Democratic Debate Night 1: What We Learned From Each Candidate

June 27, 2019, 2:42 PM UTC
Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In First Debate Of 2020 Election Over Two Nights
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 26: (L-R) Former housing secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) talk during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle Getty Images

The first ten Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Miami Wednesday for night one of the first round of Democratic debates. There were numerous attempts to provide bilingual Spanish-English answers, a few technical difficulties, and a lot of interrupting.

Here’s what we learned from each of the candidates.

Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren stayed true to her anti-corporate America, anti-corruption message throughout the evening, speaking to the need to “make our government, our economy, and our country” work for everyone.

She emphasized that there is too much consolidation in giant industries, which hurts workers and constricts innovation. At the same time, these corporations or monopolies are “making campaign contributions and funding super PACs” to make sure their influence is felt. In her view, it requires courage to take on these giants.

On healthcare, Warren argued that those who say that Medicare For All isn’t possible just aren’t “willing to fight for it.” She added that every woman must be guaranteed access to all reproductive services, from contraception to abortion, and called for codifying the right to abortion, as it’s “not enough to expect the courts to protect us.”

On gun violence, Warren expressed support for “sensible” actions such as background checks, but called for distinguishing a gun “in the hands of a collector” from one that changes hands quickly.

Warren called healthcare a “basic human right,” gun violence a “national health emergency,” and deemed climate change the biggest threat we face today.

Amy Klobuchar

Sen. Amy Klobuchar largely emphasized education, economic opportunity, and her position as a candidate who has won in red districts in Wednesday’s debate.

On education, she called for making community college free, for the expansion of Pell grants, and to make it easier for students to pay off their student loans.

She expressed opposition to abolishing private health insurance due to a fear of it kicking people off their existing plans, but said she is in support of a public option. Rather than the insurers, Klobuchar called pharmaceuticals a bigger problem.

On immigration, Klobuchar said that “immigrants don’t diminish America, they are America,” highlighting the fact that many of the heads of Fortune 500 companies and many of our Nobel laureates are foreign-born.

Klobuchar didn’t shy away from criticizing the foreign policy of the current administration, noting that while the Iran nuclear deal was imperfect, it was good for the moment. Trump, on the other hand, said he’d give the U.S. a better deal, but has failed to deliver on that. She expressed concern that Trump is “always one tweet away from going to war” and suggested that we should not be conducting foreign policy “in our bathrobe.”

While Klobuchar called China our biggest economic threat and Iran the broader threat, Klobuchar also added that we need to do something about Russian interference.

Beto O’Rourke

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke started the night by answering the first question thrown his way in Spanish. Other than that, he made waves by being the only candidate to explicitly call for initiating impeachment proceedings on the debate stage, and touched on his plans to address climate change and immigration.

O’Rourke called for high quality, universal healthcare as a goal—including a woman’s right to abortion. Like Klobuchar, however, he said he would not get rid of private insurance, but instead give people options.

On our current immigration policies, O’Rourke said that we need to “give people the dignity and humanity that they deserve.” We shouldn’t build walls, but rather reunite families. Among his specific proposals are: no more detention for people fleeing violence, the implementation of a case management program, and an overhaul of our existing immigration laws.

On climate change, O’Rourke called for funding resilience in vulnerable communities, freeing ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, and putting farmers “in the driver’s seat” to determine the best policies moving forward. He called climate change not just the biggest threat we currently face as a nation, but an “existential threat.”

Cory Booker

Sen. Cory Booker’s home of Newark, N.J., featured centrally in many of his answers.

With several of the largest pharmaceutical companies based in New Jersey, Booker argued that “too many people are profiteering off the pain of Americans”—from pharmaceuticals to insurers. He called for pharmaceuticals to be held criminally liable for their role in the opioid crisis, and expressed support for Medicare For All.

Booker noted that the economy is “not working for average Americans” and argued that we need an economy that works for everyone. On immigration, he called for an end to family separation not just at the border but in all communities where ICE is tearing families apart and creating fear.

The New Jersey senator distinguished himself from the other nine candidates on the debate stage by being the only one to say he wouldn’t support the Iran nuclear deal. While he said it was a mistake to pull out of it, he argued that we need to renegotiate the terms of the deal to get a better one.

Race and sexuality permeated Booker’s answer to questions on gun violence—he argued that there is a need to better protect trans and particularly African American trans communities and expressed support for “common sense gun laws.” Noting that he’s “sick of hearing people talk about thoughts and prayers,” Booker said that we’ve been letting the corporate gun lobby dictate the debate. Instead, he said that Americans should need to get a license to buy a firearm in the same way that we need a license to drive a car.

Booker called nuclear proliferation and climate change the biggest threats we face today.

Julian Castro

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro stressed gender equality and the need to make substantive changes to our existing immigration policies on Wednesday.

Castro called for passing the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as passing legislation that guarantees equal pay for equal work. He also noted that he believes in reproductive justice, not just reproductive freedom, explaining that just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to have an abortion.

On immigration, Castro said he would sign an executive order that would get rid of Trump’s metering policy, the Remain in Mexico policy, and zero tolerance policy and accused the Trump administration of “playing games” with those seeking to enter the country. Beyond this, Castro said he would implement large-scale immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship and a Marshall Plan for Central America so “people can find safety and opportunity at home.” Castro also returned several times to his call to get rid of “Section 1325,” which criminalizes seeking entry into the U.S. without papers. Castro wants to treat this as a civil violation instead.

Castro also said he would sign an executive order to recommit to the Paris Accord, pointed to the fact that he is the only candidate to put forward legislation to reform policing, and noted that overall, his priorities are to make sure everyone can get healthcare, have promising job opportunities, and access to a good education.

Castro called China and climate change the biggest threats the U.S. faces today.

Tulsi Gabbard

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard highlighted her military experience over the course of the evening and brought attention to the nuclear threat the U.S. now faces from Iran.

Gabbard argued that Trump has brought us “to the brink of war in Iran,” noting that we need to rejoin the nuclear deal and negotiate to ensure that we can stay away from another war. Nevertheless, Gabbard conceded that a direct attack against Americans would “require a response.”

Gabbard called for bringing our troops home from Afghanistan, arguing that we are “no better off there today” than we were when the war began.

She said that the biggest threat we face is that we now have a greater risk of nuclear war than ever before in history.

Bill De Blasio

Mayor Bill De Blasio carried the “working people” message throughout the debate, noting that the Democratic Party is supposed to “be the party of the working people,” that it is supposed to be for free college, for a 70% tax rate on the wealthy, and supposed to break up corporations when they’re serving our democracy.

“There’s plenty of money in this country,” he argued early in the evening, “it’s just in the wrong hands.” On this same point, De Blasio argued that the Democratic Party needs to stop being the party of the elites.

De Blasio called Russia the biggest threat we face today, as it is trying to undermine our democracy.

John Delaney

Former Rep. John Delaney repeatedly focused on the need for bipartisanship, calling it necessary for getting things done. He explained that some of the biggest, most transformative things that the U.S. has accomplished have been the result of a big majority getting behind them. As such, Delaney said it is his mission to “find the America that’s been lost through in-fighting and inaction” and argued that he stands for “real solutions, not impossible promises.”

Delaney called China our biggest challenge and nuclear weapons our biggest threat.

Jay Inslee

Gov. Jay Inslee may be known as the climate candidate, but he touched on a number of other issues on Wednesday. Inslee expressed support for unions, argued that it should not be an option for insurers to turn away a woman who seeks an abortion, and said that there is “no reason for the detention and separation” of children at the border.

“Diversity is a strength,” Inslee argued, noting that “this is how we built America and this tradition will continue.”

Inslee highlighted that we are the “first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and the last to be able to do something about it,” and as such, he wants to be able to look at his grandchildren and say that he did everything humanly possible to protect them from the ravages of a climate crisis. “We need a unified national mission to save human life,” he said.

Climate change might be Inslee’s bread and butter, but he got his two biggest responses for calling for “taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell,” and for calling Trump the biggest threat the U.S. is currently facing.

Tim Ryan

Rep. Tim Ryan touched on a range of issues including the need to bring jobs back to the U.S., to change immigration policy, and to address gun violence in schools.

On the detention of children at the border specifically, Ryan argued that there are terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay who are getting better treatment. He criticized the President for focusing on hate, fear, and division at the expense of the health and safety of children, which he called a sign of weakness, not of strength.

On gun violence, Ryan said that we need to “start dealing with the trauma kids have,” by implementing trauma-based care, social and emotional learning, and putting kid psychologists in schools. Ryan noted that most school shooters come from the schools they attack, and as such, we need to “start playing offense,” because “we’re doing something wrong” if these kids want to “shoot up a school.”

Ryan called China our biggest economic threat.

The remaining ten candidates that met the DNC’s criteria to appear on the debate stage will face off on Thursday night.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—4 times 2020 candidates clashed during the Democratic debate

—5 things to watch for on night 2 of the Democratic presidential debate

—What the 2020 Democratic candidates didn’t say during the first debate

Elizabeth Warren holds her own as lesser-knowns break out in first debate

Julián Castro breaks out in a debate defined by border policy and immigration

Can socialism win in 2020? Democrats aren’t embracing it

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