The Democratic Party opened its 2020 presidential debates with a remarkably policy-focused exchange that illustrated how consistently to the left they have moved. For the night, at least, this was Elizabeth Warren’s party.
The Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who entered the debate with momentum behind her campaign, set the tone and dominated the early part of the debate, which focused on economic policy.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” she said. “We need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”
Even those of her rivals who don’t fully share that assessment declined chances to put themselves at odds with Warren. Instead, they sang from the same hymnal of left-wing economic populism declaring the need for broad reforms of the political and economic system.
“It is time we have an economy that works for everybody,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, after minimizing his differences with Warren’s plan to break up big tech companies.
The shift in the party goes beyond economics. As the debate made clear, it includes gun control, abortion, climate change and immigration, among other issues. On each of those, candidates took positions to the left of those embraced by either of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who was barely mentioned by any of the candidates.
Rather than Clinton’s call for abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” for example, the debate featured candidates stressing that the universal healthcare plans they backed would include public funds to pay for abortions for poor women.
On healthcare, only two candidates — Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — raised their hands when asked who would favor fully abolishing private health insurance plans in favor of instituting “Medicare for all.” But even those who favored a more moderate approach, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for example, said they preferred a new government health insurance option for all — an idea that was considered too radical to pass when Congress enacted the Affordable Care Act less than a decade ago.
On immigration, former Obama Cabinet official Julián Castro pressed for decriminalizing illegal border crossings, making that a civil rather than a criminal offense. While Castro was correct in saying that the Trump administration had used the criminal law in a far more aggressive way than its predecessors, the law that makes unauthorized border crossings a criminal offense has been on the books for decades. Eliminating it is a move popular with some activists.
At least three of the candidates — Warren, Booker and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio — share Castro’s view. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke disagreed, and the clash between the two Texans over decriminalizing the border made for one of the night’s most intense moments, but it was notable that the disagreement came on a proposal that went far beyond anything that the Obama administration, in which Castro served, ever talked about.
And there was broad party consensus on gun control, an issue that Democrats for years shied from. Booker’s proposal to require gun licensing goes significantly further than what gun-safety advocates have dreamed of proposing.
The leftward tilt of the party did give some candidates pause.
“We have a perception problem with the Democratic Party that we are not connecting to the working class,” said Ryan, who represents the Youngstown, Ohio, area. “We have to change the center of gravity from being coastal elites and Ivy League.”
Klobuchar took a veiled swipe at Warren’s promises to enact broad changes in the political and economic system.
“I don’t make all the promises others up here make,” Klobuchar said. “I’m going to govern.”
But others argued for going further left, notably De Blasio, struggling for a breakout moment and calling the primary a “battle for the heart and soul of our party.”
“This Democratic Party has to be strong and bold and progressive,” he said.
Pushback against the party’s leftward drift may be more pronounced during Thursday night’s debate, when 10 more candidates will be on stage including former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been leading in early polls and making the case for a more centrist platform that could appeal to swing voters. He will be up against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist who, like Warren, calls for fundamental changes in the U.S. economic and political system.
In the context of the primary season, Warren is competing with Sanders for the votes in the party’s left wing. She used her time in the spotlight Wednesday to her advantage, showing the skill she has developed on the campaign trail at connecting her long list of specific policies, such as tax increases on the wealthy and breaking up corporations, to her broader themes of economic populism.
Warren’s prominence in the debate’s first hour drew complaints from some, including the sister of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, one of the rival candidates, who tweeted: “It’s clear who MSNBC wants to be president: Elizabeth Warren. They’re giving her more time than all the other candidates combined. They aren’t giving any time to Tulsi at all.”
In the end, Warren did get considerably more time than Gabbard and some of the other candidates who have drawn scant support in polls. Booker and Castro got the most time overall, but Warren was a central figure in the debate — literally and figuratively — not only because she was the only one in the 10-candidate field polling in double digits, but also because she has dominated the early ideas competition in the party. Many of the other candidates ended up responding to policy proposals she has put forward, such as breaking up big tech corporations and raising taxes on the wealthy.
That emphasis on ideas from the party’s left pleased Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, a political group that helped elect the upstart progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“Tonight’s debate made one thing clear: Progressive ideas are at the center of debate in the Democratic Party,” she said. “Many of the topics discussed tonight — a 70% marginal tax rate, ‘Medicare for all,’ breaking up large corporations — were originally proposed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
In the general election, of course, some of those positions may play differently. Republicans saw the move to the left as political ammunition for them.
“Tonight we heard a lot of the same socialist rhetoric that 2020 Democrats have been spewing across Iowa for months now,’’ said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “While this might be appealing to a New York liberal like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, these policies would cripple Iowa’s small businesses and our agriculture industry.”
Times staff writer Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.