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A lingering question, for pundits and potential voters alike, has been how electable the more progressive hopefuls are vis-a-vis their moderate counterparts on a national scale. This ideological debate was at the core of tonight’s event, with each candidate trying to advocate not only for their platform but also for their ability to win the national election.

HIGHLIGHTS: 

Buttigieg: “It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans would say.”
Warren shutting down Delaney with: “Let’s be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”  
Sanders to Ryan on healthcare: “I wrote the damn bill!” 
Williamson’s strong stance on reparations.
Warren: “We need to call out white supremacy for what it is: domestic terrorism.” 
Hickenlooper: “Trade wars are for losers.”  

Warren: “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

***

On July 30th, half of the Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 candidacy took the national stage on the first night of the July debates. The event served as the last opportunity for those who have struggled in the polls to make their pleas and as a platform for the frontrunners to go head-to-head on key policy issues. It was a night marked by too little time to express complete ideas and by the age-old battle between moderate and progressive ideology. 

A lingering question, for pundits and potential voters alike, has been how electable the more progressive hopefuls are vis-a-vis their moderate counterparts on a national scale. This ideological debate was at the core of tonight’s event, with each candidate trying to advocate not only for their platform but also for their ability to win the national election. 

The Debate

In the opening statement section of the debates, Bullock went first, labeling himself as populist, as pro-choice, and as pro-union, which he continued to capitalize on throughout the debate. He framed himself against “wish list economics” of his more progressive counterparts. Next spoke Williamson who compared our “amoral economic system” to “a false god”. Delaney went offensive on the progressives on the stage, calling out Sanders and Warren for having “bad policies” and making “impossible promises” that will be responsible for Trump’s re-election. Ryan then argued that the current systems in place are “suffocating” the American people and that, instead of reforming old systems, we must create new systems. 

Hickenlooper was next, and he said that although he shared the values of the progressive candidates, he is too “pragmatic” to espouse those values. Klobuchar maintained that the most important aspect of the election is to beat Trump, and called to mind the image of a “country of shared dreams”. Beto stressed his focused on human rights, rule of law, and a democracy that “serves everyone” and promised to “make a more perfect union of everyone, by everyone, and for everyone” as president. 

Buttigieg continued a similar theme of stressing the urgency with which we must protect reproductive rights and fight climate change, additionally pointing out the generational change he brings to the field by arguing that he will not “recycle the same arguments, policies, and politicians that have dominated Washington for as long as I’ve been alive.” Warren, too, harped on the “disgrace” Trump brings to the presidential office, asserting that she has no room for “small ideas or spinelessness” and that the Democratic party must become one that centers structural change. Sanders closed out the opening portion of the night by citing statistics demonstrating how corporations profit off of suffering and poverty in numerous industries, and promoting his “unprecedented grassroots movement”. 

Health Care

People often criticize interparty debates for being useless because candidates often agree on the vast majority of policy items. Health care is a clear exception for this Democratic cohort as was shown when a fiery debate emerged over whether Medicare for All plans go too far.

Sanders and Warren stuck together and fought hard for the Medicare for All plans that are integral to their platforms; Delaney struggled to make the case for his Universal Health Care plan that would keep the private insurance sector intact and Hickenlooper and Bullock further stressed that Medicare for All is too progressive in that it strips Americans of their right to choose the insurance plan that works best for them. Beto and Buttigieg argued for variants on Medicare for All that do not go quite as far as what Sanders and Warren advocate for, maintaining the private insurance industry and walking a fine line between the more progressive and moderate elements of the party. 

“My colleagues don’t understand the business,” Delaney said of the health care proposals that Warren and Sanders have put forth. 

But Warren and Sanders remained undeterred and stayed on message, demonstrating passion and expertise on the signature element of their campaigns. Sanders, whose main message was that he believes health care is a human right not to be compromised, remained relentless on the injustice behind insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies profiting off of people who are un/underinsured. “Nobody can defend the dysfunctionality of the current system. What we are taking on is the fact that over the last 20 years the drug companies and the insurance companies have spent $4.5 billion of your health insurance money on lobbying and campaign contributions,” Sanders proclaimed, pointing to Canada as a prime example that health care can be provided to all for less money than the U.S. currently spends on the provision of care. 

In response to Ryan’s accusation that Sanders’ plan would result in worse health care for union members who have negotiated good benefits, and his further argument that Sanders does not know what care his health plan will cover, Sanders exclaimed: “I do know. I wrote the damn bill!” 

Warren similarly rejected criticism from the moderate candidates, shutting down Delaney’s rhetoric that she and Sanders are trying to take away insurance for those enrolled in a private plan by saying: “Let’s be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.”  

While moderator Jake Tapper kept trying to get the candidates with the more progressive health care plans to admit that their policies would require the middle class to pay additional taxes, the candidates generally did a good job of reinforcing that their plans would still save those households money because of the reduced cost of and increased access to care. 

Immigration

The main focus of the night’s immigration debate was whether the candidates would decriminalize illegally crossing the border into the U.S. or whether they would take alternative means to reform the immigration system. As we are currently in the midst of a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of people seeking asylum are instead being treated as criminals, the candidates’ words remained somber and called out the atrocities being committed by the current administration. 

Buttigieg, usually calm and confident, was uncharacteristically shaky and unclear when questioned about his indication in the previous debate that he would decriminalize illegal immigration.”When I am president, illegally crossing the border will still be illegal,” he began, continuing, “we can argue over the finer points of which parts of this ought to be handled by civil law and which parts ought to be handled by criminal law. But we’ve got a crisis on our hands.” 

When further pushed to specifically talk about decriminalization, he responded: “So in my view, if fraud is involved, then that’s suitable for the criminal statute. If not, then it should be handled under civil law.” What exactly he meant by “fraud” is unclear. 

O’Rourke, who lives near the U.S. – Mexico border, said that he is against decriminalization. He promised that, as president, he would waive “citizenship fees for green card holders,” free “Dreamers from any fear of prosecution,” and decriminalize asylum-seeking, as well as work with countries in Central America to reduce the need to embark on a dangerous journey to the U.S. These actions, he argued, would eliminate the need to decriminalize illegal border crossings. 

Warren took a hard stance on the matter, clearly stating that she would decriminalize illegal border crossings since the same statute that makes illegal crossing the border a criminal act has also given license to the Trump administration to separate families. Klobuchar similarly referenced Trump, saying that he is using asylum-seekers as “political pawns.” 

Then the discussion turned to giving health insurance to undocumented immigrants. Bullock took serious issue with this matter, arguing: “I think this is the part of the discussion that shows how often these debates are detached from people’s lives. We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that.” Ryan similarly exclaimed, “And right now, if you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell.” 

Sanders did not miss a beat when responding to the two men, arguing that his belief that health care is a human right extends to all people regardless of their immigraiton status, and that his Medicare for All plan is more than capable of covering those individuals. 

Gun Violence

There was little substantive policy debate on the matter of gun violence – the candidates generally agree on common sense gun reform and the necessity of establishing universal background checks.The only argument that took place was between Buttigieg and Klobuchar, and the dispute was more generational in nature than anything else. 

Klobuchar talked about the importance of defeating the NRA and its influence on Congress as well as her own years of experience working to achieve gun reform. Buttigieg responded: “This is the exact same conversation we’ve been having since – since I was in high school. I was a junior when the Columbine shooting happened…Something is broken if it is even possible for the same debate around the same solutions that we all know are the right thing to do.” 

Sanders, who comes from a rural and high gun-owning state and has thus been criticized in the past for his gun policies, came ready to prove his tough stance on gun reform. He listed many specific actions he would take as president to limit the proliferation of guns and recalled past congressional work he had done on the gun reform front. 

Climate Crisis

Unlike the Republican Party, which has numerous members who refuse to acknowledge climate change as a scientific phenomenon, the Democratic Party’s debate operated under the assumption that the climate is changing and that we must take drastic action to combat environmental degradation. 

Delaney came out against the Green New Deal, which many of his peers vehemently support. “My plan, which gets us to net zero by 2050, which we absolutely have to do for our kids and our grandkids, will get us there. I put a price on carbon, take all the money, give it back to the American people in a dividend,” Delaney argued, stating that his plan is more realistic than the Green New Deal. 

Hickenlooper, too, distanced himself from the Deal, arguing that climate change cannot be effectively ameliorated without international cooperation. Warren became angry at this insinuation, and responded: “Look, I put a real policy on the table to create 1.2 million new jobs in green manufacturing. There’s going to be a $23 trillion worldwide market for this.,,And no one wants to talk about it. What you want to do instead is find the Republican talking point of a made-up piece of some other part and say, ‘Oh, we don’t really have to do anything.’”

A common theme of the night was emerging: someone would call a Warren or Sanders plan unrealistic (“wish-list economics”) and the two most progressive candidates would hit back hard, resting upon their years of experience and their shared faith in the strength of their platforms. 

Sanders further defended the Deal against Bullock’s criticism of fossil fuel and coal workers being left without employment by noting that the Deal creates employment and assures for a “just transition” to a more clean future.

Buttigieg chimed in to note that, in general, the Democratic candidates agree on many aspects of climate policy, and that these discussions only matter insofar as a Democrat is elected to the presidency. Otherwise, real action on climate change remains far from likely. 

Race and White Supremacist Movements

When asked about how she would combat white supremacy, Warren said that we must call it what it really is: “domestic terrorism”. She then argued that she would reverse the president’s furthering of racist ideology and that she would “put $50 billion into historically black colleges and universities.” 

Buttigieg, who faced criticism in recent months for how he dealt with racial tensions in South Bend, where he is mayor, acknowledged that, “the racial divide lives within me. I’m not saying that I became mayor and racism or crime or poverty ended on my watch.” But, he promised that, as president, he would reform policing and invest in “historically red-lined neighborhoods,” which are primarily Black communities. 

Klobuchar announced that, as president, she would sign into law Sheila Jackson Lee’s reparations bill. Williamson, who has been the most outspoken supporter of reparations, also chimed in with a powerful statement that: “…I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult. And I believe that $200 billion to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface, an emotional turbulence that only reparations will heal.” 

Sanders, on the other hand, has stated that he disagrees that cash payments are the best method to address modern race relations even though the vast majority of Black Americans support cash payments. Sanders argued that he is in support of Jim Clyburn’s legislation (the 10-20-30) plan, which supports investment in areas of perpetual poverty, and that he would combat institutional racism as president.

Trade

Warren and Delaney entered a heated debate centered around trade. Warren has previously stated that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) because of its lack of environmental and labor standards. 

“I think President Obama was right. He did include environmental standards. He did include labor standards,” Delaney said of the TPP. He continued, “We can’t isolate ourselves from the world. We can’t isolate ourselves from Asia. Senator Warren’s plan, basically, that she put out, we would not be able to trade with the United Kingdom.” 

Warren, remaining on message, responded that we have a duty to make our trade-partners become better.” People want access to our markets all around the world. Then the answer is, let’s make them raise their standards,” she argued, further noting that, “the whole game is working for the big multinationals. It’s just not working for the people here in the United States, and we can change that.” 

Foreign Policy

Sanders and Warren both advocated for a diplomacy-centered foreign policy that, in Warren’s words, does not ask “our military to take on jobs that do not have a military solution.” Sanders further called from total U.S. troop removal from Afghanistan and pledged his allegiance to the United Nations. Ryan and O’Rourke also called for the demilitarization of U.S. foreign policy. 

Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, further expounded on the great necessity for the U.S. to remove all troops from the country. “Every time I see news about somebody being killed in Afghanistan, I think about what it was like to hear an explosion over there and wonder whether it was somebody that I served with, somebody that I knew, a friend, roommate, colleague,” he said on the matter. 

Hickenlooper disagreed with his fellow candidates, arguing that total troop removal would be akin to turning our backs on and walking away from “people that have risked their lives to help us and build a different future for Afghanistan and that part of the world…” 

Moderate v. Progressive Politics 

In response to a Hickenlooper Facebook ad that stated: “socialism is not the answer,” Sanders confidently retorted that, in every “credible poll” he has looked at, he and his “socialist” policies will beat Trump in a general election. Hickenlooper fought back, maintaining that Americans will not go along with the “radical changes” that Sanders proposes. 

Ryan furthered Hickenlooper’s argument, saying that “we’ve got to talk about the working class issues, the people that take a shower after work, who haven’t had a raise in 30 years” and not about “giving free health care to undocumented immigrants” if Democrats want to have a shot at regaining the presidency. 

Warren chimed in with a compelling argument to challenge traditional media narratives surrounding the notion of electability. “We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else,” she stated, continuing, “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.” 

After Delaney further challenged her, calling her plans “impossible promises,” Warren quickly fired back with: “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

What’s Next? 

Sanders, Warren, O’Rourke, and Buttigieg have already qualified for the next debate. As for the rest? Only time will tell. How their performances tonight are received by the media and general audiences will greatly influence the likelihood of their staying in this overcrowded presidential race. 

Sara Shapiro

Sara Shapiro is a Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. Her interests include congressional investigations, youth social activism, public interest law, environmental justice, and reproductive justice....