Ten Democratic White House hopefuls found broad consensus Wednesday night on a range of issues — guns, immigration, climate change — reserving the full measure of their contempt and their harshest put-downs for President Trump.
There were a handful of clashes among contestants, who shared a stage at a fine arts center in downtown Miami for the first of two consecutive debate nights.
But their differences were largely on the margins or matters of degree — how far left should the party move, and how quickly — as the mostly friendly rivals used the question-and-answer format to paint small portraits of their candidacies.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spoke of living in a violence-plagued low-income neighborhood of Newark. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren alluded to the scores of policy-filled town halls she has held. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard mentioned her military service, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro related his upbringing by a single mom.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee boasted of his executive standing, contrasting it with the many congressional lawmakers on stage, saying he had done more than any other to protect a woman’s legal right to abortion — which drew a tart rejoinder from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“There’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she dryly noted, drawing cheers and applause from the studio audience.
Twenty of the roughly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates qualified for the debate stage under the rules set by the Democratic National Committee, based on poll standing and fundraising performances.
The field was split into two sets of 10. The lineup for the second debate on Thursday night, determined by lot, includes most of the top-tier candidates, including the Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the candidate running second in most polls, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The two went largely unmentioned Wednesday night, despite their enviable positions.
Not so the president, who was a repeated target. (He weighed in via Twitter, declaring the encounter “BORING.”)
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan accused Trump of breaking the promise he made to his Rust Belt constituents to reverse decades of economic decline. Gabbard vowed to be a president “who’ll put your interests ahead of the rich and powerful,” saying, “that’s not what we have now.”
Klobuchar delivered one of the harshest rebukes of the commander in chief, mocking his penchant for executive action via Twitter. “I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning, “ she scoffed.
While the candidates were unanimous in their disdain for Trump, they differed on whether he should be impeached.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Congress must pursue that step, warning that if not, Democrats would “allow him to get away with this with complete impunity.”
But former Maryland Rep. John Delaney sided with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has resisted the call for impeachment. He said most Americans he has spoken with do not care about Trump as much as they worry about healthcare or fixing the nation’s infrastructure.
Some of the most passionate moments of the two-hour session came during a discussion of immigration. The candidates were united once more in directing their anger and disgust at Trump and his hard-line policies. “When people come to this country, they do not leave their human rights at the border,” Booker said.
But a heated spat erupted between the two Texans — Castro and O’Rourke — who have each outlined extensive immigration reform plans. (O’Rourke, who used to represent El Paso, broke into Spanish several times during the debate, prompting Booker and Castro to display their own serviceable bilingual skills.)
Castro has called for repealing the law that makes it a crime to enter the United States without permission, saying the Trump administration has used it to separate children from their parents at the border. He faulted O’Rourke for not including that repeal in his own plan.
When O’Rourke stressed the importance of prosecuting human traffickers and drug smugglers, Castro berated him for not recognizing there are other criminal laws that enable them to be prosecuted. “I think you should do your homework on this issue,” Castro told O’Rourke.
Other sharp divisions emerged over healthcare when the candidates were asked who among them would abolish private insurance in favor of a universal government-run system. Only Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands.
“I’m with Bernie [Sanders] on Medicare for All,” Warren said, in a nod to the candidate she is vying most closely with for the favor of liberal Democrats. “I understand there are a lot of politicians who say, ‘Oh, it’s just not possible, we just can’t do it’ … What they’re telling you that they just won’t fight for it.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” De Blasio cut in. “Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about co-pays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out-of-pocket expenses.… How can you defend a system that’s not working?”
Delaney, who has positioned himself as a moderate in the field, attacked the idea of abolishing private insurance. “I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” he said. “Doesn’t that make sense?”
De Blasio, befitting his New York pedigree, was arguably the most aggressive and unreservedly liberal voice.
He mocked O’Rourke, without naming him, for refusing to support a 70% tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, asserting that Democrats are supposed to support those kinds of soak-the-rich policies. He said Democrats should also back free public college education and a breakup of corporations that don’t serve democracy — a dig at Booker after he declined to criticize Warren’s plan to break up Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.
Because of the sprawling size of the field, not every candidate was given a chance to respond to every question.
There was broad agreement in support of tougher gun controls, making healthcare more accessible and affordable, and negotiating with Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions.
“He made us less safe than we were,” Klobuchar said of Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal negotiated by President Obama.
The candidates differed somewhat over how best to address climate change.
Inslee, who has made the fight against global warming the centerpiece of his candidacy, reiterated his call for heavy investment in green technologies as a way to create jobs while slashing carbon emissions.
“The biggest decision for the American public is, who’s going to make this the first priority?” Inslee said.
O’Rourke talked up his $5-trillion proposal to slash carbon emissions and Castro said he would issue an executive order for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate accord, which set international standards to fight climate change.
But Ryan voiced skepticism, saying that Democrats have lost the working-class voters “from forgotten communities” in the industrial Midwest by leaning too heavily toward environmentalism at the expense of economic growth. Without their support, he said, “none of this is going to get done.”
After two hours of relatively mild scrapping, the candidates closed on largely upbeat notes, emphasizing their biographies and optimism in America’s promise.
“My name is Julián Castro and I am running for president of the United States,” he said in Spanish, before switching to English: “The very fact that I can say that tonight shows the progress we have made in this country.”
Warren recounted how a $50-per-semester commuter college gave her the chance to fulfill her dream of being a teacher — “a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl, and it opened my life.”
Klobuchar made the most explicit argument for electability. “I have won in the reddest of districts — ones that Donald Trump won by over 20 points,” she said. “I can win in states like Wisconsin and Iowa and in Michigan” — onetime pillars of Democratic support that the president carried in 2016.
The debate, briefly marred by a technical glitch that forced a commercial break, opened a series of 12 planned between now and springtime 2020. It was carried nationally on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, which will also produce Thursday night’s forum.
Barabak reported from Los Angeles and Mason from Miami. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Matt Pearce contributed to this report.