As might be expected among candidates from the same political party, there was a lot of general agreement about how to deal with big issues. But with 20 candidates split into two 10-person debates, nationally known names sought to maintain their leads in polls while others voters might not be as familiar with worked to generate the interest their campaigns badly need.
That led to a lot of sparring among the candidates and even direct questioning of each other’s records and proposals, particularly focused on the current favorites in the race — former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“We have seen health care as a place where there are more spirited disagreements within the party and between some of the leading candidates and the secondary candidates on what their health care proposal would be,” said David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College. “That’s one of the reasons I think there was so much time spent on health care in these debates was that from the moderator’s point of view, it was a good place to really whip up a lot of deliberation debate and fireworks among the various candidates on stage.”
The candidates did agree that what is in place now is not delivering quality, affordable care. The arguments were about how drastically to revamp the system and how to pay for it.
Biden, who served when former President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act went into effect, said that law, commonly known as “Obamacare,” needs only reversals of changes done by President Donald Trump and the option for people to buy into a public market.
Senator Michael Bennet and Montana Governor Steve Bullock also want to build on the ACA. But Senator Kamala Harris said that approach leaves in place too much of what is not working.
“Your plan will keep and allow insurance companies to remain with status quo doing business as usual, and that’s going to be about jacking up co-pays, jacking up deductibles,” she said.
Former Congressman John Delaney says the option for people to buy into government health plans does not go far enough.
“I’m proposing universal health care where everyone gets health care as a basic human right for free,” he said.
Trump campaigned in 2016 on a message of not involving the United States in endless foreign conflicts. With more than half of his term over, there are still U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many of the Democratic candidates said they want to bring those forces home and spend money on domestic programs instead.
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke pledged to withdraw from Afghanistan during his first term.
“We’ve satisfied the reasons for our involvement in Afghanistan in the first place, and it’s time to bring those service members back home from Afghanistan, but also from Iraq, also from Yemen and Somalia and Libya and Syria,” he said.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who served in Afghanistan, pledged that any authorization of military force would have a three-year limit, unlike the limitless one that authorized the war in 2001 and has been the subject of intense debate over its scope.
Another veteran, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who served in Iraq, called for an end to what she called “these wasteful regime-change wars.”
“This is not about arbitrary deadlines, this is about leadership, the leadership I will bring to do the right thing, to bring our troops home within the first year in office because they shouldn’t have been there this long,” she said.
Foreign policy and trade
Trump has pursued an “America first” approach to foreign policy, whether that is seeking better trade deals through tariff threats or withdrawing from international accords like the Paris climate agreement he argued would hurt the U.S. economy.
Biden said he would seek to counter China’s influence by returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal also negotiated during the Obama administration, but only after renegotiating terms.
“Either China is going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade or we are,” he said. “We must have the rest of the world join us to keep them in check.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio objected to Trump’s new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which Congress has not ratified, saying it would hurt workers and that trade treaties should “empower oranized labor” instead of multinational corporations.
Trump made campaign pledges to use his first day in office to withdraw from the TPP, repeal Obamacare and begin building a southern border wall. Hopkins said so far, the Democratic candidates have not been clear about what they would try to achieve first.
“A lot of these democrats are running on very ambitious platforms. They really have lots of ideas about how to change policy in a lot of different areas. But one of the most important things you do as president is you set priorities, you set the agenda,” he said. “What is going to be the first thing you do? What is going to be the second thing you do? The candidates I think differ on that, but that didn’t come out as much during the debates this time.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee left no doubt in the debate that climate change would be the top priority of his White House.
“We have to act now,” he said. “Climate change is not a singular issue, it is all the issues that we Democrats care about. It is health. It is national security. It is our economy.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said she would rejoin the Paris climate agreement, and cited the U.S. space race with Russia of last century as a model for spurring innovation on climate solutions.
“Why not have a green energy race with China?” she said.
Senator Cory Booker expressed the need to approach trade deals, foreign aid and other policies with climate change in mind, and said the United States has to lead the world to a solution.
“Climate change is not a separate issue. It must be the issue and the lens with which we view every issue. Nobody should get an applause for rejoining the Paris Climate Accords. That is kindergarten.”
Taking a more diplomatic approach extends to many candidate’s proposals for immigration. After Trump cut aid to Central American nations as he sought to cut the number of people who travel to seek entry into the United States, Democrats want programs to help those countries be safer and better economically.
“My immigration plan would also make sure that we put undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed a serious crime on a pathway to citizenship, that we do a 21st century Marshall Plan with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala so that we can get to the root of this challenge, so people can find safety and opportunity at home instead of having to come to the United States,” said former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
Sanders pledged to end what he called Trump’s “demonization” of those who flee violence to seek refuge in the United States.
“What we will do in the first week we are in the White House is bring the entire hemisphere together to talk about how we rebuild Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador so that people do not have to flee their own countries,” he said.
The right policy platform will be key for whichever Democrat emerges as the party’s candidate to face Trump in November 2020. Some in the debates, including Congressman Tim Ryan and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, cautioned that the more progressive proposals such as universal health care, may end up handing the election to Trump.
But Warren said Democrats cannot be afraid to champion policies they believe in.
“There is a lot at stake and people are scared,” she said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it.”