Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris look out at the audience at the Democratic primary debate on June 27 in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee / AP)
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Recap: Tension over age and race adds sparks to Dems’ second debate night in Miami

In a night full of messy interruptions, heightened tensions and direct attacks, a second group of 10 presidential candidates clashed face to face Thursday, June 27, over some of the nation’s most prominent social and economic issues, each trying to justify why he or she deserved the 2020 Democratic Party nomination.

On the second of two debate nights, the 10 candidates who had not appeared Wednesday took the same stage in Miami, moderated by the same five news anchors from NBC News.

For many viewers, it was the first official event of the 2020 presidential election season.

“This election is about you,” said Senator Kamala Harris of California. “This is about your hopes and your dreams and your fears and what wakes you up at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

As on Wednesday night, the candidates’ stage positions were arranged from the center outward based on their poll numbers. At the center were former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. On either side of them were Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

Further to the outside were Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand of New York, former tech executive Andrew Yang, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of Northern California, and author Marianne Williamson of Malibu, California.

This night of the debate had more viewers, perhaps because four of the party’s five most popular candidates were present. More than 18 million viewers watched live from across the nation, according to news reports, compared to 15 million the night before.

Each candidate tried to set himself or herself apart with bold agendas and ambitious promises.

“Now is not the time to play it safe — now is not the time to be afraid of firsts,” said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “We need a president who will take on the big challenges. Even if she stands alone.”

It was perhaps inevitable that this debate would be far more lively than its mellower Wednesday night counterpart given the contenders on stage.

There were many instances in the night where candidates broke out into heated debates, attempting to get their points across.

“Hey guys, you know what?” Harris said, cutting through the crosstalk. “America does not want to witness a food fight,” They want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”

With two of the youngest candidates in the race — Buttiegieg and Swalwell, ages 37 and 38 respectively — facing the far senior Biden and Sanders, 76 and 77, age came up, both directly and indirectly.

Swalwell, for example, complimented Biden and attacked his age at the same time.

“I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” said Swalwell. “That candidate was then-Senator Joe Biden… He is still right today.”

Though the tone was different from Wednesday’s, the ideas discussed were similar. Both nights, the candidates were asked if they supported having a universal healthcare system rather than the current combination of a public, national requirement and privately owned plans.

Some candidates wanted to expand and fine-tune the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Others wanted to make all healthcare public, with a single payer like Medicare, which currently covers all seniors.

One way or another, all the candidates promised to ensure that every American would have access to affordable and permanent healthcare.

Senators Sanders and Harris were the only two who advocated single payer.

Sanders said his universal healthcare approach would be modeled on other countries’ including Canada’s, which he said spend half of what the U.S spends per person on medical care.

That, he said, would mean removing the insurers from the equation.

“The function of health care today from the insurance and drug company perspective is not to provide quality care to all in a cost-effective way,” Sanders said. “The function of the health care system today is to make billions in profits for the insurance companies.”

When asked where the money would come from to pay for the plan, Sanders called for Americans to stand up to their insurance companies, and compared it to the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements.

“Health care is a human right, not something to make huge profits off of,” Sanders said.

He said that included the right to end a pregnancy.

“Medicare-for-all guarantees every woman in this country the right to have an abortion if she wants it,” the Senator said.

The moderators called Biden “one of the architects” of the ACA, and not surprisingly, the former vice president said the best way to ensure medical care for all would be to “build on Obamacare.” An advantage of Obamacare, its supporters said, is that it is already in place.

Biden brought up the fatal accident that killed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons, and also mentioned his son’s terminal cancer diagnosis many years later. In both cases, cutting-edge and expensive medical care was urgent.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I’d not had adequate health care available to me,” said Biden. He said he would “make sure that everyone does have an option.”

Gillibrand said she had supported single-payer insurance in 2005, before Obamacare was enacted. But now, she believes that the ACA’s public option — government-run insurance in competition with private insurers — is the best way to go.

“The quickest way you get there is you create competition with the insurers,” Gillibrand said. “God bless the insurers, if they want to compete, they can certainly try. But they’ve never put people over their profits, and I doubt they ever will. The way I formulated it was simple. Anyone who doesn’t have access to insurance they like, they could buy it at a percentage of income they could afford.”

The question of whether or not the proposed healthcare plan would include coverage for undocumented immigrants came up as well. In a show-of-hands question, one by one, every candidate affirmed that government healthcare should provide such coverage.

“This is not about a handout,” Buttigieg. “This is an insurance program. And we do ourselves no favor by having 11 million undocumented people in our country be unable to access healthcare.”

Biden said not insuring undocumented immigrants would be “inhumane.”

“You cannot let people who are sick, no matter where they come from, no matter what their status, go uncovered,” said Biden. You can’t do that. It’s just going to be taking care of, period.”

Immigration was a much discussed topic — as it had been the previous night — but there was less disagreement.  All the candidates said by a show of hands that they would make DACA — deferred action for childhood arrivals — permanent. All raised their hands except Bennet, who was not given a chance to explain why.

While they all decried  inhumane treatment of undocumented migrants in detention centers, Williamson said was the only to ask what was causing the crowding there.

“I haven’t heard anybody on this stage who has talked about American foreign policy in Latin America,” said Williamson, “and how we might have in the last few decades contributed to something being more helpful.”

Willaimson described  the act of detaining children at detainment centers as “kidnapping” and “child abuse.”

Buttigieg said the treatment of immigrants was an example of religious hypocrisy. He said the Republican party “cloaks itself in a language of religion”.

“We should call out hypocrisy when we see it,” Buttigieg said. “And for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

In addition to protecting DACA recipients, candidates said ICE became “completely reformed,”while addressing their job in a “humanitarian way.”

“And we have to make sure, ultimately, that we provide not just shelter, but food, clothing and access to medical care,” said Hickenlooper.

In another show-of-hands question about whether it should become a civil offense rather than a criminal offensive if one crosses the border without documentation, all candidates except Bennet raised their hands.

Buttigieg was also confronted on the issue of race, due to a  recent event that occurred in South Bend, Indiana. This involved a white police chief failing to turn on his body camera and shooting a black man, and claimed he threatened the officer with a knife.

He said that under Indiana state law, as mayor he is not allowed to take sides until the investigation is completed.  His opponents pressed him further.

“Why is it [the investigation] taking so long?” Hickenlooper said.

“You should fire the chief,” Swallwell said.

“The police force in South Bend is now 6% black in a city that is 26% black. Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?” MSNBC moderator Maddow said to Buttigieg.

Buttigieg responded with an apology.

“I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said. “My community is in anguish right now because of an officer involved shooting.Under Indiana law this will be investigated,” he said, “And there will be accountability for the officer involved.”

The subject of race continued between Harris and Biden.

Harris complained that Biden had worked with senators who opposed bussing to integrate public schools, and stated she was part of the second class in Berkeley, California, to be bussed from a minority neighborhood to a predominantly white school.

She also said she’d found it “hurtful” that he had “praised racists” last month when he spoke about finding common ground on certain issues with senators known for opposing racial integration.

Biden said he had not praised racists, and turned the attack on Harris, who served as Attorney General of California before being elected to the Senate.  In that position, she led the prosecution of crimes.

Biden said that when riots and arrests spread in his state following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, he left a prominent law firm to defend those who couldn’t afford lawyers.

“I was a public defender,” Biden said. “I didn’t become a prosecutor.”

Biden also said he did not oppose all busing to schools, only bussing ordered by the federal Department of Education and not local school districts. Harris replied that it was a failure of the states to integrate schools.

“So, that’s where the federal government must step in… because there are — history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people,” Harris said.

All 10 Thursday candidates also said they would push for aggressive and immediate action to fight climate change.

“I don’t even call it climate change — it’s a climate crisis,” said Harris, recalling her experience of visiting the scenes of catastrophic wildfires that have plagued California in recent years.

It inspired her to support the so-called “Green New Deal,” a legislative proposal that would make huge new government investments in renewable energy sources to tackle both economic and climate crises in America.

Harris was the only candidate who mentioned adopting the proposition, which is opposed by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and has been controversial because of fear it would give government too much control over the economy.

But three candidates — Harris, Biden and Buttigieg — said they would re-join the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement among almost all of the major polluting countries to reduce the number of global greenhouse gases in hope of preventing world temperatures from rising.

The U.S. signed the accord under President Barack Obama, but President Trump has pulled the country out of the Paris Accord and promoted the drilling of more fossil fuels, along with the building of more coal power plants.

Some candidates said they would steer away from fossil fuels, but Hickenlooper said gas and oil companies should be a part of the process on the road to environmental reform. Methane gas is a growing form of pollution.

“In Colorado, we’re closing a couple of coal plants, replacing it with wind, solar and batteries and the monthly bills go down,” Hickenlooper said. “We are working with the oil and gas industry and we’ve created the first methane regulations in the country.”

The governor said that unless the businesses and nonprofits come together, “We will be doomed to failure.”

Biden said he hopes to work towards a future with only electric vehicles by 2030, investing $400 million in a green economy that he said would provide millions of new jobs.

“I would immediately insist that we in fact build 500,000 recharging stations throughout the United States of America,” he said.

Sanders said dollars appropriated to the military should be diverted for the environment.

“Instead of spending a trillion and a half dollars on weapons of destruction, let us get together for the common enemy,” Sanders said.

Even though the candidates had somewhat varying views on healthcare, immigration, race, and climate change, Democratic voters seemed to agree on one thing — the Trump Administration must be defeated.

Among those voters, Harris’s strong debate performance seemed to improve her position. Ten days later, the California senator had risen from single digits to an average of more than 14% support in most polls — and from fourth to second place, according to RealClearPolitics.com,trailing only Biden.

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