pain on many, but especially the African American Community.” It was the president’s first swipe at a candidate on debate day, though the former Vice President was not on the debate stage the night Trump tweeted about him.

He also criticized NBC for the audio mishap.

Read More: Transcript of Trump’s TIME Interview About 2020

Everyone prepared for a second night of debates on Thursday

The next group of candidates — including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris — will take the stage on Thursday.

The next debates will be broadcast on CNN from Detroit on July 30 and 31.

With Philip Elliott and Vera Bergengruen in Miami; Tessa Berenson, Charlotte Alter, Justin Worland, Abby Vesoulis, Alana Abramson and Will Kubzansky in Washington; and Mahita Gajanan, Rachel Greenspan, Abigail Abrams and Kathy Dowd in New York.

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