Moderators try to pit Warren, Sanders against moderates in 1st Detroit Dem debate

Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke at the first Democratic debate in Detroit | Andrew Roth

Ten candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination argued Tuesday night that they represent the best chance to deny President Donald Trump re-election, with their approaches spanning the ideological spectrum as the party moves forward from its 2016 surprise defeat.

CNN moderators Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Dana Bash attempted to draw out sharp contrasts between the ambitious progressive platforms of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the more measured approach of many of the other candidates on the stage at downtown Detroit’s Fox Theatre.

The debate often took on a stilted nature, as candidates were forced to distill their preferred policies — and to contrast them with those of their opponents — within small windows of time with frequent interruptions from both those opponents and the moderators themselves.

Marianne Williamson, Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney and Steve Bullock at the first Democratic debate in Detroit | Andrew Roth

The first of the CNN-sponsored Democratic presidential primary debates, spanning two nights on Tuesday and Wednesday, also featured Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and author Marianne Williamson.

Moderators quizzed the candidates on a series of topics, including health care, immigration, climate change and more, frequently using moderate candidates like Delaney and Bullock as foils for Sanders and Warren, who currently hold second and third place, respectively, in an average of national polls behind the frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The two leading progressives fought back with full force, with Warren giving a pointed response to Delaney during an exchange about climate policy.

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren said. “Our biggest problem in Washington is corruption, with corporations that have taken the government and are holding it by the throat, and we need to have the courage to fight back against that.”

5 things to watch in this week’s Democratic debates in Detroit

The candidates who appeared Tuesday were randomly chosen out of a field of roughly two dozen, 20 of whom qualified for this week’s debates. According to the rules set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for the July debates, candidates must have reached 1% in three separate polls from approved pollsters or have received contributions from 65,000 unique donors.

Marianne Williamson, Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney and Steve Bullock at the first Democratic debate in Detroit | Andrew Roth

The debate kicked off with a lengthy exchange about health care, where the candidates debated the merits of plans like Sanders’ proposal that would eliminate the use of private health insurance in America in favor of a government-run system. To some moderates like Delaney, that step is unnecessarily “extreme.”

“We can create a universal health care system to give everyone basic health care for free,” said Delaney, who has proposed a universal plan that incorporates private insurance. “But we don’t have to go around and be the party of subtraction.”

That argument over what should be given and what should be taken away — and to and from whom — dominated Tuesday night’s debates, with many of the lower-polling moderate candidates effectively serving as stand-ins for the absent frontrunner in Biden, who will debate tomorrow night.

“This notion that you’re going to take private insurance away from 180 million Americans … or [implement] a Green New Deal to make sure every American’s guaranteed a public job that they want, that’s a disaster, you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” said Hickenlooper, who has made a pushback against Sanders-style democratic socialism a core theme of his campaign.

The Democratic National Committee debate will be held at the Fox Theatre in Detroit | Andrew Roth

Biden has criticized Sanders’ health care plan along similar lines for its approach to private insurance, saying it would lead to unnecessary instability for Americans who are currently covered.

Sanders attempted to refute those claims during Tuesday’s health care discussion, saying his plan would better serve patients and come only at the expense of industry powers.

“If you want stability in the health care system, if you want a system which gives you freedom of choice with regard to a doctor or a hospital — which is a system which will not bankrupt you — the answer is to get rid of the profiteering of the drug companies and the insurance companies and move to Medicare for All,” Sanders said.

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One particularly sharp example of the dynamic between progressives and moderates came when Sanders snapped at Ryan during an exchange about Medicare for All.

“You don’t know that, Bernie,” said Ryan, referring to Sanders’ argument that the legislation would be fully comprehensive.

“I do know it,” Sanders responded. “I wrote the damn bill.”

Candidates also debated the decriminalization of illegal border crossings, an issue which became a major flashpoint after June’s debates in Miami. Although candidates disagreed on the finer points of criminal and civil law when it came to migrant crossings, they were unified with one overarching message — that the Trump administration’s immigration strategy has been a humanitarian disaster. 

Immigrant rights supporters rally in Lansing against migrant camps

“We’ve got a crisis on our hands,” said Buttigieg. “And it’s not just a crisis of immigration; it’s a crisis of cruelty and incompetence that has created a humanitarian disaster on our southern border. It is a stain on the United States of America.”

Klobuchar argued that a bipartisan consensus exists on immigration reform in Congress, and that “Donald Trump wants to use these people as political pawns, when we have people all over our country that simply want to work and obey the law.”

Moderators brought up a handful of Midwestern-centric issues, like manufacturing policy, tariff strategy and public health infrastructure, befitting the debate’s Detroit setting. Ryan, whose congressional district encompasses Youngstown, Ohio, argued for a green manufacturing revival for the region.

“How do you beat China? You outcompete them,” Ryan said, before adding, “We have to rebuild these factories in Detroit and Youngstown” in order to produce competitive goods in the global economy.

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Warren touted her “green manufacturing plan” that she unveiled just before her rally last month in Lansing, saying it would “revitalize huge cities across the country.”

Responding to Hickenlooper, who called her ambitious suite of plans a “distraction,” Warren said, “What you want to do instead is find Republican talking points … and say, ‘Oh, we don’t really have to do anything,’ and that’s the problem we’ve got in Washington right now.”

Delaney attacked Warren’s recently announced trade policy, which would place high standards for trade on international partners.

“Trump wants to build physical walls and beats up on immigrants, and most of the folks running for president want to build economic walls to free trade and beat up on [former] President [Barack] Obama,” Delaney said, referring to past criticism of Obama’s proposed (and now scuttled) Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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Defending the plan, Warren said her administration would “use the fact that everybody in the world wants to get to America’s markets” to raise worker standards globally.

Sanders agreed with her approach to global corporations.

“If anybody here thinks corporate America gives one damn about the average American worker, you’re mistaken,” Sanders said. “These guys line up at the federal trough; they want military contracts, all kinds of contracts, [and] under my administration they ain’t gonna get these contracts.”

Warren also hit Republicans over terms of the proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), saying it would amount to a giveaway to international pharmaceutical corporations. Earlier Tuesday, national and Michigan Republicans held a press conference in which they touted its supposed benefits. 

Dems, GOP offer contrast on trade ahead of debates

Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan native and chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), said Tuesday that the Democratic candidates will “be here for a brief flash before they head off to their other states and never come back again. … If they really care about Michigan, then they need to fight for USMCA to be passed.”

Regarding infrastructure and the Flint water crisis, Williamson pointed out the racial disparities inherent to some of the country’s environmental issues.

Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders at the first Democratic debate in Detroit | Andrew Roth

“Flint is just the tip of the iceberg. …  We have an admin that has gutted the Clean Water Act, we have particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country who are suffering from environmental injustice,” Williamson said. 

“I lived in [wealthy Detroit suburb] Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint wouldn’t have happened in Grosse Pointe. … It’s bigger than Flint, and it’s all over this country.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Susan J. Demas

Klobuchar referenced a recent trip to Flint she made, and referred to Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by way of arguing that the Trump administration has failed to follow through on its promises on infrastructure.

“This is a bread-and-butter issue,” Klobuchar said. “I think the governor here in Michigan smartly ran on the slogan, ‘Fix the damn roads.’ … Trump hasn’t followed through; he’s done nothing; he blew up a meeting at the White House.”

Whitmer and Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes both spoke before the debate, with Whitmer repeating her mantra that the “the path to the presidency goes through the Great Lakes state” and its crucial 16 electoral votes that Donald Trump won in 2016.

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DNC Chair Tom Perez warmed up the crowd, as well, just hours after he spoke in Southeast Michigan Tuesday morning with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint).

Michigan Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm appeared on a CNN panel afterward to weigh in on the candidates, saying those who succeeded were “people who had full theory of the case, an authentic passion,” pointing to Ryan’s argument about union workers’ health care and Williamson’s comments about Flint.

Wednesday’s debate will feature former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), U.S. Sen.Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, businessman Andrew Yang, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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