In presidential debate, O’Rourke challenged Warren for being “punitive”

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Democrats took to the presidential stage in Ohio on Tuesday, the first prime-time debate following the House Democrats impeachment inquiry of President Trump. We took away at least three themes from the first two hours of the debate:

  • Impeachment was an important first issue out of the gate for the 12 candidates, but the bulk of the evening was focused on kitchen-table issues, like health care and jobs. 
  • Elizabeth Warren wore her frontrunner status well, taking incoming friendly fire from a number of directions.
  • Reproductive health came up for the first time in debates this election cycle.

Let’s Get Peachy

Warren kicked off a fiery discussion on the moral imperative to remove Trump from office. Most of the candidates agreed, with the possible exceptions of Pete Buttiegieg and Tulsi Gabbard, both of whom are veterans, who called for a less divisive approach to impeachment. 

Still, all the candidates were in agreement on the impeachment inquiry of President Trump; their position now reflects public opinion. A majority of voters support not only impeachment but removing Trump from office. 

The other new entrant on the stage, Tom Steyer, took the softball pitched his way by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper and talked up the work of “Need to Impeach,” which he started two years ago. Ever the trend-setter.

Health care

Democrats can’t be a happy family. On health care, a lively multi-candidate scrum was set off by a disagreement between Buttigieg and Warren, the mayor calling out Warren for failing to specify how she’ll pay for her plans. Warren was having none of it, saying of Buttigieg’s plan: “Let’s be clear…it’s Medicare for All who can afford it.” 

The perennial tug-of-war between those who want to build on Obamacare, including Joe Biden, and those who want a wholesale reform of the health care system, like Warren and Bernie Sanders, continued Tuesday night. What was different from prior debates was the inclusion of reproductive health care, first brought up by Kamala Harris. “Let women make decisions” about their own health, she said, to applause in the debate hall. 

The Economy

Moderators asked the candidates about levying a tax on the wealthiest Americans. Warren said the question wasn’t why she and Sanders supported such a tax plan; it’s why everyone else doesn’t. Amy Klobuchar and Buttiegieg, who occupy the more centrist Democratic lane, seemed to be spoiling for a fight, going toe-to-toe with their more progressive colleagues during a prolonged exchange on the tax.

Beto O’Rourke took a shot at Warren in her economic plan. “Sometimes I think Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting one part of the country against the other instead of lifting all people up,” he said. As she did in the prior debate, Warren dodged a question from the moderator about whether she would be forced to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for her system-wide public policy reforms. 

Gun safety

Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said he’s opposed to mandatory gun buy-backs because the term mandatory is too poorly defined. And minority communities — already fearful of police violence, he said– would be skittish about officers canvassing neighborhoods for the weapons. Castro referenced the recent heinous murder of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman, in Fort Worth. He was the only candidate stage who forcefully called out police violence.

Abortion

For the first time in a 2020 debate setting, the moderators asked the candidates about abortion: How would you stop states from continuing to restrict abortion, as many are now? Harris said she would use her Department of Justice to ensure abortion-related legislation would be constitutional and comply with Roe v. Wade. “The reality of it is this is still a fundamental issue of justice for women in America,” Harris said.

Tulsi Gabbard broke out a true 90’s jewel, saying she agreed with Hillary Clinton when she said abortion should be safe, legal and rare. She said that while she supports codifying Roe, she would ban abortion in the third trimester unless the health of the mother or child were at risk.

Age

The moderators took a stab at a delicate topic: the candidates’ health. Bernie Sanders said he was healthy and felt great before veering off onto the opioid topic and plugged an upcoming rally in Queens. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez endorses him Tuesday night.

Biden, who would turn 80 shortly after taking office, noted one of the reasons he was running for president is because of his age, wisdom, and experience. He vowed to release his medical records before the first votes are cast in Iowa. Warren largely dismissed age-based arguments.

Where we go from here

Let’s hope to Tuesday’s debate helps motivate some candidates to get out of the race. There are mere months to go before the first votes are cast and the field remains too big to be helpful to voters making an informed decision about which Democrat they want to see go up against Trump.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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