MIAMI (Reuters) – Democratic presidential contenders battled over healthcare coverage during a surprisingly heated first debate on Wednesday, laying 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 contenders also clashed over border policy as some of the lesser-known candidates vied for attention in the crowded race to take on Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
Candidates at times shouted over each other, battling to grab the spotlight and prove to Democratic activists they are capable of standing up to Trump.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke came under fire most often during the 10-candidate debate in Miami, tangling with former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, a fellow Texan, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
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 U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, which has gained support in Congress, would create a government-operated plan that eliminates private insurance. It is modeled on the Medicare government healthcare program 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?”
O’Rourke also came under attack from Castro over the separation of families and detention of migrants at the southern border. Castro said he would decriminalize border crossings by migrants, which he said had led to the separation of families. He challenged O’Rourke and others to support him.
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 criminalized.
Castro responded: “I’m not talking about the ones that are seeking asylum, I’m talking about everybody else.” He accused O’Rourke of not doing his homework.
The Democrats also agreed with each other frequently, particularly when it came to Trump. They criticized his economic policies, saying they had benefited the wealthy at the expense of working Americans, and calling his border policies heartless.
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. “BORING!” he tweeted.
The intensity of the exchanges, after six months of a relatively mild and dispute-free 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 field of more than 20 candidates.
All 10 participants in the first encounter had an opportunity to step out of the shadow cast by front-runners Joe Biden and Sanders, who are scheduled to take the stage on Thursday night with eight other contenders.
Warren was the headliner on the opening night. She was joined onstage by nine other candidates, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
Washington state Governor Jay Inslee said he was the only candidate on the stage that had passed a public healthcare option and a law protecting a woman’s right to reproductive health and health insurance.
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That drew a sharp response from Klobuchar.
“There are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said, looking at Warren and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.