On Tuesday night, 10 candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination gathered in downtown Detroit’s Fox Theatre for a live debate organized by CNN. Approximately 3,500 students, government leaders, city residents and guests were in attendance.
Author Marianne Williamson; Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; former U.S. Rep. John Delaney; and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock all took the stage on the first of a two-night debate series.
University of Michigan students were among those in attendance. LSA junior Clare Godfryd said she felt fortunate to attend the debate, as not all students were able to obtain tickets.
“Pretty much everyone who is able to attend is either very well off, a donor or has some sort of connection like us,” Godfryd said. “It made me wish that more people had the opportunity to see events like this in person, because it was really rewarding.”
The candidates discussed a wide variety of issues — highlighting differences in policy among their campaign platforms — with a specific focus on health care, immigration, electability and race. Other topics, like taxation, gun violence and climate change were also covered.
Medicare was the main focus of the first hour of the debate, with all 10 candidates weighing in with their plans for health care reform. Delaney, Bullock and Ryan all supported health care plans offering both private and public options, agreeing it wouldn’t be worthwhile to take away private health care from those who like it.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to support any plan that rips away quality health care from individuals,” Bullock said. “This is an example of wish list economics. It used to be just Republicans who wanted to repeal and replace. Now many Democrats do, as well.”
Buttigieg and O’Rourke shared similar policies. They supported a plan with several insurance options as well as Medicare for those who need it.
“We don’t have to stand up here speculating about whether the public option will be better or a Medicare for All environment will be better than the corporate options,” Buttigieg said. “We can put it to the test. That’s the concept of my Medicare for All Who Want It proposal. That way, if people like me are right that the public alternative is going to be not only more comprehensive, but more affordable than any of the corporate options around there, we’ll see Americans walk away from the corporate options into that Medicare option, and it will become Medicare for All without us having to kick anybody off their insurance.”
O’Rourke also shared his disapproval of increasing taxes for the middle class to support health care reform.
“The middle class will not pay more in taxes in order to ensure that every American is guaranteed world-class health care,” O’Rourke said. “I think we’re being offered a false choice.”
Williamson said she understands the argument behind maintaining privatized health care. This statement prompted a debate between Warren and Sanders — both strong supporters of Medicare for All plans — and the other candidates on stage.
Warren said pushing the idea of rising taxes was a tactic Republicans have used in the past to paint the plan in a negative light.
“Let's be clear about this: We are the Democrats,” Warren said. “We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That's what the Republicans are trying to do. And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.”
The conversation transitioned to foreign policy and immigration, specifically in the context of the Southern border. Though all candidates agreed immigrants seeking asylum are being mistreated, there was a disagreement over decriminalizing crossing the border.
Ryan, Bullock, Hickenlooper and Buttigieg said they were against decriminalizing crossing the border. Seeking asylum is already a legal course of action, Ryan said, and there is no need to decriminalize every entry into America.
“Even if you decriminalize, which we should not do, you still have statutory authority,” Ryan said. “The president could still use his authority to separate families. So we’ve got to get rid of Donald Trump. But you don’t decriminalize people just walking into the United States. If they’re seeking asylum, of course, we want to welcome them. We’re a strong enough country to be able to welcome them.”
On the other hand, Warren, O’Rourke, Sanders and Klobuchar made statements in favor of decriminalizing crossing the border.
“What Trump is doing through his racism and his xenophobia, is demonizing a group of people,” Sanders said. “And as president, I will end that demonization. If a mother and a child walk thousands of miles on a dangerous path, in my view, they are not criminals.”
During a discussion about curbing gun violence, candidates agreed the National Rifle Association holds too much political capital. Several candidates shared anecdotes of seeing communities impacted by gun violence, including Klobuchar, who discussed the impact of the Parkland shooting and the work of survivors in its aftermath.
“This isn't just about a system, or it's not just about words,” Klobuchar said. “This is about the NRA. I sat across from the president of the United States after Parkland, because I've been a leader on these issues and have the will to close to a boyfriend loophole.”
From there, the conversation expanded to a larger discussion about Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling changing campaign donation limits. Candidates agreed corporations gain too much political power through campaign financing.
Williamson asked candidates not to accept money from Political Action Committees.
“The issue of gun safety, of course, is that the NRA has us in a chokehold, but so do the pharmaceutical companies, so do the health insurance companies, so do the fossil fuel companies, and so do the defense contractors, and none of this will change until we either pass a constitutional amendment or pass legislation that establishes public funding for federal campaigns,” Williamson said. “It is time for us to start over with people who have not taken donations from any of those corporations and can say with real moral authority: That is over.”
When the conversation turned to the best course for the Democratic party to beat Donald Trump in the general election, divisions in candidates’ ideologies came to the surface.
Delaney, Klobuchar, Ryan and Hickenlooper were weary of “wishlist economic plans” — like Warren’s wealth tax plan — that seemed abstract to everyday American people. Instead, they bolstered the importance of focusing on “kitchen table issues.”
“Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics,” Delaney said. “We need to encourage collaboration between the government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector, and focus on those kitchen table, pocketbook issues that matter to hard-working Americans.”
Alternatively, Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders and O’Rourke made it clear they believe Americans want an “inspiring” and “bold” candidate to take on Trump.
“There is a lot at stake, and people are scared,” Warren said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don't believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in. Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid. And for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid, either.”
When it came to climate change, there was no question of severity. However, some candidates felt others were not cognizant of job losses caused by transitioning toward carbon-neutral policies.
Specifically, Bullock said it is imperative Democrats send the right messages to those who work in the energy sector. He noted the need for increased discussions over alternative job opportunities during the transition to clean energy.
“As we transition to this clean energy economy, you've got to recognize, there are folks that have spent their whole life powering our country, and far too often, Democrats sound like they're part of the problem,” Bullock said. “We got to make sure to aid in those transition as we get to a carbon-neutral world, which I think we can do by 2020.”
Sanders emphasized the threat of the fossil fuel industry. He said that the government must work to move away from fossil fuels, regardless of the political influence of major industry stakeholders.
“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said. “Republicans are not afraid of big ideas. They could give $1 trillion in tax breaks to billionaires and profitable corporations. They could bail out the crooks on Wall Street. So please don't tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry. And nothing happens unless we do that.”
The candidates then transitioned to a conversation about race. Calling the Flint water crisis “the tip of the iceberg,” Williamson said people of color and other disadvantaged communities are often a part of those suffering from environmental injustices.
“I lived Grosse Pointe — what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe,” Williamson said. “ This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry and … this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days. We need to say it like it is, it's bigger than Flint. It’s all over this country: It’s particularly people of color, it’s particularly people who do not have the money to fight back. And if the Democrats don’t start saying it, then why would those people feel that they’re there for us and if those people don't feel it, they won’t vote for us, and Donald Trump will win.”
While Williamson has put forth a plan for reparations in America, which would include payments for African Americans, other candidates such as O’Rourke expressed interest in having more conversations about the issue.
“I want to acknowledge something that we're all touching on, which is the very foundation of this country, the wealth that we have built, the way we became the greatest country on the face of the planet was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force,” O’Rourke said.
When asked about healing the racial divide in America, Hickenlooper said he would look to make improvements in education as a vehicle for mitigating racial disparities.
“Well the core value behind this entire country's history is working towards a more perfect union, that all people are created equal,” Hickenlooper said. “And we’ve fallen far away from that.”
Klobuchar mentioned the recent focus on Baltimore, which made national headlines over the weekend after Trump called the city rat-infested. She said attacks against other Americans like this coming from the president are morally wrong and would not happen with her in the White House.
“I don't think anyone can justify what this president is doing,” Klobuchar said. “Little kids literally woke up this weekend, turned on the TV, and saw their president calling their city, the town of Baltimore, nothing more than a home for rats. And I can tell you, as your president, that will stop.”
LSA junior Elizabeth Williams said she was most surprised at Williamson’s presence on Tuesday’s stage. After the debate, Williamson’s name began trending on Twitter in the United States and became the most searched Democratic candidate during the night of the debate across 49 of 50 states.
“I felt like tonight she (Williamson) definitely focused more on policy and numbers and actual facts,” Williams said. “From the last debate, I felt like she was more preaching a motto, where tonight I feel like she actually really rooted what she was saying in ideas, which I really appreciated.”
Godfryd said she was especially impressed by Sanders’ performance. Sanders clocked in the second most talking time behind Warren, and the two were said to be a “dynamic duo” against the other candidates in regards to their conversation on health care.
“The health care segment was probably the highlight for me,” Godfryd said. “Bernie really showed through in this debate as opposed to the last one, and I feel like he really distinguished himself as being really aggressive towards CNN and big pharma, and that a lot of candidates are trying to follow suit.”
However, Williams said she wished the debate included a more comprehensive climate change discussion. Climate change has become a highly discussed topic in the past year at the University. In February, University President Mark Schlissel announced the creation of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, and the March 2019 Washtenaw County Climate Strike resulted in 10 arrests following a sit-in at Fleming Administration Building.
“I feel like (climate change) is a really big issue for our generation and on campus,” Williams said. “I know recently with the rebuilding of the CCRB and the idea of it being net neutral and carbon-free, I think that’s important.”
The Detroit debate was the second debate between contenders for the Democratic nomination. Williams noted the importance of addressing a state such as Michigan, where citizens voted for Republican President Trump in 2016 and then flipped to support Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during the 2018 gubernatorial election.
“I thought all of the candidates really emphasized their ideas, and I really liked how they brought it back into Detroit and Michigan in the heartland,” Williams said. “I think it’s really important that they focus on our state and our communities because it’s going to be a really key place to win if they want to be the current president.”
LSA junior Ryan Makuch also attended the debate. He said he enjoyed the experience of sitting in on the live debate.
“I thought in general, it was just interesting seeing them all interact with one another on stage in real life,” Makuch said. “You’re able to see it over camera, obviously, but it’s another thing to actually be in the room and to see the audience react within real time.”
Like Godfryd, Makuch said he thought Sanders came out strong. He said he also wished the candidates had discussed more climate-change related topics.
“It was very impressive to see them all live and be able to run through this so smoothly where there were a very small handful of mistakes,” Makuch said. “I think that’s a testament to how tough of a job this is and how well prepared you have to be. You have to really perform when the lights are on.”
Alec Cohen contributed reporting to this article.