The 2020 presidential race has been underway for some time, with 24 “major” Democratic candidates currently vying for their party’s nomination to challenge President Trump. Last week, Americans got their first look at 20 of them on the same stage (Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami), albeit in two sub-groups on successive nights.
The event was hosted by NBC, with the participation of a total of five moderators: Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie (“Today”), Jose Diaz-Balart (“Noticias Telemundo”), Rachel Maddow (CNN), and Chuck Todd (“Meet the Press”).
Basic ground rules: No opening statements, moderators directed questions to designated candidates with one minute to respond and 30 seconds to answer follow-up questions, limited license for candidates to interject comments (abused by some candidates, particularly on night two), 45 seconds for closing statements.
Here are some highlights from the debates and our assessment of what they established.
Although the division of the field between night one and night two was “randomly selected,” all but one of the top polling candidates wound up being assigned to the night two debate. The exception was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who occupied a central position on the night one stage, was asked the first question, and gave the last closing statement.
In general, the night one debate was slower-paced and less intense than the night two debate. Observers noted the absence of references to Vice President Biden, the candidate who had been leading in the polls (but wasn’t on the stage) and characterized the attacks on President Trump as restrained. (WA Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington did venture to name the president, however, as the biggest security threat to the US.)
The questions seemed skewed toward progressive concerns. Income and wealth inequality - healthcare “reform” proposals – purported need to fight manmade global warming – treatment of illegal immigrants (versus securing the border) – international threats supposedly being mismanaged. The general acceptance of leftist views was notable, e.g., four of the candidates identified “climate change” as the leading external threat to the US.
There was very little discussion of how to pay for proposed government initiatives, let alone balancing the budget instead of running trillion-dollar annual deficits in a healthy economy. The national “debt” was mentioned in passing, by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who asserted that passage of comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the Senate bill in 2013 could “[bring] the debt down by $158 billion.” Accepting the claim for purposes of discussion, talk about a “drop in the bucket”!
The pressure was on Sen. Warren to dominate the debate, thereby positioning herself to be competitive with VP Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders in later rounds. Some observers didn’t feel Warren delivered. Grim Lizzie, Kimberly Strassel, Wall Street Journal, 6/27/19.
Ms. Warren is running on her own unique brand of anticorporate populism, one that attacks “a small group that holds far too much power.” Every problem she sees in America—climate change, guns, student-loan debt, healthcare prices, legislative gridlock—is a product of “systemic” corruption. Only “a thinner and thinner slice at the top” is succeeding, Ms. Warren insisted. Everyone else is failing.
Former Rep. John Delaney (MD) criticized the premise of “Medicare for All” proponents (notably Sens. Warren and Sanders) that all private healthcare insurance (HCI) arrangements should be eliminated so as to speed the transition to a “single payer” healthcare system . Democrats would undermine their cause, he said, by scrapping the HCI arrangements on which so many Americans are currently relying.
If you go to every hospital in this country and you ask them one question, which is how would it have been for you last year if every one of your bills were paid at the Medicare rate? Every single hospital administrator said they would close. And the Medicare for All bill requires payments to stay at current Medicare rates. So, to some extent, we’re basically supporting a bill that will have every hospital close.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro went after former Rep. Beto O’Rourke for not supporting a proposal to repeal criminal penalties for illegal border crossings. At the end of a heated exchange, Castro accused O’Rourke of not doing his homework. The subject would be revisited in the night two debate.
The first question went to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was asked how he proposed to pay for Medicare for All, free college, etc. and whether taxes would go up for the middle class.
Sanders said he has “a new vision” for America, aimed at correcting income/wealth inequality, and claimed that all of his proposals were “paid for.” Free college and the forgiveness of student loans would be made possible by a tax on Wall Street. Medicare for All would require a tax increase, but Americans would still come out ahead as healthcare costs would be lower under government management. No premiums, deductibles, copays, or out of pocket expenses!
Vice President Joe Biden was asked to explain previous warnings against demonizing the rich. He responded along the lines that President Trump seemed to think Wall Street built the country, but it was really the working class who had done so. A good first step in addressing inequality would be to repeal the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy.
Sen. Kamala Harris was asked whether Democratic candidates should be expected to explain how their policy initiatives would be paid for. She deflected the question by asking why it hadn’t been brought up when the Republicans were pushing their tax cuts, and then offered her own tax proposals. (1) Repeal the tax cuts for the wealthy and the biggest corporations on day one; (2) grant every family making less than $100K a year a tax credit that they can collect, up to $500 a month.
Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was asked to expand on previous statements that Democrats should avoid offering a “Socialist” agenda. What are the policies or positions of your opponents that you think are veering towards socialism? In response, he cited the Green New Deal (equating it with offering every American a government job) and Medicare for All (“you can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up”).
Sen. Sanders (a self-identified Democratic Socialist) was offered a chance to respond to Gov. Hickenlooper’s admonitions. He unleashed an anti-Trump rant, which ended that exposing the current president for “the fraud that he is” was the key to victory in 2020.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand interjected that the fundamental debate within the Democratic Party wasn’t capitalism vs. Socialism, it was capitalism vs. corporate greed. So in case after case, the things Democrats were trying to accomplish – such as ending gun violence or making healthcare a right vs. a privilege – were being stymied by companies that care more about profits than they do about people.
Sen. Michael Bennet was asked to explain prior comments about policy proposals that have no basis in reality. He cited Medicare for All as ignoring the opportunity to fix GovCare by adding a public option, thereby getting to universal healthcare quicker and more surely than could be done by blowing up GovCare and starting over.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was asked to explain why he hasn’t supported free college. Affluent parents shouldn’t expect to get a free ride for the education of their children, he said, save the subsidies for people who need them. And it’s also important to make it more affordable to not attend college, i.e., people who decide not to do so should still be able to live well, pay the rent, and be generous to their children. To that end, let’s raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang explained his economic plan, which is basically for the government to pay no questions asked monthly stipends to every adult in the population of $1,000 per month. The moderator asked how the cost (some $3.2 trillion per year) would be covered, and Mr. Yang said a value added tax would be imposed plus which there would be savings on various existing government programs. By his estimation, the bottom 94% of the population would experience a net increase in buying power.
Rep. Eric Swalwell was asked how employment would be arranged for all the people put out of work by driverless cars, robots, and artificial intelligence. Referencing a speech he had heard Joe Biden give when he was 6 years old, Swalwell quoted Biden as saying that it was time to pass the torch of political leadership to a new generation. It had been true then, and it was equally true now.
Vice President Biden was given an opportunity to respond and stated that “I’m still holding on to that torch.” He proceeded to rattle off a series of educational policy ideas: focus on schools that are in distress – triple spending for Title 1 schools – universal pre-K – free community college – freeze student debt for borrowers not making at least $25K/yr.
A series of attempts followed by various candidates to get the floor. Sen. Harris eventually prevailed and capitalized on the opportunity with a zinger. “Hey, guys. You know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” The continuation was that Americans shouldn’t need to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, one job should be enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Neither up to this point nor later were any of the candidates asked what they would propose to do to eliminate chronic deficits and balance the federal budget. The only reference to the national debt was Sen. Harris’ claim that the GOP tax cuts would “[contribute] at least $1 trillion to the debt of America, which middle-class families will pay for one way or another.”
Lester Holt began the next segment on healthcare policy with a show of hands question: “Many people watching at home have health[care] insurance of their employer. Who here would abolish their private health[care] insurance in favor of a government run plan?” Sen. Sanders held up his hand, as did Sen. Harris. None of the other candidates did, including several who purportedly favor Medicare for All.
•Sen. Gillibrand – Let the private insurers try to compete, but they’ll never put profits before people so Medicare for All will win out.
•Mayor Buttigieg – Even countries with outright socialized medicine like the UK have a private sector, but it’s just not something that people should have to rely on for their primary healthcare needs.
•Vice President Biden – The quickest way home is to stick with GovCare, which was a great start, and improve it. If people have private HCI they like that’s great, but let’s ensure they have an attractive choice by giving them the right to “buy into the exchange to a Medicare like plan.”
•Sen. Sanders – Affirmed that he favored complete transformation of the healthcare system because the current system is driven by corporate profits versus serving patient needs effectively and economically. How would the change get made? Basically, by a political revolution.
We will have Medicare for all when tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that healthcare is a human right, not something to make huge profits off of.
•Sen. Harris – Stressed need to consider how healthcare policies affect real people, e.g., the parents who take their sick child to the hospital emergency room and know that walking through the sliding glass doors will mean a $5K deductible coming out of their own pockets. “That is what insurance companies are doing in America today.”
By the next day, Sen. Harris was saying she had misunderstood the question being asked and did not favor doing away with private HCI unless that was the choice families made. Given her change of heart, it appears that only two candidates (Sens. Sanders & Warren) are actually committed to the idea of abolishing private HCI. Kamala Harris defends varying healthcare answers, Becket Adams, Washington Examiner, 6/28/19.
After hearing from several more candidates, another show of hands question was asked. “Raise your hand if–if your government [healthcare] plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.” This time, all 10 candidates raised their hands, and many of them subsequently weighed in on why this was the only answer that was humane and in synch with traditional American values.
Watching from the G20 Summit in Tokyo, the president expressed a different viewpoint. Donald Trump declares a winner of the Democratic debate . . . himself, John Frtize et al., azcentral.com, 6/27/19.
"All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!?" Trump posted on Twitter in between meetings with other world leaders. "That’s the end of that race!"
As the debate continued, there was extensive discussion of whether unauthorized border crossings should be decriminalized – ending with another show of hands. Not a single candidate supported deporting would-be immigrants for illegal entry unless other crimes had been committed.
Hmm, sounds like the Democratic candidates do support “open borders” as the president has claimed – even if they have not been disposed to admit it. In debate, Democrats move toward open borders, Byron York, Washington Examiner, 6/27/19.
C. Assessment - From the foregoing discussion, it should be evident that the presidential candidate debates during the primaries are far from perfect. Here are some of the issues.
•Too many candidates – this problem will abate over time as candidates drop out when their funding dries up.
•Questions asked reflect political biases of the moderators, e.g., the government should have an answer to every problem in our society and budget deficits don’t matter.
•Aggressive candidates receive attention (notably Sens. Harris and Gillibrand on night two), whether deserved or not, while more reserved candidates get less air time.
•There isn’t enough time allowed to answer complicated questions in a meaningful way, which facilitates evasive or half-baked answers. Analysis: Tell us everything (but keep it to 60 seconds), Ted Anthony, apnews.com, 6/28/19.
The big question on the minds of many is identifying the winners and losers. It’s generally perceived that Joe Biden did poorly in the night two debate, whereas Kamala Harris gained momentum. And although Bernie Sanders defended his ideas capably, he is seen as losing ground to Elizabeth Warren.
According to bookies, here are the post-debate odds for the eight leading candidates. Boom: Bookies boost Kamala Harris to 5-to-2 favorite, Paul Bedard, Washington Examiner, 6/28/19.
Note that the candidates who have been warning the Democrats against adopting an unduly leftist agenda, e.g., John Delaney & Tim Ryan from night one and Michael Bennet & John Hickenlooper from night two, are all rated as 100/1 shots. Although Joe Biden may rebound from a poor debate performance, it seems unlikely that he will wind up as a candidate who appeals to moderate Republicans and independents as well as to his own party. The current energy in the Democratic Party is decidedly left-leaning, and Mr. Biden will need to get in step in order to survive.
Whatever the outcome of the 2020 presidential campaign, it’s hard to see it sparking an instructive debate of policy issues or a lessening of partisan gridlock in DC. At least that's our prediction - we would be delighted to be proven wrong!