- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

MIAMI — The Democratic presidential candidates opened the first debate with a full-bore attack on corporate America and on what they called business as usual in Washington.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts blasted the federal government for rigging the economy in favor of Big Pharma, Big Oil and Wall Street at the expense of working Americans.

“When you have a government and an economy that does great for those with money and doesn’t do great for everyone else, that is corruption pure and simple,” she said. “We need to call it out, we need to attack it head on and we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”

SEE ALSO: Decriminalizing illegal immigration drives Democratic debate

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas took a similar tack.

“This economy has got to work for everyone. Right now we know it isn’t. We are going to have to come together to make sure it does,” he said, repeating his lines in Spanish.

The Democratic hopefuls were squaring off in a debate for the first time, battling the clock as much as each other as they sought to stand out on the crowded stage amid the general dogpile on President Trump.

SEE ALSO: Beto O’Rourke demands impeachment, charges against Trump

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota seized on a question about the soaring cost of higher education and the student debt crisis to go after Mr. Trump.

“Donald Trump just sits in the White House and gloats about what is going on,” she said.

In the two-hour debate, the candidates tackled health care, immigration, climate change and gun violence.

One of the most vigorous clashes among candidates came over health care and the far left’s proposal of a “Medicare for All” government-run program.

Ms. Klobuchar voiced concerns about “kicking half of Americans off their health insurance,” putting her at odds with Ms. Warren.

“I understand there are a lot of politicians who say that is just not possible, we just can’t do it,” Ms. Warren said. “What they are really telling you is they just won’t fight for it. Well, health care is a basic human right, and I will fight for it.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, pounced on Mr. O’Rourke after he said he opposed abolishing private insurance, which most Americans have.

“Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans. When you talk about the copays, the deductibles, the out-of-pocket expenses — it is not working,” Mr. de Blasio said. “How do you defend a system that’s not working?”

Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, whose campaign let it be known that he was looking for a fight, said the smartest thing to do would be to build off the success of Obamacare.

“I think we should be the party that keeps what is working and fixes what is broken,” Mr. Delaney said. “Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people?”

The debates put a spotlight on the Democratic Party’s choice of direction as it rebuilds itself in the post-Obama era. The party made major gains in 2018 when it won control of the House by running on health care, the cost of prescription drugs and jobs.

Mr. Trump, though, will be atop the ticket next year and Democratic voters are being asked whether they have a better chance of ousting him with a more liberal or more moderate candidate as the standard-bearer.

As on health care, the candidates tested one another’s limits.

Former Obama Cabinet official Julian Castro challenged his rivals to decriminalize illegal immigration, saying jumping the border shouldn’t be enough to earn someone jail time.

“The reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is they’re using Section 1325 of that act,” said Mr. Castro, referring to the section of the law that makes jumping the border illegal. “If you truly want to change the system, then we’ve got to repeal that section.”

Mr. Booker said he, too, supports decriminalizing illegal immigration, but others weren’t ready to go that far.

Mr. O’Rourke fretted about human traffickers. Ms. Klobuchar also said she worried about smugglers and other bad actors.

Pressed for an answer to the border crisis that resulted in the death of a man and his daughter trying to cross the Rio Grande, few candidates offered specific answers other than more nation-building in Central America.

Mr. de Blasio brought it back to battling the wealthy, a frequent theme for him and other far-left contenders.

“We’re not being honest about the division that’s been fomented in this country,” he said. “The immigrants didn’t do that to you. The big corporations didn’t do that to you. The 1% did that to you.”

The debate backdrop of Miami, home to various Hispanic and Caribbean citizens, magnified the immigration issues that have long flummoxed Washington and took on new urgency with recent deaths of people illegally crossing the border.

Many of the Democratic hopefuls are making a pilgrimage to the detention facility for Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) in Homestead, Florida, about 35 miles south of Miami.

The candidates also slammed the Trump administration’s approach on Iran.

“This president and his chicken hawk Cabinet have led us to the brink of war with Iran,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said. “This is why it is so important that every one of us stands up and says, ‘No war with Iran.’ “

The fight for their moment in the debate spotlight illuminated the high stakes for the crowded field of Democratic hopefuls.

Jon Ausman, longtime Democratic Party operative in Florida, said he expected the two days of debates to begin to “whittle down” the pack.

“Some of the people who have little or no chance, who are in the 1% to 3% section of the polling, some of them are going to get the message that they’re done and the money is going to dry up,” he said.

Indeed, the rhetoric on stage appeared as much aimed at donors and activists in TV land than at the 1,500 people in the audience in the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

The Democratic National Committee capped the number of candidates in the debates at 20 and split them between two nights, with randomly selected 10 candidates on stage each night.

That left five candidates out of the mix. The debate Wednesday gave a national audience its first chance to see roughly half of the Democratic field face off.

At the center of the stage stood Ms. Warren and Mr. O’Rourke, earning the prime spots because they have polled the highest among the first night’s competitors.

They were flanked by Mr. Booker and Ms. Klobuchar. On the edges of the stages stood Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Delaney, Mr. Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Ms. Gabbard and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The showdown, however, served as an appetizer for the second night, when more of the top-tier candidates will square off.

“Twenty hours from now, everyone will forget about tonight,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic Party consultant. “That is the challenge of going on the first night. The second night, where you do have more front-runners — at least four of them — that is going to steal all the thunder.”

The front-runners taking the stage Thursday are former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

They will be joined by New Age guru Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.

Stephen Dinan in Washington contributed to this report.

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