Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined forces to defend their progressive policy ideas from a host of attacks by their more moderate rivals during Tuesday night’s 2020 Democratic primary debate.
The debate, which was hosted by CNN in Detroit, opened with an intense discussion of how to expand health care to all Americans, and then saw the candidates tackle immigration, gun control, race relations, trade and even climate change.
Many voters had noted they wanted to see more focus on climate change after the first round of debates in June, something the CNN moderators noted when brought up the topic Tuesday night.
In addition to Sanders and Warren, tonight’s CNN debate stage includes South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, two of the youngest candidates in the race. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney will also be on stage, along with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (making his presidential debate debut) and returning self-help author Marianne Williamson.
On many of the questions, moderates including Delaney, Ryan, Hickenlooper and Bullock went after Sanders and Warren, calling their ideas unrealistic or even downright “bad policy.” The moderators also prompted Warren to criticize Sanders at times, but she avoided taking the bait. Instead, the two liberal Senators aggressively explained their policies and largely agreed as they took on their fellow candidates’ jabs.
The debate took place amid the context of President Donald Trump’s recent Tweets targeting the city of Baltimore and Rep. Elijah Cummings, and his racist comments toward four progressive Congresswomen of color, which several candidates referenced.
During the second night of the CNN debate tomorrow, breakout moments could come from former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who will once again face off during the second night of the debates. Harris confronted Biden about his previous positions on school busing during June’s debates, and the two candidates along with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have traded barbs about race relations and criminal justice in the weeks since.
The stakes are particularly high this time, as candidates will have to meet polling and donor thresholds that are twice as high to make it to the next round of debates. That means round two could be more contentious than the first debates last month, as candidates take one of their last opportunities to stand out in front of a national cable audience.
Here are live updates from night one in Detroit.
Candidates fought over Medicare for All
The first question of the night from CNN moderator Jake Tapper was about Medicare for All, and it inspired a fierce back-and-forth between Sanders and Delaney, and then many of the candidates on the stage. Tapper asked Sanders about Delaney calling his Medicare for All plan “bad policy” and how the Vermont Senator would respond to his fellow candidate.
Sanders initially responded by simply saying “You’re wrong,” which received applause from the audience. He then recited statistics about how many people do not have insurance in the United States and emphasized one of his signature talking points that “health care is a human right.”
Delaney hit back, arguing that Sanders’ plan would remove choice. “Why do we have to be the party of taking something away?” he asked.
After the two engaged in a heated debate about the merits of the plan, Warren jumped into the fight defending Sanders and making her own case for Medicare for All.
In one of the more explosive moments of the early section, Warren accused Delaney and Tapper of using Republican talking points to talk about health care.
“Look, let’s be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do. And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care,” she said.
‘Something is broken.’ Buttigieg on gun violence
When asked what specifically he would do to address gun violence, the South Bend, Ind. mayor got personal.
“This is the exact same conversation we’ve been having since I was in high school,” Buttigieg said, citing that he was a junior in high school at the time of the 1999 Columbine shooting.
When Klobuchar blamed the nation’s gun problems on the NRA’s political power, Buttigieg argued it’s because of a lack of common-sense gun control and universal background checks that shootings continue to happen across the country, and that things haven’t changed since Columbine.
“I was part of the first generation that saw routine school shootings. We have now produced the second school shooting generation in this country,” Buttigieg said. “We dare not allow there to be a third.”
Buttigieg also had a message for his younger constituents back home who have shared with him their fears of school shootings. “We’re supposed to be dealing with this so that you don’t have to. High school is hard enough without having to worry about getting shot,” he said.
Multiple candidates criticized Sanders’ student loan debt proposal
Moderator Dana Bash asked Buttigieg why he did not support Sanders’ $1.6 trillion plan to wipe out all student loan debt in America, even though the mayor and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, would stand to have six figures of debt forgiven through the plan.
“Well, it’d be great for us,” the mayor replied. “But then the next day there would be a student loan program, people would be taking out student loans.” Instead, Buttigieg advocated for expanding Pell grants and the public service loan forgiveness program.
Klobuchar also critiqued Sanders’ plan. “My problem with some of these plans is that they would literally pay for wealthy kids, for Wall Street kids, to go to college,” she said.
However, Sanders’ plan found a defender in Williamson, who argued that “the best thing you could do to stimulate the U.S. economy is to get rid of this debt.” She also fired back at the others for criticizing the plan: “I’ve heard some people here tonight, I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” she said. “You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people.”
Racism and reparations
Asked to respond to Trump’s recent attacks on people of color who have criticized him and his strategy of stoking racial tensions, candidates discussed their ideas for handling systemic racism. “We’ll call out his racism for what it is,” O’Rourke said.
Moderators then asked Warren to how she would combat the rise of white supremacy in the U.S. She echoed O’Rourke: “We need to call out white supremacy for what it is: domestic terrorism,” she said. Warren cited her plan to address education, through which she said she’d put $50 billion in historically black colleges and universities and cancel student loan debt to help narrow the racial wealth gap in the U.S.
The conversation moved on to reparations, which Williamson has made a major part of her campaign platform. Williamson outlined her proposal of paying $200 to $500 billion in reparations for slavery and systemic racism as part of an attempt to heal the “injustice that continues form a toxicity underneath the surface” of the U.S.
“People heal when there is some deep truth telling,” Williamson said in support of her reparations plan. “We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with. That great injustice has had to do with the fact that there was 250 years of slavery, followed by another 100 years of domestic terrorism.”
Williamson invoked the “forty acres and a mule” promise made to former enslaved people to provide them reparations after the Civil War in explaining her plan. By giving reparations, she argued, Americans can face the darkness wrought by racism. “What makes me qualified to say $200-500 billion?” she said. “If you did the math of the forty acres and a mule, given that there was four to five million slaves at the end of the Civil War … and they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for every family of four, if you did the math today it would be trillions of dollars, and I believe that anything less than a hundred billion dollars is an insult.”
Warren: ‘For Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid’
When debate moderators appeared to encourage Warren to go after Sanders by asking if calling herself a capitalist was an attempt to separate the two candidates, she made a big moment with a searing remark against Delaney instead.
“We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else,” Warren said. “And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right, and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid — and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.”
Delaney rebutted with a shot at Warren’s progressive politics: “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises. When we run on things that are workable, not fairy-tale economics.”
The former congressman added that encouraging the government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector to work together should “be our model going forward.”
But Warren, who says corporate corruption is the biggest problem in Washington, had her own comeback. “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said to uproarious applause from the Detroit audience. “I don’t get it.”
Flint water crisis draws different responses from Williamson and Klobuchar
A question submitted by a Michigan voter asked what the candidates would do to prevent “another Flint.”
Klobuchar, who noted that she was the first of the candidates to release an infrastructure plan, committed to a trillion-dollar investment that she said she would paid for by upping the capital gains rate. Trump, she added, had “promised that he was going to do that on election night if anyone remembers, and then he hasn’t followed through.”
Williamson also criticized Trump’s inaction on the issue, saying, “We have an Administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act.” But she also appeared to take a swipe at her opponents for focusing on policy details: “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this President is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
Hickenlooper went on the attack
Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, went on the attack several times during the debate, gunning for Trump, as well debate opponent Sanders.
Hickenlooper said Trump’s presidency was committing “malpractice” by hurting farmers, harming manufacturing jobs and creating international crises.
“It’s negligent, improper, illegal activity for doctors or public officials. Google it. Check it out. Donald Trump is malpractice personified,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper also argued that he is better equipped to take on Trump than Sanders. He took aim at several policies Sanders has championed, especially at Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal. He argued that Americans will resist a policy that would take away their current health insurance. He also said the Green New Deal’s policy of guaranteeing people government jobs would be a “disaster at the ballot box.”
In a viral moment, Hickenlooper turned to Sanders and told him that his proposals are “not going to happen” and that Sanders should “throw [his] hands up.”
Decriminalization on border crossings continued to divide Democratic candidates
Although Julian Castro won’t be onstage until tomorrow night, his call to decriminalize border crossings during the June debates became a litmus test for tonight. Last month, Castro directly went after fellow Texan O’Rourke for treating border crossings as a criminal offense rather than a civil one.
When asked directly about decriminalization, Warren argued in favor of it, while O’Rourke doubled down on his stance against it, saying that he would institute policies to help Central Americans so they don’t need to make the journey, but also “reserve the right to criminally prosecute them.” Meanwhile, Buttigieg offered a noncommittal answer, saying that the decision between civil and criminal proceedings would depend on the circumstances.
Delaney criticized Warren’s plan for a wealth tax
Warren and Delaney offered differing visions as to how they’d increase taxes on the wealthy.
Warren promoted one of the signature components of her platform – the wealth tax. She argued that she would tax 2 cents on every dollar of assets above $50 million that the wealthy have.
Warren argued that the tax could fund universal preschool, expand the Pell Grant Program, provide $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities, contribute to higher wages for childcare workers and preschool teachers, and eliminate the majority of student debt.
“It tells you how badly broken this economy is that 2 cents from the wealthiest in this country would let us invest in the rest of America,” Warren said.
CNN’s Don Lemon pointed out that Delaney’s $65 million fortune would make him subject to the wealth tax, and asked the former congressman whether wealthy people should face higher taxes.
Delaney responded that while he feels the wealthy should face higher taxes, it should be through a capital gains tax.
“There is no reason the people who invest for a living should pay less than the people who work for a living,” Delaney said. He argued that Warren’s wealth tax is unrealistic.
“The wealth tax will be fought in court forever, it’s arguably unconstitutional, and the countries that have had it have largely abandoned it because it’s hard to implement,” Delaney said.
The candidates delivered debate opening and closing statements
- Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper leaned on his experience as a small business owner, former mayor and former governor to back his assertion that he knows how to solve issues. “I’m as progressive as anybody else up on this stage, but I’m also pragmatic,” he said. “I know I can get results.”
- Sanders: Sanders said he was standing up for the working class of America as he closed his debate appearance with a reference to growing up living paycheck-to-paycheck during his childhood. He strongly urged voters to “stand up and take on the greed and corruption of the ruling class of this country,” while noting skyrocketing prices for medicines such as insulin and his desire to take on Wall Street and the prison industrial complex. “We need a mass political movement,” he said.
- Klobuchar: Klobuchar said that as President she would go after the pharmaceutical industry in reference to the opioid crisis. She also invoked Trump in her closing statement. “We have a President where people turn off the TV when they see him. Not me. I will make you proud as your President.”
- Ryan: Rather than capturing the “moderate lane” or “left lane” of the debate, Ryan had another goal in mind. “I hope tonight, at some level, I captured your imagination,” he said, emphasizing bipartisan policymaking. “Your imagination about what this country could be like, if we united, if we put together real policies that weren’t left or right, but new or better.”
- Williamson: “We need a plan to solve institutionalized hatred, collectivized hatred and white nationalism,” Williamson said in her closing remarks, after discussing issues of race and her plan for paying reparations to the descendants of slaves throughout the debate. “And in order to do that, we need more than political insider game and wonkiness and intellectual argument. Those things will not defeat Donald Trump. We need some radical truth telling.”
- Delaney: Delaney’s message at the end of the debate was that of “restoring” the nation. “I promise as President, I will restore vision, unity and leadership and decency to this country and that’s why I’m running for President,” he said.
- Bullock: Closing his first presidential debate, the Montana governor shared his story of growing up in a single-parent household that sometimes lived paycheck-to-paycheck, to connect with the working-class. Bullock said he wants to. “make sure that Americans know that when Washington’s left them behind in the economy and the political system, I’ll be there.”
- O’Rourke: “We are as divided and polarized as a country as we have ever been,” and pitched his ability to unify the country, citing his unsuccessful run for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat that appealed to red-state independents and Republicans.
- Buttigieg: again referenced his youth: “By 2030, we will have passed the point of no return on climate, there will be 130 million more guns on our streets,” he said. “I’ll been in my 40s then.”
- Warren: Seemingly referencing earlier controversies regarding her claims of Native American ethnicity, Warren said, “for decades, we have had a government that has been on the side of the rich and the powerful … and that means that it has not been on the side of everyone else. Not on the side of people living on our Native American reservations, people living in inner cities, people living on small farms and small communities across this country.”
- Bullock: The Montana Governor emphasized his red-state credentials and ability to beat Trump. “I come from a state where a lot of people voted for Donald Trump,” he said, describing himself as “a pro-choice, pro-union populist Democrat who won three elections in a red state, not by compromising our values but by getting stuff done.”
- Delaney: Delaney directly criticized Sanders and Warren for policies “like Medicare for All, free everything, and impossible promises that’ll turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected…or we can nominate someone with new ideas to create universal health care for every American. with choice.”
- Ryan: Calling the American political system “broken,” the congressman urged the U.S. to find new “bold” and “realistic” solutions to its problems. “America is great,” he said, “But not everyone can access America’s greatness. The systems that were built to lift us up are now suffocating the American people.”
- Williamson: Williamson used her opening statement to address ways the country must change, rather than specific policy issues. “Conventional politics will not solve this problem because conventional politics is part of the problem,” she said. “We the American people must rise up and do what we do best, and create a new possibility.”
- Hickenlooper: The former governor of Colorado started with a dig at candidates like Warren and Biden. “Now I share their progressive values, but I’m a little more pragmatic,” he said. But he also highlighted his experience working in the private sector as well as his state’s economic success. “What we focused on was making sure that we got people together to get things done. To provide solutions to problems. To make sure that we worked together, and created jobs,” he said of Colorado. “That’s how we’re going to beat Donald Trump, that’s how we’re going to win Michigan and the country.”
- Klobuchar: Klobuchar used her opening statement to make the case that she is the best candidate to defeat Trump. She contrasted herself with the President, noting that she is the granddaughter of miner and daughter of teacher and newspaperman, and promised that she will govern with “integrity.”
- O’Rourke: O’Rourke presented himself as the candidate who can help Americans come together and overcome “cruelty and fear from a lawless President.” “Before our differences, we know that before we are anything else we are Americans first. And we will ensure each one of us is well enough, and educated enough and well-paid enough to realize our full potential,” O’Rourke said.
- Buttigieg: Buttigieg emphasized his relative youth. “We’re going to be able to meet this moment by recycling the same arguments, policies and politicians that have dominated Washington for as long as I’ve been alive,” he said. “We’ve got to summon the courage to walk away from the past and do something different.”
- Warren: Warren came out swinging against corruption in her opening statement. “Our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump. Donald Trump is part of a corrupt rigged system that has helped the wealthy and well connected and kicked dirt in the faces of everyone else,” she said. Calling for Democrats to be the party of major structural change, the senator said, “We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness.”
- Sanders: “We have got to take on Trump’s racism, sexism, xenophobia and come together in an unprecedented grassroots movement.”
CNN’s moderators warned at the beginning of Tuesday’s debate that they would strictly enforce time limits and they weren’t joking.
As candidates debated health care policy, many struggled to get their points across in the allotted time, with moderators continually interjecting to clip them off. CNN’s rules allowed a 60-second response for a question from a moderator and a 30-second response for a rebuttal.
Which candidates were at the second Democratic debate
For those who watched the first debate in June, there were be many familiar faces. Almost all of the candidates who qualified for the June debate made the July debates, in part because both debates had the same qualifications (candidates had to register at least 1% in three polls from a predetermined set of surveys, as well as recruit 65,000 individual donations).
The one exception? Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was new to the stage. Bullock is replacing California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who dropped out of the race on July 8.
The candidates who qualified are, in alphabetical order:
- Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
- Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
- South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
- New York Mayor Bill de Blasio
- Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney
- Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
- New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
- California Sen. Kamala Harris
- Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
- Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
- Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke
- Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan
- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
- Marianne Williamson, self-help author
- Andrew Yang, businessman
CNN divided the candidates into two nights of 10 candidates during a live airing of their debate draw on July 18. The debate’s second night will include front-runner Biden, Harris, Booker, Castro and more.
The candidates who didn’t qualify for the second debate
Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak joined the race just days before the first round of debates in June, and didn’t qualify for either of the first two debates. Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge-fund manager and Democratic donor who launched his campaign earlier this month, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Miramar, Fla. and Mayor Wayne Messam also failed to qualify for the CNN-hosted debate.
How the candidates are doing in the polls
The latest national polls show Biden holding on to his favorability lead with an average of 29%. Warren and Sanders are in a virtual tie for second at around 15% each, though Harris isn’t far behind them at 12%. Buttigieg is registering at a more distant 5%, while the rest of the field is averaging below 3%.