The Left's Ideas Dominated The First Democratic Primary Debate

Even when the 10 candidates disagreed with progressive orthodoxy, they were talking about it — and they mostly weren't attacking their rivals for being too extreme.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talks with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) during the first Democratic primary debate. The 2020 pre
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talks with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) during the first Democratic primary debate. The 2020 presidential candidates largely stuck to their progressive stances.

MIAMI ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) may not have spoken the most at the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, but her ideas ― and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who will be at Thursday’s debate ― drove the discussion nonetheless.

“We’ve had the laws out there for a long time to be able to fight back,” Warren said Wednesday. “What’s been missing is courage.” 

Ten candidates stood on stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall on Wednesday, but it was the party’s left-wing that controlled the night. Throughout the evening, Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed issues including decriminalizing unauthorized migrant crossings and “Medicare for All” to the forefront of the party conversation. 

Far from every candidate embraced the ideas. When moderator Lester Holt asked who on stage supported abolishing private health insurance in favor of a government-run system, only de Blasio and Warren raised their hands ― but only former Rep. John Delaney attacked it. In the second half of the night, Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke squabbled over how to handle the humanitarian crisis at the border.  

The differences laid out some of the larger existential issues facing a party that has dramatically changed since 2015, when Sanders entered the Democratic primary as a fringe candidate with ideas that were viewed as radical. 

“What we’re hearing here already in this first round of questions is that battle for the heart and soul of our party,” said de Blasio early in the evening. 

Noticeably absent from the night was any conversation about Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, who will be on stage Thursday night. Candidates had chances to go after his record on women’s rights or criminal justice but instead focused in on their own plans ― or, at times, calling out other candidates on the stage for not going far enough. 

“The center of gravity was in the direction of bold, progressive change ― on issues like challenging the insurance companies, challenging the corporate gun lobby and taking the fight to people like Mitch McConnell,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Warren. 

The NBC/Telemundo moderators Wednesday did their best to raise potential objections to the many ambitious progressive policies that have been proposed by the crowded primary field. For “Today” host Savannah Guthrie’s first question, she asked Warren what she would to say to Americans who believe the economy is doing well. For her second, she asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota if her opponents on her left were giving voters “a false sense of what’s actually achievable.” 

Even candidates who sit further to the middle employed populist language. O’Rourke referred to the economy as “rigged.” Klobuchar rattled off plans to get tough with pharmaceutical companies, declaring, “Pharma thinks they own Washington. Well, they don’t own me.”

When Booker, who represents a state where many of the largest pharmaceutical companies are based, was asked whether he would hold the big drug makers “criminally liable” for their role in the opioid crisis, he did not flinch. 

“They should absolutely be held criminally liable ― because they are liable and responsible,” he said before citing it as one of the reasons he rejects contributions from the industry’s executives and PACs. (He does not accept contributions from any corporate PACs.) 

But both de Blasio and Castro consistently filled the role of on-stage agitator anyway, attacking O’Rourke in particular after he skirted questions about marginal income tax rates and unlawful border crossings. Castro called for every other candidate on the stage to support the repeal of a law that makes it a misdemeanor to enter the U.S. without papers. 

“Let’s be very clear,” Castro said. “The reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes coming across the border, to incarcerate the parents and then separate them.” 

“Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not,” said Castro, calling it a “mistake” that needs to be fixed.

Warren, who was the target of many questions challenging her policies and philosophy, never stood down. When asked about corporate consolidation, she responded, “I want to return the government to the people, and that means calling out the names of the monopolists and saying, ‘I have the courage to go after them.’”

One of Warren’s campaign aides said later, “She did what she’s been doing ― talked about a Washington and economy that aren’t working for far too many people and about her plans for big, structural change.”

When the moderators asked Booker about past criticisms of Warren’s plans to break up big technology companies, he effectively stuck by his stance that it was premature to decide which companies needed to be dismantled. 

But he added that he believed the U.S. had “too much of a problem with corporate power growing.” As president, he said, he would assemble a Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission that would “go through the processes to check this kind of corporate concentration.”

Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, a grassroots progressive organization, had one major takeaway from the two-hour cacophony. 

“Tonight’s debate made one thing clear: Progressive ideas are at the center of debate in the Democratic Party.”