Democratic Candidates Descend On California And Offer A Preview Of Fights To Come

Jun 2, 2019
Originally published on June 2, 2019 12:55 pm

What will the first Democratic presidential debates look like at the end of this month?

We got our first glimpse Saturday in San Francisco.

First, we saw the visual of candidate after candidate — 11 in all, with 3 more to come Sunday — parading across the stage at the California Democratic Party's annual convention.

We also heard how presidential hopefuls are sorting themselves on two key questions that will likely shape much of the narrative when they take the debate stage in Miami on June 26 and 27: should Democrats keep the focus on President Trump or on their own proposals? And should those proposals tack toward the left to energize their base, or toward the center in order to appeal to independent voters?

On the Trump front, several candidates played to the anti-Trump crowd of Democrats that California Rep. Barbara Lee called "the most progressive and the most Democratic and the wokest Democrats in the entire country." Sen. Kamala Harris of California spent almost the entirety of her seven-minute speech attacking Trump administration policies. Harris drew some of the loudest applause of the day by saying, "We need to begin impeachment proceedings."

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called Trump a "coward." Others, like former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg peppered their speeches with criticism of the president, but repeatedly made broad appeals to Democrats to make sure Trump didn't distract them from their own agenda to expand access to health care and combat climate change.

The second question — moderation vs. progressivism — provided some of the first real moments of candidate-on-candidate criticism, albeit in a general, theoretical way that did not involve any direct call-outs.

Both Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivered some of their strongest arguments yet against the more moderate, incremental approach. In the process, they began crystallizing their case against the world view espoused by the field's current front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"Big problems call for big solutions," said Warren, who on Friday drew more than 6,000 people to a rally in Harris's hometown of Oakland. "And some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream, they dream small. Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses."

"Here's the thing," Warren continued, to cheers from the progressive activists who make up the bulk of the California Democratic Party's state delegates. "When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren't possible, about how political calculations come first ... they're telling you something very important: they are telling you that they will not fight for you."

Speaking later in the day, Buttigieg made a similar pitch that, without mentioning Biden directly, sounded an awful lot like an argument against a long-time United States Senator and Vice President who's running on the idea of restoring the Obama administration's legacy. "In these times, Democrats can no more promise to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s," he said. "[Trump] wins if we look too much like Washington. He wins if we look like more of the same."

"The riskiest thing we could do is try to play it safe," Buttigieg said.

On Saturday, Biden was halfway across the country, speaking at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Columbus, Ohio. But in a few weeks, he will be standing on the same stage, one or two lecterns down, when Buttigieg, Warren or another Democrat trailing him in the polls aims fire at his core message.

With Biden in Ohio, the mantle of pragmatism and compromise instead fell to former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was repeatedly booed when he told the room that "socialism is not the answer," and that "we shouldn't try to achieve universal coverage by removing private insurance from over a hundred million Americans. We shouldn't try to tackle climate change by guaranteeing every American a job."

"I wasn't surprised," Hickenlooper told NPR afterwards. "We know that this is not a popular message with a certain portion of the Democratic Party, but I think it's a message that's got to be said."

At the Miami debates, the theater likely won't be filled with as many vocal Democratic activists cheering and booing these arguments. But the conversation will be viewed by millions of Americans, many of them tuning into this 23-person contest for the very first time.

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This weekend, more Democratic candidates for president are gathered in one place than at any other point in the 2020 campaign so far. The speeches to the California Democratic Party's convention offered an early glimpse into this month's first presidential debate. NPR's Scott Detrow reports from San Francisco.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Most California Democrats are unapologetically progressive, and the delegates and activists who show up to the party's conventions are even more so. As California Congresswoman Barbara Lee put it...


BARBARA LEE: California Democrats are the most progressive and the most democratic and the wokest (ph) Democrats in the entire country.

DETROW: So there was a lot that presidential candidates, like Senator Kamala Harris, wanted to work in, even as they stared down a strictly enforced seven-minute time limit.


KAMALA HARRIS: Good morning. Good morning. Come on, guys. Don't eat into my time. I got a clock right in front of me.

DETROW: Harris was one of several candidates to spend a lot of time going after President Trump. She called the campaign a fight for America, criticizing action after action of the Trump White House.


HARRIS: We need to begin impeachment proceedings, and we need a new commander in chief.

DETROW: Other Democrats told the crowd the party needs to keep the conversation on its own proposals. That was one of two big divides that appeared on the convention stage and that will likely play out at length on the Miami debate stage in a few weeks.

The second offered some of the first signs of candidates criticizing each other. It had to do with an ongoing debate in the party - go big and bold playing to the base or try and appeal to independents and moderates. Senator Elizabeth Warren has made her view clear.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Big problems call for big solutions.

DETROW: In San Francisco, Warren criticized unnamed Democrats for dreaming small and just waiting for, as she put it, Republicans to come to their senses.


WARREN: Well, here's the thing. When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren't possible, about how political calculations come first, about how you should settle for little bits and pieces instead of real change, they're telling you something important. They are telling you they will not fight for you.

DETROW: It sounded a lot like criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden's approach to the race and to governing, even if Biden was never directly mentioned. So did this from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: In these times, Democrats can no more keep a promise to take us back to the 2000s or the 1990s than Conservatives can keep a promise to take us back to the 1950s. We can only look forward.

DETROW: Biden has talked a lot about restoring the Obama-Biden administration's policies. He was campaigning in Ohio Saturday, so it was left to former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to defend incremental approaches and compromising. It didn't go over well.


JOHN HICKENLOOPER: We shouldn't try to achieve universal coverage by removing private insurance from over 150 million Americans. We should not try to tackle climate change by guaranteeing every American a government job.


HICKENLOOPER: Hold on. Hold on.

DETROW: For all the debate about proposals, in the end, most Democratic voters tell pollsters they're just looking to get Trump out of office. That's a point Biden made in Ohio, speaking to a Human Rights Campaign dinner. Going point by point through actions the White House has taken that undermined gay, lesbian and transgender rights, Biden said...


JOE BIDEN: And the fastest way to end it is end the Trump administration.

DETROW: Even more candidates will spend time on the same stage in a few weeks. The difference between the Miami debate and the California convention - then they'll all be onstage together and able to respond to the criticism.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, San Francisco.

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