By all accounts, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren rose to the occasion and established a foothold among the top tier of Democratic candidates on Wednesday night in the first of two debates between those seeking the Oval Office in 2020.
The Massachusetts senator came off as passionate, yet polished, as she time and again reiterated her calls for policies benefiting working Americans and decried the current administration’s policies, which she says favor wealthy Americans and corporate interests.
Throughout the debate, Warren sought to distinguish herself from the other nine candidates on the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, Fla., primarily by casting herself as one of the more progressive candidates seeking the presidency and the champion of the downtrodden.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy, that does great for those with money, and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” Warren said. “We need to call it out, we need to attack it head on.”
Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cast his lot in with the faction of the Democratic Party that has historically been more closely aligned with Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). At times interrupting the moderators and his fellow candidates, de Blasio cast himself as a brash, outspoken progressive who has been able to pass policies on the local level that most national Democrats talk about but haven’t delivered. Of note, de Blasio and Warren were the only two candidates to raise their hand when asked by debate moderators whether they would support completely eliminating private insurance and pushing for a Medicare-for-All system.
“It matters in this fight for the heart and soul of our party, that we nominate a candidate who has seen the face of poverty, and didn’t just talk about it, but gave people a $15 minimum wage,” de Blasio said in his closing statement summarizing the reasons why he entered the presidential race. “It matters that we nominate a candidate who saw the destruction wrought by a broken health care system, and gave people universal health care. … These things really matter. These are the things I’ve done in New York, and I want to do the same in this whole country.”
Warren’s perceived victory was largely based on the fact that she emerged unscathed from the debate, with no candidate directly taking her on.
Meanwhile, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro — a notable standout during the debates — attacked former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) over his policies regarding illegal immigration and whether it should be a crime or a civil offense to cross the country’s Southern border.
Castro specifically attacked O’Rourke, and, indirectly, other candidates, for focusing only on asylum seekers, rather than all undocumented residents, when talking about immigration.
The debate comes against a backdrop where the Trump administration is under fire from human rights advocates and proponents of immigration reform for forcibly separating migrant children from their parents and holding them in mass detention facilities without beds, toothpaste, toothbrushes, or soap — which has triggered outbreaks of influenza and lice infestation, according to reporting from The New Yorker.
A similar skirmish occurred on foreign policy when U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who has made opposition to regime change the cornerstone of her foreign policy, took on U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) over military intervention in the Middle East.
After Ryan advocated remaining “engaged” in the region, Gabbard, an Army veteran, attacked Ryan’s answer as “unacceptable” and called for the U.S. to remove its troops from Afghanistan.
She and Ryan then squabbled over whether removing U.S. troops from the country would allow the Taliban to grow their ranks and potentially launch terrorist attacks against the West, with Gabbard drawing a distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda — which was behind the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 — while Ryan insisted that the Taliban had protected jihadists that carried out attacks against the United States.
While President Trump was inevitably brought up by some candidates, he did not loom large, as most Democrats focused on making the case for themselves and their policies to voters, as opposed to trying to tear down the president. The bulk of the debate focused on three issues that Democrats, through many election cycles, have cited as important to them: immigration reform, combating economic inequality, and support for a “green” economy based on innovation in the clean-energy sector.
On LGBTQ issues, several candidates mentioned LGBTQ equality or attempted to incorporate LGBTQ Americans into some of their answers.
At one point, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) compared the activism of younger generations on gun reform — specifically, the political engagement by teenage survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — and its ability to change minds, to the activism of younger generations who helped change public opinion on same-sex marriage.
Castro, in an attempt to speak to transgender inclusion in the debate over abortion, erroneously referred to the need for “reproductive justice” for “transgender women” instead of transgender men.
Ryan, both during the debate and in his closing statement, name-checked the gay community, accusing corporate interests generally, and the Trump administration specifically, of attempting to divide gay and straight Americans to distract them from economic issues.
But the biggest LGBTQ-related moment of the night involved a question posed to Gabbard on why LGBTQ voters and their allies should trust her commitment to them, given her previous opposition to LGBTQ equality.
Gabbard, who has previously apologized for her earlier views and actions, has argued that she changed her views on equality after joining the military and serving alongside LGBTQ Americans.
“There is no one in our government, at any level, who has the right to tell any American who they should be allowed to love, or be allowed to marry,” she said. She noted that she has demonstrated strong support for LGBTQ equality since being elected to Congress in 2012, joining the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and voting in favor of the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in employment, credit, housing, jury service, and public accommodations.
“Maybe many people in this country can relate to the fact that I grew up in a socially conservative home, held views when I was very young that I no longer hold today,” Gabbard said. “I’ve served with LGBTQ service members, both in training and deployed down-range. I know they would give their life for me, and I would give my life for them.”
But Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) interjected that Gabbard’s response was “not enough.”
“We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African-American trans Americans, and the incredibly high rates of murder right now,” Booker said. “We don’t talk enough about how many children — about 30% of LGBTQ kids — do not go to school because of fear. It’s not enough just to be on the Equality Act — I’m an original co-sponsor. We need to have a president that will fight to protect LGBTQ Americans every single day from violence.”
The LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD praised the debate moderators for raising LGBTQ rights as an issue to be addressed by presidential hopefuls.
“Putting LGBTQ-specific issues front and center stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric and record of the Trump administration, which has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities since the day he took office,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement.