In a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls each vying for media attention, the most influential candidate during the first Democratic primary debate might have been Republican President Donald Trump.
During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump flipped the political script, defied pundits’ and pollsters’ best predictions, and won the presidency. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” hit right at the heart of a struggle felt by many middle-class Americans who believe they were left behind by a rapidly changing world. His ability to reach voters in the Rust Belt is widely credited for giving the political outsider his upset victory in the 2016 Presidential election.
Candidates onstage on Wednesday night’s first Democratic primary debate took note of the angst that candidate Trump captured and rode to victory in 2016. Hoping to capitalize on Trump’s successful political strategy and the general positive trajectory of the economy that has continued during Donald Trump’s presidency, US Senator Elizabeth Warren pushed forward a “green new deal” policy she believes will generate exactly the types of jobs that were lost when mining, manufacturing, logging, and other bedrock middle-class professions were lost.
“There’s going to be a worldwide need for green technology–ways to clean up the air waste, to clean up the water, and we can be the ones to provide that,” Warren said during the debate.
“We need to go ten-fold in our research and development on green energy going forward,” she added.
The talk of investing in green energy as a progressive economic platform isn’t new by any means, but one aspect of Senator Warren’s rhetoric was new and would have received cheers at any Trump rally: Any products must be made in the United States.
While advancing policy positions Democrats believe will be popular with low-income voters, like taxpayer-funded health care for all and taxpayer-funded college education, and income tax rates above 70 percent for wage earners who make a good living, the candidates also recognized the need for middle-class, blue collar jobs, which they hope will be created through innovation in the energy sector.
Warren’s commitment to these Trump talking points predates the debates. In Detroit back in May, Warren said she supports policies that will encourage investment in America by corporations and has supported tariffs instituted by the Trump Administration to force manufacturing businesses to return to the United States.
“We have encouraged companies to invest abroad, ship jobs overseas, and keep wages low, all in the interest of serving multinational companies and international capital with no particular loyalty to the United States,” Warren said, echoing Trump’s own talking points during the 2016 election.
Warren wasn’t the only candidate onstage keyed into the need to speak to voters disaffected by the party. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said that “we have a perception problem with the Democratic Party. We are not connecting to the working-class people in the very states that I represent, in Ohio, in the industrial Midwest.” Rep. Ryan also warned of the dangers of being the “coastal, elitist party.”
Other candidates opposed themselves to Trump more squarely while still participating in the conversation his rise to power has spurred. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said onstage, “American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenges. For all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind or feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you. The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you. We need to be the party of working people, and that includes a party of immigrants.”
At other times, Trump’s name was a rallying cry to speak to the Democratic base. Perhaps the most concise example came just before closing statements, when each candidate was asked to name the greatest security threat to our country. Washington state Governor Jay Inslee responded, “the biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.”
One of the most talked about performances of the night, however, came from former HUD Secretary and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro. Castro spoke with conviction on issues of immigration, where his position was sharply critical of the Trump Administration.
Castro said he would sign an executive order to eliminate Trump’s zero tolerance policy on immigration, which calls for prosecuting anyone illegally entering the United States, and his “metering” policy, which limits the number of asylum seekers processed each day. Of the metering policy, Castro said:
“This metering policy is what prompted Óscar and Valeria to make that risky swim across the river. They have been playing games with people who are coming to try and seek asylum at our ports of entry. Óscar and Valeria went to seek asylum and they were denied the ability to make an asylum claim. So they got frustrated and they tried to cross the river and they died because of that.”
Thursday night’s debate will feature the other ten primary candidates, including standout candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg.