Democrats Debate Immigration, Foreign Policy and Beating Trump in 2020

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, center, speaks beside entrepreneur Andrew Yang, left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Democratic presidential hopefuls said in a debate Thursday that to win the 2020 election, the party’s nominee must bolster the economy, provide citizenship to undocumented people, eliminate student loan debt and provide relief for working families.

The seven presidential candidates sparred over health care policy and campaign financing, but also spoke on the challenge of uniting a politically divided nation.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has campaigned on a platform of challenging what he calls an oligarchy and supporting working families through measures such as his “Medicare for All” plan.

Sanders, an independent running for the Democratic nomination, said the plan would save the average family more than $11,000 per year and fundamentally challenge the profit structure of the healthcare system.

“The day has got to come, and I will bring that day about, when we finally say to the drug companies and the insurance companies that the function of healthcare is to provide for all of our people,” Sanders said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the consistent front-runner in national polls, disagreed, saying Sanders’ plan is both too costly and disrupts individuals’ right to choose their health insurance plan.

“You shouldn’t have Washington dictating to you that you cannot keep the plan you have,” Biden said.

Biden has proposed a plan that includes an option that allows people to purchase a plan similar to Medicare.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar – who said she supports a nonprofit public option – told Sanders his plan may not fit squarely with the range of opinions among Democrats.

“If you want to cross a river over troubled water, you build a bridge, you don’t blow one up,” Klobuchar said, adding that newly-elected Democrats in states like Kentucky favor “building on Obamacare.”

Klobuchar said her elections across voting blocks that are urban, rural, moderate and progressive demonstrate her ability to win in 2020 by bridging political divides.

The debate, cohosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico, comes a day after the House voted to impeach President Trump.

On stage at Loyola Marymount University, Democratic candidates chided Trump’s conduct in office and said the vote was necessary.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who started an online petition to impeach Trump, called on GOP voters to lobby their senators to ensure that the Senate trial is fair.

Sanders said Trump’s empty promises to working families are plain to see and that his policies are dangerous.

“We cannot have a president with that temperament who is dishonoring the presidency,” Sanders said.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said Trump’s favoritism towards the wealthy and well-connected proves he’s the most corrupt president in history.

PBS national reporter Amna Nawaz asked candidates about Washington Post reports saying U.S. officials have misled the public for years about a comprehensive strategy for the costly and deadly war in Afghanistan.

Biden, who has touted his experience on the world stage during the Obama administration, told Nawaz he argued against a military surge in Afghanistan and was rebuked by the Pentagon for his stance.

Biden said he would bring U.S. combat forces home but leave special forces behind to deal with terrorist threats.

Sanders said he was wrong when voting to authorize U.S. military action in Afghanistan and said he would remove U.S. troops within one year of his election.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, said he would ensure that a political settlement in Afghanistan was reached as part of troop withdrawal.

Buttigieg said he would also ensure that any future war authorizations from Congress would “sunset” and have to be debated every three years.

“We can’t go on with these endless wars,” Buttigieg said.

Nawaz asked Buttigieg if he would support economic reparations for immigrants who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under Trump administration policies.

“Yes, and we should also provide them a fast-track to citizenship,” Buttigieg said, adding that he supports a House bill to study reparations for the U.S. system of enslavement.

Candidates said they would support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans – more than 2 million of whom reside in California – and restore legal status to DACA recipients.

Moderators asked about diversity in the sixth Democratic debate, noting that businessman Andrew Yang was the only person of color on stage while Warren and Klobuchar were the only women to appear.

Yang said it was both an honor and a disappointment to be the only person of color on stage, adding that his promise to give every American a $1,000 monthly “freedom dividend” would boost campaign donations to candidates of color.

California Senator Kamala Harris – the only black woman in the Democratic field of candidates – qualified for Thursday’s debate but ended her campaign early this month due to shortfalls in fundraising.

Candidates rejected Trump’s statements that the economy is booming under his administration, saying middle class families and working class families of color are suffering the most.

“People are not getting paid enough,” Buttigieg said. “That is not the result of some mysterious cosmic force. It’s the result of bad policy and we’ve got to change it by raising wages and empowering workers.”

Warren has proposed taxing wealthy Americans making more than $50 million annually and rooting out political corruption in politics as part of her economic justice agenda.

Klobuchar unveiled a “housing first” plan in LA Thursday, calling for a $1 trillion investment to expand the affordable housing stock, provide rental assistance to low-income tenants and clear the backlog for federal housing vouchers.

Klobuchar said she would pay for the plan by creating a new minimum tax on corporations, shutting down international tax havens and repealing regressive portions of the 2017 Republican tax bill.

Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar spoke to donors at a Democratic fundraiser in LA on Tuesday but did not appear on stage together.

Yang’s supporters, who call themselves the Yang Gang, crowded sidewalks outside the debate venue.

Southern California high school student Sunny Zhou, 17, holds signs supporting businessman and presidential candidate Andrew Yang outside the Democratic debate Thursday in Los Angeles. (Photo by MARTIN MACIAS JR./Courthouse News Service)

California student Sunny Zhou, 17, told Courthouse News she initially thought Yang’s “freedom dividend” was a gimmick but decided to volunteer after learning more about his platform.

“As an Asian American, it’s inspiring to see he made it this far,” Zhou said.

Brenda Valladares, an activist with immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha, said Democrats have supported policies in the past that hurt immigrants, adding that 2020 candidates must act boldly and swiftly.

“They need to create new solutions that don’t just come from Washington,” Valladares said. “Policies should center on the pain experienced by the 11 million undocumented [immigrants] in the U.S.”

Valladares and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network hoisted a massive banner outside the debate calling for a moratorium on deportation and workplace raids by federal agents.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro did not qualify for the debate Thursday but met with people experiencing homelessness in LA’s Skid Row neighborhood and spoke with migrants and immigrants’ rights advocates on Wednesday.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker aired a TV ad during the debate saying that despite his absence on the debate stage, he can still win the election.

“You’re only gonna see this ad once because I’m not a billionaire,” Booker says in the ad. “This election isn’t about who can spend the most, or who slings the most mud. It’s about the people.”

Castro, Booker and seven other candidates, signed a letter asking the DNC to alter qualification criteria for upcoming debates in January and February.

All seven candidates on stage Thursday promised to skip the debate over a labor dispute involving Loyola Marymount University food service workers and Sodexo.

Workers reached an agreement with the French food service giant on Tuesday.

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