Anyone tuning into the Democratic primary debates on CNN expecting to see Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders take swings at each other was likely disappointed, but several less well-known candidates — Marianne Williamson in particular — garnered a perhaps unexpected amount of attention on the stage of 10 in Detroit on Tuesday night.
Warren, Sanders and Pete Buttigieg scored the most talking time, according to NPR’s calculation, in a sprawling, more-than-two-and-a-half-hour debate that covered health care, gun violence, immigration, trade, education and racism.
The two leading progressive candidates took a strong position advocating for Medicare-for-All. Sanders, calling the nation’s current health care system “dysfunctional,” said health care is a “human right, not a privilege,” while Warren fended off the idea that such a plan would raises taxes on the middle class.
“Costs will go up for billionaires and corporations; for middle-class families, costs — total costs — will go down,” she told the crowd, later adding that the candidates on stage should “stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.”
John Delaney asserted that Democrats “don’t have to be the party of subtraction” and take away private health insurance. Countering Sanders and Warren often, the businessman and former Maryland Representative tried to position himself as someone who has been successful in both the private sector as well as in government.
But Warren was ready with retorts of her own through the evening.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” said Warren to Delaney. “I don’t get it. Our biggest problem in Washington is corruption. It is giant corporations that have taken our government and that are holding it by the throat, and we need to have the courage to fight back against that and until we’re ready to do that, it’s just more of the same.”
Sanders also said that the nation has to be “super aggressive” in order to improve environmental efforts.
“What that means is we got to A, take on the fossil fuel industry; B, it means we have to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy and a hell of a lot of good union jobs if we do that,” he said. “We’ve got to transform our transportation, and we have to lead the world because this is not just an American issue.”
Warren and Sanders were also often blunt in their assertions.
“We need to call out white supremacy for what it is, domestic terrorism, and it poses a threat to the United States of America,” said Warren. “We live in a country now where the president is advancing environmental racism, economic racism, criminal justice racism, health care racism — the way we do better is to fight back and show something better.”
Later, agreeing with Warren in her statement that U.S. trade policy has been impacted by multinational corporate interests, Sanders said that “if anybody here thinks that corporate America gives one damn about the average American worker, you’re mistaken. If they can save five cents by going to China, Mexico or Vietnam or any place else that’s exactly what they will do.”
Meanwhile, Williamson tapped into outsider energy, drawing major applause for her unconventional talking points and prompting a great deal of chatter on social media. In speaking about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., she said that people of color and disadvantaged communities are “suffering from environmental injustice.”
“This is part of the dark underbelly of American society, the racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight, if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with 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,” said the author.
Williamson also drew cheers for her reparations math that concluded that $200 billion to $500 billion was owed to descendants of slaves.
According to Google Trends, Williamson was the most-searched Democratic candidate during the night’s debate in every state except Montana, where governor of the state, Steve Bullock, was the subject of most curiosity. Prior to the debate, Sanders was the most-searched Dem candidate on Google.
Buttigieg’s responses through the evening reminded viewers of his position among a younger generation of politicians, particularly when talking about how to combat gun violence and the war in Afghanistan.
“This is the exact same conversation we’ve been having since I was in high school,” he said. “I was a junior when the Columbine shooting happened. I am the first generation to see school shootings. We have produced the second generation. We dare not allow there to be a third.”
Of the war, Buttigieg, a veteran, said that the U.S. has to withdraw, telling the audience that he thought he was “one of the last troops leaving Afghanistan [and]… was turning out the lights years ago.”
“We’re pretty close to the day when we will wake up to the news of a casualty in Afghanistan who was [born after] 9/11,” he added.
Of the other candidates, Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper and Beto O’Rourke — the latter of which has faded after making an initial splash — attempted to stand out on the crowded stage. Amy Klobuchar reiterated her track record in winning elections, while advocating for universal background checks for gun ownership and allowing a path to citizenship.
A second round of debates will occur Wednesday night in Detroit, featuring another 10 candidates, including other frontrunners Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.