Wednesday’s Debate Showed the Democrats Are (Mostly) Moving Left

A look at eight key exchanges.

Candidates respond to a question from the moderators on Night 1 of the 2020 Democratic Primary debates in Miami on Wednesday.
Candidates respond to a question from the moderators on Night 1 of the 2020 Democratic Primary debates in Miami on Wednesday. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Wednesday, roughly half the Democrats running for president in 2020 met for their first debate. The field didn’t include former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or other candidates who will meet in a second debate on Thursday. But Wednesday’s forum made clear that within the party, the left is rising, and the center is in retreat. This is a shift from previous Democratic primaries in which moderates held the high ground—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton—and in which centrist principles such as deficit reduction, border enforcement, and private health insurance were taken for granted. Here’s a look at the key exchanges.

1.     Health insurance. NBC’s Lester Holt asked the candidates, “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” Two candidates, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, raised their hands. Warren dismissed insurers as parasites: “The insurance companies last year alone sucked $23 billion in profits out of the health care system.” Meanwhile, de Blasio attacked former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas for defending private insurance. The O’Rourke–de Blasio exchange crystalized the debate between center and left.

O’Rourke: Our plan says that if you’re uninsured, we enroll you in Medicare. If you’re insufficiently insured, you can’t afford your premiums, we enroll you in Medicare. But if you’re a member of a union that negotiated for a health care plan that you like because it works for you and your family, you’re able to keep it. We preserve choice …

De Blasio: Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans … How can you defend a system that’s not working? …

O’Rourke: For those for whom it’s not working, they can choose Medicare. For the culinary workers … who negotiated [good] plans, they’re able to keep them.

De Blasio: Why are you defending private insurance to begin with?

Like O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland defended private insurance. Klobuchar objected to “kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,” as the Warren-supported “Medicare-for-All” bill would do. Delaney, noting that many Americans “like their private health insurance,” asked, “Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people?” But Delaney is at the back of the pack, and Warren is at the front. Her confidence in pledging to abolish private insurance, and the reticence with which O’Rourke and Klobuchar defended “choice” between public and private options, reflected the left’s growing power.

2. Border enforcement. Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and San Antonio mayor, challenged O’Rourke for refusing to repeal a law against unauthorized border crossings. “I don’t think it’s asking too much for people to follow our laws when they come to this country,” said O’Rourke. “If we capture a known smuggler or drug traffickers, we’re going to make sure that they are deported.” But O’Rourke was so quiet, so drowned out by Castro, that much of the former congressman’s answer here, as in his exchange with de Blasio, wasn’t even recorded in the debate transcript. Castro denounced O’Rourke’s position, arguing that other laws prohibited trafficking, that the law in question was being used to separate families, and that Democrats should stand up for “undocumented immigrants” in general, not just asylum-seekers.

NBC’s Savannah Guthrie put the question to Klobuchar. Castro “wants to no longer have it be a crime to illegally cross the border,” said Guthrie. “Do you support that? Do you think it should be a civil offense only? And if so, do you worry about potentially incentivizing people to come here?” Klobuchar ducked. While stipulating that laws should be enforced, she said of Castro, “I am happy to look at his proposal.” Again, the centrists seemed reluctant to counter their critics.

3. Abortion. No candidate onstage—including Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a former pro-lifer—said anything negative about abortion or public funding of abortions. When Warren was asked whether she would “put limits on abortion,” she instead pledged to “make certain that every woman has access to the full range of reproductive health care services. And that includes birth control, it includes abortion, it includes everything.” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee went further, declaring that private insurers should be barred from refusing to cover abortions. “It should not be an option in the United States of America,” said Inslee, “for any insurance company to deny a woman coverage for their exercise of their right of choice.”

4. Guns. On this issue, the candidates stopped well short of what progressives wanted. Only one, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, called for registration: “If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm.” Everybody else stuck to peripheral restrictions, such as background checks and limits on assault weapons. Klobuchar shied away from any law that would “hurt my Uncle Dick and his deer stand, coming from a proud hunting and fishing state.” Even Warren hedged, opposing “across-the-board” laws and calling for “research” to “find out what really works.”

5. Defense and foreign policy. Several candidates proudly claimed connections to the military: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (herself), Warren (through her brothers), and de Blasio (through his father). Booker, Klobuchar, and Gabbard said they would try to negotiate tougher restrictions in a revised nuclear deal with Iran. But only one candidate, Ryan, stood up for troop deployments. He argued for a continued presence in Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban had harbored the 9/11 plotters. “If the United States isn’t engaged, the Taliban will grow,” said Ryan. “And they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts.”

Gabbard replied that keeping troops in Afghanistan was futile: “The Taliban was there long before we came in. They’re going to be there long before we leave.” Nobody else weighed in on military engagements, and even Ryan complained about defense spending. The money we spent on a drone that was shot down by Iran, said Ryan, should have been spent instead “in places like Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan.”

6. The filibuster. This has become a dividing line among Democrats: Some want to abolish the Senate’s 60-vote threshold in order to pass progressive legislation, while others want to preserve it so that a Republican majority has to bargain with moderate Democrats. In this debate, no candidate defended the filibuster, and two candidates said they would nuke it. “If the decision is between 60 votes—a filibuster—or passing common sense gun reform, I’m going to choose common sense gun reform,” said Castro. Inslee vowed to pass climate change legislation “by taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell.”

7. Taxes and spending. Only one candidate, Klobuchar, argued for limits on government-funded benefits. While offering to “make community college free” and give financial aid to everyone except the “top percentile,” she objected to universal free college. “I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids,” she said. The other candidates, however, largely competed to promise more spending. “This is supposed to be the party of working people,” said de Blasio. “Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy. Yes, we’re supposed to be for free college, free public college. … There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands.”

8. Bipartisanship. Klobuchar touted her record of passing laws by working with Republicans. She noted that President Donald Trump had signed 34 bills on which she was the lead Democratic sponsor. Delaney also defended bipartisanship, arguing that “all the big, transformative things we’ve ever done in this country’s history have happened when huge majorities of the American people get behind them.” But no other candidates on the stage defended compromise with the GOP.

If you’re a progressive hoping for a more left-leaning Democratic Party, or if you believe that a proudly progressive platform will help Democrats beat Trump, this debate was auspicious. But if you’re a moderate voter hoping the Democrats will nominate somebody close to your views on health care, immigration, foreign policy, or abortion, the debate was discouraging. Maybe on Thursday night, you’ll hear a candidate more to your liking.