As the first presidential primary debate of the season got underway Wednesday night, 10 candidates crowded the stage to jostle for a chance to distinguish themselves before a national audience of potential voters. Though the total speaking time for any one candidate barely cracked 10 minutes, there were still some compelling moments during the two-hour forum hosted by NBC.
Candidates speak directly to Spanish-speaking voters
A historic number of candidates for president in this Democratic field are bilingual, and several took advantage of the nationwide television audience to highlight their language skills.
“The situation now is unacceptable. The president has attacked, has demonized immigrants. It is unacceptable, and I will change that,” Senator Cory Booker said in Spanish before switching to English as he responded to a question about how he’d address the immigration crisis on day one.
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke also responded in Spanish to a question asked in Spanish during a discussion on immigration.
“We need to include every person in the success of this economy,” O’Rourke said in Spanish.
O’Rourke has made a point of speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, and released a Spanish-language ad during his unsuccessful campaign to unseat Senator Ted Cruz.
Former HUD secretary Julian Castro used his closing remarks to make his case directly to Spanish speakers, starting out declaring in Spanish, “My name is Julian Castro, and I’m running for president of the Untied States.”
“The very fact that I can say that tonight shows the progress that we have made in this country,” he said
Tension bursts to the forefront over the issue of immigration
Though several candidates tried to show their commitment to the issue by speaking Spanish, there were still stark policy differences on display over immigration.
Castro and O’Rourke tangled over whether to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, which the Trump administration has used as justification for separating children from their parents.
O’Rourke outlined a series of measures on how he would handle the flow of those crossing the border to seek asylum, but Castro argued it wasn’t enough.
“Your policy would still criminalize them,” he interjected. “Let’s be very clear, the reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes the crossing of the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them. Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not.”
Castro’s exchange was part of a breakout night for the former Obama cabinet official, whose name saw a surge in search traffic, according to Google Trends.
Clash over the war in Afghanistan
The Taliban has recently claimed repsonsibility for the deaths of two US soldiers, prompting renewed calls for the US to withdraw from the nearly two-decade long war there. The issue provided the setting for a sharp clash between Congressman Tim Ryan and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an Army National Guard Major.
“Though nobody likes it,” Ryan argued the US has to remain engaged in Afghanistan, even though it’s “long” and “tedious.”
Gabbard, who served two tours in the Middle East, drew on personal experience as she countered Ryan.
“Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan? ‘Well, we just have to be engaged.’ As a solider, I will tell you that answer is unacceptable.”
“But the reality is, the Taliban will grow and they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts. We have got to have some presence there,” Ryan said. “When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings”
“The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11, Al Qaeda did,” Gabbard rebutted, arguing many who signed up to serve after the US was attacked in 2001 did so to fight Al Qaeda.
“The Taliban was protecting those people who were plotting against us,” Ryan said, and compared the calls to leave Afghanistan to Trump’s isolationist tendencies.
Mic issues interrupt the second half
The highlights from the first debate were not always focused on the candidates. NBC dealt with some sound problems at the start of the second hour of the debate that forced the network to cut to an early commercial break.
As Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow took over moderation duties from Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, and José Díaz-Balart, the candidates apparently couldn’t hear the new crew. Distant murmering could be heard in the background as several candidates exchanged confused looks.
“We are hearing our colleagues’ audio, if the control room could turn off the mics,” Todd asked as the audience laughed.
“There’s voices behind us,” one of the candidates said.
The microphones of the previous set of moderators had not been turned off, Todd explained before cutting to commercial.
The issue even prompted an angry tweet from none other than former reality TV star @realDonaldTrump.
The biggest threat to the US?
It was perhaps the most telling moment of the night. With so many intractable problems to choose from, ten candidates, all sharing a party and agreement on major policy planks, could not agree on the biggest threat to the United States.
Asked by Todd toward the end of the night to name the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States, 10 candidates gave six different answers
Three candidates said the risk of nuclear war (Delaney, Gabbard, and Booker), four said China (Delaney, Klobuchar, Castro, and Ryan), four said climate change (O’Rourke, Warren, Booker, and Castro), and there was one vote each for Iran and Russia from Klobuchar and de Blasio, respectively.
But the biggest applause line came from Governor Inslee, who said simply, “the biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.”