2019 Democratic Debate Night 2: What We Learned From Each Candidate
The first round of the Democratic presidential debates are now behind us.
The remaining ten candidates took the stage on Thursday for night two of the debates.
There may have been fewer technical difficulties—and only one phrase en español from Buttigieg—but the scene was no less combative than night one.
In a series of show of hand questions, Sanders and Harris were the only two candidates to say they would abolish private health insurance in favor of a government plan, while every candidate said their health insurance plan would cover undocumented immigrants. Nearly every candidate also expressed support for making crossing the border illegally a civil, not a criminal offense—an issue that former HUD Secretary Julian Castro stressed on night one. And most of the candidates said they would prioritize restoring relations with our European allies or NATO if they were to be elected president.
Here’s what we learned from the second group of candidates to make it to the debate stage.
This is not Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first time on the presidential debate stage and his messages on Thursday were familiar. Sanders called for a “new vision for America,” made necessary by the fact that the richest three Americans have more than the bottom half.
Sanders returned to two issues that have largely formed the backbone of his candidacy thus far: Medicare For All and free public higher education. On healthcare, Sanders claimed that the function of the insurance industry today is to “make billions in profits for insurance companies,” not provide quality, cost-effective healthcare to Americans.
Sanders said that the government should not “infringe on a woman’s right to control her own body,” and said he would “rescind every damn thing that Trump has done on immigration.” On climate change, Sanders said that he “doesn’t deny the reality” that we are nearing the point of irreparable damage, but that the U.S. should focus its efforts on telling the rest of the world that instead of spending on weapons and destruction, “we should come together on the common enemy” of fossil fuels.
The Vermont Senator did not shy away from attacking President Donald Trump, noting that the American people understand that he is a “phony,” a “pathological liar,” and a “racist,” and that he “lied to the American people during his campaign.”
Sanders claimed that Trump has not stood up for the American people despite promising that he would, and said that we should “expose him for the fraud that he is.” Unlike Trump, Sanders repeatedly noted that he is the person who “has the guts to take on Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, and big money interests,” and more generally “stand up to power.”
“Nothing changes unless we have the guts” to take on these pillars of power, Sanders said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden highlighted the concept of “returning dignity to the middle class” and all that he and the Obama administration accomplished between 2008 and 2016.
“Ordinary middle class Americans built America—not Wall Street,” Biden argued in his first answer of the night. And it is these people to whom the government has a responsibility: to providing them affordable education and health insurance, and to ensuring that they have clean air and water. Trump, meanwhile, “has put us in a horrible situation,” Biden argued.
On healthcare, Biden said the “quickest” way to provide everyone with affordable healthcare is to build on Obamacare, ensuring that everyone has an option “whether it’s private, employer, or none” to make sure they “have the option to buy in on an exchange.” But Biden diverged from the Obama administration on the question of coverage for undocumented immigrants, arguing that “we cannot let people who are sick, no matter where they’re from or what their status, not be covered.”
Biden also diverged from Obama on the deportation of immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally. After being pressed for an answer from the moderators, Biden said that if the only crime an individual has committed is that they entered illegally, “they shouldn’t be deported.”
The former Vice President did not stand down when faced with direct criticism from Harris on his history of supporting bussing and for recent claims about partnering with segregationists while in the Senate, arguing that he “did not praise racists.” Making a pointed jab at Harris he added that “if we want to have this campaign litigated on whether I supported civil rights or not…I became a public defender not a prosecutor.”
Ultimately, Biden called for “restoring the soul of this nation” and restoring the “backbone of America”—poor and working class people—by giving them “the dignity they once had.”
Sen. Kamala Harris came down hard on a number of issues on Thursday night, but her biggest moment may have been playing the role of mother hen, trying to control the rest of the candidates when squabbling broke out. “America doesn’t want to witness a food fight, they wanna know how we’re going to put food on their tables,” she said to applause.
Harris echoed numerous other candidates on the issue of the economy and working class Americans, noting that “this economy is not working for working people.” She criticized the asymmetric benefits of Trump’s tax bill and said she would repeal the bill in favor of changing the tax code to give a tax credit to the middle class.
She argued that the strong economy Trump alludes to does not paint an accurate picture as many Americans are working multiple jobs “to have a roof over their head and food on their table.”
On immigration, Harris enumerated a number of changes she would make, including reinstating DACA status and protection and extending the deferral of deportation for parents and veterans. She also spoke out against the deportation of undocumented immigrants who had not committed a crime, noting that the problem with a policy like this is that an undocumented immigrant who is a rape victim often feels that cannot report a crime against them for fear of being deported.
As the only African American on the debate stage Thursday night, Harris took the opportunity to take a jab at Biden, highlighting her own experience being part of the second class of children to be bussed in California. She also attacked Trump’s position on climate change, noting that while she calls it “climate crisis,” Trump has “embraced science fiction over science fact.”
On this same point, Harris also quietly stole one of Gov. Jay Inslee’s applause lines from night one, saying that Trump is the biggest threat to America. She accused Trump of denying the science of the existential threat of climate change, of “embracing Kim Jong-un for the sake of a photo opp,” and of taking the “word of the Russian President over the word of the American intelligence community.”
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper took much more of the centrist, bipartisan route on Thursday night. He expressed ‘admiration’ for several of the more leftist policies coming out of the Party, such as the Green New Deal, but added that some of these things are not realistic.
Nevertheless, Hickenlooper emphasized many of the “progressive” policies he had passed in Colorado, arguing that you “don’t need big government to do big things.” He went on to claim that he is the one person on the debate stage who’s “done the big progressive things the people up here are talking about.”
On the separation of families at the border and subsequently putting the children up for adoption, Hickenlooper said, “in Colorado, we call that kidnapping.” He called for “recognizing the humanitarian crisis at the border for what it is,” advocating a need to reform ICE and provide better facilities at the border.
On gun violence, Hickenlooper said that the “real question” should be why five years after Ferguson do we not see better accountability from the police. And on climate change, Hickenlooper said that the issue can only be addressed by “bringing people together.” He said that if we demonize business, then “we’ll be doomed to fail.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand may have been the biggest interrupter of night two. Over the course of the evening, she referenced her position on healthcare and the need for a transition period to reach single-payer healthcare multiple times, called for a need to implement comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, and claimed that “women’s reproductive rights are under assault” in 2019—a fact she finds “mind-boggling.”
Gillibrand also spoke about her “comprehensive plan to take corruption out of politics,” which she said would enable any leader to tackle every other problem. Calling the corruption in Washington “real,” she challenged viewers to imagine a reality where the Parkland students “have as much power as the Koch brothers.”
While Sen. Michael Bennet believes universal healthcare “is a right,” he came out strongly against Medicare for All, suggesting instead that we need to “finish the work we started with Obamacare” and create a public option. He argued that people who want to keep their insurance should be able to keep it, and believes his strategy is the quickest way to ensure the right to healthcare.
Bennet pointed to the fact that there is “no economic growth” for most of the U.S. as we face the worst income inequality in 100 years, said he believes that Russia, not China is our biggest geopolitical threat, and referenced his own forebears’ separation during the Holocaust when discussing family separations at the border happening today.
Highlighting a need for bipartisanship and building a “broad coalition,” Bennet argued that partisan gridlock “will not magically disappear” so long as Mitch McConnell remains in the Senate, which is why it’s important for the Democratic Party to win not just the presidency in 2020, but the Senate as well.
Bennet also referenced a Thursday Supreme Court ruling by calling for an end to gerrymandering and called for the need to restore our democracy, as “the rest of the world is looking at us for leadership.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg noted toward the end of the evening that “nothing about politics is theoretical” and spoke concretely about a number of issues.
On education, Buttigieg argued that he didn’t support free college for all because he doesn’t think the wealthiest families should be “subsidized” by those who are less well off. He also added that while college should be more affordable, it also needs to be more affordable to not go to college.
On healthcare, Buttigieg said that everyone who supports Medicare For All “has a responsibility to explain how you’re going to get from here to there.” His version, he said, is ‘Medicare For All Who Want It,’ adding that “our country is healthier if everyone is healthier.”
Buttigieg accused the Trump administration for driving a wedge amongst Americans on immigration, claiming that “Americans are in agreement about what to do.” He also made an opaque reference to the administration in a comment about China, noting that “their authoritarian model is being held up as an alternative to ours because ours looks so chaotic in comparison.”
The Mayor of South Bend, Indiana had a moment of candor when asked about the current crisis facing the city he oversees, admitting that “it’s a mess.” He added that he “could walk you through” everything they’ve done, but the fact remains that it didn’t save Eric Logan’s life. “Until we move policing out of the shadow of systemic racism,” Buttigieg said, “whatever this particular event teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem, with the fact that there’s a wall of mistrust.”
Former tech executive Andrew Yang, whose platform is largely based on the idea of universal basic income, started the evening by discussing his plan to pay $1,000 a month to every American over 18.
The candidate had few opportunities to speak throughout the rest of the evening, but emphasized that Russians has been “laughing their asses off for years” as they’ve successfully hacked our democracy. He also noted that pirating is a “massive problem” in China, but the bigger problem is the trade war, which is “punishing both sides” as the beneficiaries “haven’t been American workers,” but Southeast Asia.
A long-shot candidate, Yang also noted that the fact that he made it to the debate stage is “proof that our democracy still works.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell’s refrain of the night was a jab at Biden: quoting something Biden had said decades earlier, Swalwell argued that “if we’re going to solve the problems” we currently face, “it’s time to pass the torch to the new generation of Americans.”
The California Congressman said that we “must always be a country where tech creates more jobs than it displaces,” called for a need to modernize schools and value teachers by “wiping the student debt for teachers that go into a community that needs it,” and said that we need to have a “healthcare guarantee” such that “if you’re sick, you’re seen, and you don’t go broke because of it.”
Swalwell also highlighted his position on guns and gun safety, noting that he is the only candidate calling for a ban and buy-back of every assault weapon. Let’s “be a country where we love our children more than we love our guns,” he said.
Author Marianne Williamson came out swinging against the other candidates on Thursday night, calling the plans they’ve touted “nice,” but arguing that they wouldn’t be sufficient to beat Trump. We “can’t have a superficial fix-it,” she said.
The author called family separations at the border and child detention “collective child abuse” and “state-sponsored crimes.”
Williamson said that the Democratic Party “should be on the side of reparations for slavery,” and in an even more off-color moment said that her first priority as president would be to call the Prime Minister of New Zealand to say “you are so on” because the U.S. “will be the best place for a child to grow up.”
In her closing statement, Williamson directed her message at Trump, saying, “you have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love will get that out.” She, on the other hand, would “harness love for political purposes.”
We have just over a month until we hear from these candidates on the debate stage again.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—What the 2020 Democratic candidates didn’t say during the second debate
—Harris has a strong showing, stuns Biden on night 2 of Democratic debate
—Democratic debate night 1: what we learned from each candidate
—2019 Democratic debate night 1: Highlights
—2019 Democratic debate night 2: Highlights
—Fact-checking claims from night 1 of the Democratic debate
—Fact-checking claims from night 2 of the Democratic debate