North America

Elizabeth Warren leads Democrats in spirited first 2020 debate

0:00

Democratic presidential contenders battled over healthcare coverage and border policy on Wednesday during a surprisingly heated first debate that laid bare the party's divisions on health insurance.

Ten Democrats clashed in the first debate of the 2020 presidential race Wednesday with Elizabeth Warren cementing her status as a top-tier candidate and several underdogs using the issue of immigration to clamor for the limelight.

The biggest American political debate since the 2016 presidential campaign is occurring over two nights in Miami, climaxing Thursday with former vice president Joe Biden squaring off against nine challengers, including number two candidate Bernie Sanders.

But Wednesday's first take was a spirited encounter between Democrats like ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke, Senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on subjects as varied as health care, economic inequality, climate action, gun violence, Iran and immigration.

Democratic debate
The first Democrat debate was a spirited event featuring 10 candidates.
AAP

Despite the feverish political climate in Washington and heavy campaigning in early voting states, millions of Americans were tuning in to the 2020 race for the first time.

What they heard right off the bat was Ms Warren, the ideological progressive and only candidate on stage polling in double digits, knocking what she calls a rigged economy.

"Who's this economy really working for? asked Ms Warren, who received the first question.

"When you've got a government, when you have an economy that does great for those with money and is not doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple," the US senator and former Harvard law professor added. "We need to call it out."

She also weighed in on children and gun violence, saying the latter was a "national emergency".

The Senator said the hardest questions she had ever been asked were by children, who asked: "When you're president, how are you going to keep us safe?" 

"Seven children will die today, and it won't just be in mass shootings," she said. 

With so many people on stage, candidates enjoying their first exposure to a broad national audience each had limited time to make their mark, perhaps winning a viral moment that advances their cause, draws new donors and keeps them in the headlines.

But the backdrop to the debate - the mushrooming crisis on the US-Mexico border, the detention of migrant children in squalid conditions and a shocking photograph of a Salvadoran man and his baby daughter drowned in the Rio Grande - led to swift, tense exchanges.

Mr Castro, the only Latino in the race, and who unveiled a sweeping immigration plan earlier this year, called the photograph "heartbreaking."

"It should also piss us all off," he said, "and it should spur us to action."

Mr O'Rourke, Mr Booker and later Mr Castro notably slipped into Spanish as they addressed the migration crisis. 

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker hugs US Representative Tim Ryan and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hugs Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker hugs US Representative Tim Ryan and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hugs Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.
AAP

Mr De Blasio, a late entrant to the race, earned loud applause when he reminded citizens immigrants were not their enemies.

"For all the American citizens who feel you are falling behind and the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn't do that to you!" Mr De Blasio boomed. 

"The big corporations did that to you."

Amy Klobuchar also rushed to the defence of immigrants, saying "they do not diminish America, they are America."

The Minnesota senator held her own as a male rival claimed he was the lone candidate who had passed legislation protecting a woman's reproductive rights.

"There's three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose," Ms Klobuchar shot back.

After years of defending former Democratic President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law known as Obamacare from Republican attempts to repeal it, Democrats have struggled during the campaign to agree on the best approach to fixing it.

The Medicare for All approach pushed by Warren and Sanders, which has gained support in Congress, would create a government-operated plan that eliminates private insurance. It is modelled on the Medicare government healthcare program for seniors.

Mr O'Rourke said private insurance was "fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for," but Mr de Blasio cut him off.

"Congressman O'Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the copays, the deductibles the premiums - it's not working. How can you defend a system that's not working?"

'BORING!'

Mr O'Rourke also came under attack from Castro over the separation of families and detention of migrants at the southern border. Mr Castro said he would decriminalise border crossings by migrants, which he said had led to the separation of families. He challenged Mr O'Rourke and others to support him.

Mr O'Rourke said that as a congressman he helped introduce a bill that would ensure that those who are seeking asylum and refuge in the United States are not criminalised.

Democratic candidates Senator Amy Klobuchar, Washington Govenor Jay Inslee and Representative Tulsi Gabbard greet supporters at the end of the debate.
Democratic candidates Senator Amy Klobuchar, Washington Govenor Jay Inslee and Representative Tulsi Gabbard greet supporters at the end of the debate.
AAP

Mr Castro responded: "I'm not talking about the ones that are seeking asylum, I'm talking about everybody else." He accused Mr O'Rourke of not doing his homework.

Mr Trump hinted he would not tweet his reactions to the debate live. It was taking place as he flies aboard Air Force One to Osaka, Japan, for a G20 summit.

But shortly after it began, he could not help himself. 

"This debate was the best argument for President Trump’s re-election and should really be counted as an in-kind contribution to the President’s campaign," Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign's spokeswoman, said in a statement.

"The far-left, socialist policies Democrats embraced tonight were akin to a mutual political suicide pact," she said.

The debate was an opportunity for some of the less-noticed candidates to step out of the shadow cast by Biden, a former vice president, and Sanders, a senator from Vermont.

US Senator Cory Booker had the most speaking time in the debate at about 11 minutes, according to the New York Times and other media trackers. He was followed by Mr O'Rourke, Ms Warren and Mr Castro. Washington Governor Jay Inslee had the least.

Several of the contenders took aim at corporate America, saying it did not pay enough in taxes, repaid government bailouts by shifting jobs overseas and charged too much for its products.

"Who is this economy really working for? It's doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It's doing great for giant drug companies. It's just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled," Ms Warren said.

People react at a watch party for the first Democratic presidential primary debates for the 2020 elections in Miami, FL, USA, on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Photo by John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM.
People at a watch party for the first Democratic presidential primary debates in Miami.
AAP

Mr Inslee said he was the only candidate on the stage who had passed a public healthcare option and a law protecting a woman's right to reproductive health and health insurance.

That drew a sharp response from Senator Amy Klobuchar.

"There are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose," she said, looking at Ms Warren and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Many Americans will be watching more carefully Thursday when a clash of the old guard featuring Joe Biden, 76, and Bernie Sanders, 77, might dominate.

The pair will face up-and-comers like Senator Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race; Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana; and dark horse Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, and political novice.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch