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 whether to abolish private insurance and shift to a Medicare-for-All system.
In the first round of back-to-back debates, several of the lesser-known candidates vied for attention in the crowded race to take on President Donald Trump, shouting over one another to grab the spotlight and prove they are capable of standing up to the Republican in the November 2020 election.
The Democratic contenders repeatedly attacked Trump, saying his economic policies benefited the wealthy at the expense of working Americans, and calling his border policies heartless.
“On January 20, 2021, we’ll say ‘Adios’ to Donald Trump,” said former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.
But they also turned their fire on each other, most often targeting Beto O’Rourke. The former congressman tangled with Castro, a fellow Texan, on border policy, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on healthcare.
The intensity of the exchanges after six months of a relatively mild campaign reflected the high stakes in what could be a make-or-break moment for some of the contenders struggling to be noticed in the Democratic field of more than 20 candidates.
No one mentioned front-runner Joe Biden, who will take the stage with top rival Bernie Sanders and eight other candidates in the second debate on Thursday night.
The battle over healthcare began when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they support eliminating private health insurance. Only U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and de Blasio did so, but they quickly challenged the other eight candidates on stage.
Warren, a leader of the party’s progressive wing who has been surging in opinion polls, said private insurance was taking advantage of Americans. She backs a government-sponsored Medicare-for-All approach and criticized those who say it is not politically feasible.
“What they are really telling you is they just won’t fight for it. Healthcare is a basic right, and I will fight for it,” she said.
But former U.S. Representative John Delaney, an outspoken critic of Medicare for All who supports a universal healthcare approach that includes private insurance, said Democrats should not throw away a system that some Americans are happy with.
“I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” Delaney said.
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 programme for seniors.
O’Rourke said private insurance was “fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for,” but 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?”