As 10 of the 20 candidates took to the stage on the first night of the Democratic primary presidential debates Wednesday, there was bound to be some heated arguments among the group of senators, a governor, a mayor, and Congress members.
The debaters largely remained within the time slots set by NBC and MSNBC moderators, but issues like health care, breaking up and regulating big technology companies like Facebook and Google, criminal justice reform, and the continued war in Afghanistan caused some tensions in the crowded field.
New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, and former Maryland congressman John Delaney exchanged some tense words on one of the major campaign issues—health care.
Private health insurance
O’Rourke was asked by NBC moderator Lester Holt why the candidate once supported a policy replacing private insurance in the U.S. and why he has seemingly back-tracked on that position in his presidential campaign.
While the erstwhile Texas Congressman said “getting to guaranteed, high-quality, universal health care as quickly and surely as possible has to be our goal” he also noted the choice to keep private insurance “is fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for.”
De Blasio quickly retorted that because of the many expenses on top of premiums: “Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans...How can you defend a system that's not working?”
O’Rourke replied that people can enroll in Medicare if private insurance does not work for them.
The two kept talking over each other, when De Blasio finally said “you've got to start by acknowledging the system is not working for people” at which Delaney entered the fray. He noted, without citing a source, “100 million Americans say they like their private health insurance...I think we should be the party that keeps what's working and fixes what's broken” to which the crowd applauded.
A Texan brawl on immigration
O’Rourke squared off again, this time in one of the tensest exchanges of the night, against fellow Texan and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro on immigration reform—an emotional moment with the recent news of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his nearly two-year-old daughter Valiera drowning in the Rio Grande in an attempt to cross into the U.S.
Castro was the first candidate in the crowded field to put forward a plan back in April and pointed out that he supports decriminalizing border crossings, not just for those seeking asylum in the U.S. because that is legal and requires a person to be on U.S. soil to do so, but “everybody else” as well. He noted O’Rourke does not, which led to the pair’s argument.
“If you truly want to change the system, that we've got to repeal that section... then it might as well be the same policy,” Castro said.
O’Rourke retorted: “You're looking at just one small part of this. I'm talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws” and this led to an extended discussion on human and drug trafficking which eventually led Castro to tell O’Rourke to “do your homework on this issue.”
Gun violence and race
De Blasio and Booker shared an awkward moment on stage as candidates were asked about gun violence given the tragic February 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting took place not too far from where they all stood in Miami.
“Something that sets me apart from all my colleagues running in this race and that is for the last 21 years I’ve been raising a black son in America,” De Blasio said about son Dante as Booker, the only African-American candidate on stage, looked on.
Booker does not have children, but many on social media cringed as they felt De Blasio was saying he was the only one with experience dealing with the disproportionate gun violence faced by young black men just moments after he also touted running the largest police force in the country.
War in Afghanistan
Two candidates who have not been frontrunners made for a surprising exchange toward the end of the debate as candidates were asked about the country’s longest-running war in Afghanistan. Members of Congress Tim Ryan of Ohio and Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, who has been widely criticized for her meeting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and support of Hindu nationalists in India, were some of the few to discuss the pressing foreign policy issue.
Ryan argued the U.S. needs to “stay engaged” in Afghanistan after 18 years because if not the Taliban terrorist group would commit “bigger, bolder terrorist attacks.” Gabbard, a veteran, said “the Taliban was there long before we came in and they will be there long after we leave. We cannot keep U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan thinking that we’re going somehow squash this Taliban,” before she was cut off by Ryan.
“When [the U.S.] weren’t in there, [the Taliban] started flying planes into our buildings,” Ryan incorrectly said, after which Gabbard corrected him and noted al Qaeda did so. Gabbard did not explain, however, that the Taliban did harbor Osama bin Laden for a time after the attacks.
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