Thousands of eager attendees descended on Fox Theatre for the second round of Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN in Detroit on Wednesday night.
On stage for part two were former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio; former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro; Entrepreneur Andrew Yang; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Co..
In Tuesday’s debate, the two top pollers, Warren and Sanders –– also widely considered the most progressive in the race –– were seen as presenting a united front, defending each other against the attacks of more moderate candidates. In Wednesday's debate, Biden, who has led by double-digit percentages in a majority of polls, received the brunt of the attacks from other candidates, but close in tow was Harris, who received strong criticism from others on her criminal justice record.
De Blasio was the first to attack both, using his opening statement to depict them as part of the status quo.
“Joe Biden told wealthy donors that nothing fundamentally would change if he were president. Kamala Harris said she's not trying to restructure society. Well, I am,” De Blasio said. “When I’m president, we will even up the score and we will tax the hell out of the wealthy to make this a fairer country and to make sure it’s a country that puts working people first.”
The most heavily discussed topics on Wednesday night were health care, immigration and criminal justice, while climate change and foreign policy, while discussed, were among topics receiving less airtime.
Many of the candidates now support Medicare-for-all, insofar as it means creating a public option for health insurance into which any citizen can buy. One of the main divides that has opened within the healthcare debate, however, has been whether to keep an option for private, employer-provided health insurance, which only Warren and Sanders have opposed.
Unlike many others, Biden does not support Medicare for All, and on Wednesday night criticized Harris’s plan for its high cost. Harris, by contrast, criticized Biden's plan for failing to cover every citizen.
Yang argued Democrats had been discussing Medicare for All in the wrong ways, pointing out that it took the burden off of businesses to provide healthcare for employees.
“As someone who’s run a business, I can tell you flat out our current health care system makes it harder to hire, it makes it harder to treat people well and give them benefits and treat them as full-time employees, it makes it harder to switch jobs, as Senator Harris just said, and it’s certainly a lot harder to start a business,” Yang said. “If we say, look, we’re going to get health care off the backs of businesses and families, then watch American entrepreneurship recover and bloom.”
On the issue of immigration in particular, candidates took the opportunity to go after Biden, criticizing him for his part in the record number of deportations which occurred under the Obama Administration.
Castro, who put forward his plan to decriminalize border crossings and invest millions of dollars in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as part of a “21st Century Marshall Plan,” acknowledged his role in the Obama administration by telling Biden, “one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.”
At one point as Biden was discussing immigration, he was interrupted by protesters criticizing his record in the Obama Administration, chanting “Three million deportations!” Biden said unauthorized border crossings should continue to be treated as a crime and that “people should have to get in line.”
“And by the way, anybody that crosses the stage with a PhD, you should get a green card for seven years,” Biden said. “We should keep them here.”
Booker contradicted Biden, connecting his comment to one made by President Trump in which he said he wants fewer immigrants from “shithole countries.”
“That’s playing into what the Republicans want, to pit some immigrants against other immigrants. Some are from ‘shithole’ countries and some are from ‘worthy’ countries,” Booker said. “We need to reform this whole immigration system and begin to be the country that says everyone has worth and dignity and this should be a country that honors for everyone.”
Of all the candidates, Inslee discussed climate change the most, and was the only one to name it as a priority. He pointed out that while it was everyone’s problem, it was Democrats’ duty to deliver justice to poor and minority communities like those in southwest Detroit, who suffer from disproportionate rates of asthma and lung disease due to air pollution.
“Think about this: Literally the survival of humanity on this planet and civilization as we know it is in the hands of the next president,” Inslee said. “And we have to have a leader who will do what is necessary to save us. And that includes making this the top priority of the next presidency.”
Aaron Kall, director of the Michigan Debate Institutes and the University of Michigan’s debate program, has attended all of the debates in this presidential campaign and the last as an analyst. Kall said while there wasn’t “a tremendous amount of separation,” Biden was the clear winner of the debate.
“He came in as the clear and established leader, and I don’t think that anything that happened tonight changed that,” Kall said. “He had a markedly better performance than in Miami, where he was bested in the exchange over race and segregation by Kamala Harris.”
LSA junior Thom Hourani disagreed, noting Biden’s past policy stances were often a point of criticism in the debate.
“It was very interesting watching all the candidates dogpile onto Joe Biden,” Hourani said. “Obviously, people were expecting that, but I didn’t expect at that intensity.”
After Harris’s strong performance in the last set of debates in Miami, Kall said, more attacks were directed at her in this round, leaving Biden more breathing room. The other candidates, however, also learned the lesson of Harris’s success, making the strategic move of attacking frontrunner Biden.
“What the moderating showed is that if you really are aggressive against the frontrunners and are willing to tangle with them, then the moderators will reward you with additional time, and fighting for time –– you have 10 candidates on stage –– is really important,” Kall said.
For many of the candidates, these debates could be their last, as the next set of debates in September carry a much higher qualification threshold for donors and polling.
However, Hourani said he would rather see the candidates discuss their own policies than fight one another. He believes Booker performed the best in this respect.
“I just thought Cory Booker was very articulate in his arguments as opposed to Kamala and Biden, who were focused on attacking each other the entire time,” Hourani said. “But it’s important to focus on the issues, rather than just attacks.”
Hourani also wishes the candidates had talked more about higher education, particularly on the subject of student debt.
“That was an issue I cared about a lot, and the fact that they didn’t bring it up at all is frustrating, especially since young people make up a large part of the voting bloc,” Hourani said.
Overall, as someone involved in and passionate about politics, Hourani said he enjoyed the experience to watch the debates in the audience.
“It’s just surreal seeing it in person,” Hourani said. “It doesn’t feel real seeing them outside of a television screen.”
LSA sophomore Neil Jain expressed similar sentiments, saying the experience was especially interesting after spending a year involved in the University of Michigan chapter of College Democrats.
“Being involved in politics has been a dream of mine since I was eight years old,” Jain said. “Watching the debates tonight was a dream come true.”
Jain noted the diversity of candidates onstage both Tuesday and Wednesday night.
“The Democratic Party is a diverse party that reflects all backgrounds, all walks of life,” Jain said. “This is also the most diverse field in any presidential primary history. Having that representation really reflects the progress we’ve made, and energizes us for the progress that is to come.”
Carly Ryan contributed reporting to this article.