In the last debate for a month and a half, candidates desperately tried to make their case to Democratic voters. After a nearly three-hour clash of personalities and ideologies, no candidate came out in a much stronger position than before.
In the July 30 Democratic debate, progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren stood side-by-side against a slew of attacks by moderate competitors. The lines of the July 31 debate were not nearly so clean-cut. It was each candidate for themselves.
This became more of a battle of personalities than ideologies. Each candidate needed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd and bring down rivals. As the frontrunner, Joe Biden was the top target for attacks, but none of them seemed to do much harm.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke first. With neither Sanders nor Warren on the stage, he could double down as on his economic populism. He touted achievements as mayor and attacked Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by name for their lack of political ambition. In contrast, he promised to “tax the hell out of the wealthy.”
Next, Michael Bennet spent his time denouncing President Trump’s policies and rhetoric, saying, “we’ve been consumed by a president who frankly doesn’t give a damn about your kids or mine. Mr. President; kids belong in classrooms, not cages.”
This was followed by Jay Inslee, who identified the climate crisis as his top priority. Calling for “national mobilization,” he promised an ambitious plan that would preempt the threat of climate change while also “creating 8 million good union jobs.”
Kirsten Gillibrand cited her mother and grandmother, along with her own record, as evidence of the power of determination in achieving the seemingly impossible. In her own words, “We need a nominee who will take on the big fights and win. We need a nominee who doesn’t know the meaning of impossible.”
Tulsi Gabbard referenced her military service and accused President Trump of behaving unpatriotically. Her administration, she promised, would be one that fights for all Americans, “not just the rich and powerful.” Julian Castro made a similar appeal to American values, declaring “I don’t want to make America anything again. I don’t want us to go backward… We’re going to move forward.”
Businessman Andrew Yang broke the monotony by talking about his signature policy, a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 per month to every American. According to Yang, this is the only way to compensate for the loss of jobs caused by automation. While he did not explain in detail how such a policy would be implemented, he briefly won the audience over with one of his favorite lines, “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
Cory Booker’s opening statement was interrupted by hecklers chanting “Fire Pantaleo” – an odd reference to the NYPD officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner made during a speech by a Senator from New Jersey. When he was able to continue, Booker denounced President Trump’s demagogic language and called instead for American unity.
A similar message was made by Kamala Harris, who declared that Americans “have always been prepared to fight for our ideals,” and Joe Biden, who promised to “restore the soul of this country.”
Already, there was a rhetorical difference from the previous night. The July 30 debate was defined by moderates who were uncomfortable with overly ambitious goals and wanted to focus the election on bread-and-butter economic issues. On this night, however, candidates from across the ideological spectrum urged structural change and denounced the Trump administration on moral grounds.
As with the previous night, the moderators were eager to dive into the candidates’ differences on healthcare. This time, the focus was on Harris. Her plan is a version of Medicare for All that would eliminate employer-provided insurance while still allowing private plans to exist alongside a public option.
Biden took issue with it on a number of fronts. The 10 years necessary to phase it in are far too long. It would cost $3 trillion. It would raise taxes. It would take away people’s employer-based insurance.
Harris responded that Americans are already paying too much for healthcare. De Blasio, a forceful advocate of Medicare for All, attacked what he called “this mythology that somehow all of these folks are in love with their insurance in America.” In his view, replacing preexisting private plans with government-run insurance would be an improvement for most Americans.
Biden took this as an opportunity to extol his own plan, a modified version of Obamacare that would keep the existing insurance infrastructure but allow people to buy into a public option if they are dissatisfied with their private health insurance.
Other candidates hoped to calm the infighting. Kirsten Gillibrand said that the audience was “at risk of losing the forest through the trees.” Booker urged his fellow Democrats to “always keep your eyes on the prize” of fixing the healthcare system.
The rest, however, wanted to continue their discussion. Gabbard accused Harris’s plan of working in the benefit of the healthcare industry. Harris denied this and instead focused on how her plan, in contrast to Biden’s, would fulfill Democrats’ dream of guaranteeing universal healthcare coverage to all Americans.
When Bennet said that Harris would eliminate employer-based insurance, she accused him of bringing up “Republican talking points.” Instead, she believes that people would have more choice if they were not obligated to accept their employer’s plan by default.
Others got their share of points across. Inslee called for increased coverage of mental healthcare. Yang detailed how employer-based healthcare creates difficulties for employers and employees alike. De Blasio declared that any tax increases that would come with universal healthcare would be less than the current amount that Americans pay in “premiums, deductibles, co-pays, out-of-pocket expenses.”
Healthcare is a top priority for voters. It is also one of the areas where candidates have the most disagreements, so it is only logical that it should be the main focus. In a crowded debate with limited speaking time, however, it is hard for candidates to get into the finer points of public policy.
It is also questionable whether these differences would matter should any of these candidates make it to the White House. After all, a president may set their party’s agenda, but it is Congress that decides the bulk of legislation. With this in mind, perhaps the most consequential issue is whether the party dedicates itself to the idea of healthcare as a basic right.
Most candidates agree on this, but frontrunner Joe Biden’s plan is estimated to leave 10 million Americans uninsured. He sees this as a necessary, pragmatic sacrifice, but his rivals are sure to make their disagreements clear as the race continue.
Next came one of the more controversial Democratic proposals, decriminalizing illegal border crossings. The candidates could not decide among themselves exactly what the policy would entail.
Castro, the main proponent of treating illegal border crossings as a civil rather than criminal offence, pointed out that the current legislation has provided a legal justification for the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
While all candidates were adamant in opposing family separation, while supporting legal immigration and asylum, not all were so keen on decriminalization. Biden argued that family separations will stop as soon as Trump is defeated. Decriminalizing the border would just encourage illegal immigration.
Castro disagreed. He pointed out that America would still have strong border security and that civil immigration cases are not necessarily weaker than criminal ones. His singular focus was on ending the mere possibility of future family separations, which he claimed could only come by repealing the criminal statute.
Immigration is one of the many issues where the Democratic Party has moved unapologetically to the left. This stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration, which carried out over 3 million deportations. When asked what how he advised the president while those deportations were carried out, Biden only said, “I was vice president. I am not the president. I keep my recommendation to him in private.”
This answer was not sufficient for Booker, who responded, “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” Yet, he also urged unity, saying “Don’t let the Republicans divide this party against itself.”
American society has made an incredible turnaround on criminal justice. For decades, the conventional wisdom was to deter criminal behavior with tough punishments. Now, policymakers favor rehabilitation-based methods to address the root causes of crime. Given this recent shift, many candidates have mixed records on the issue.
Biden built his reputation from the 1970s through the 90s on drafting tough-on-crime legislation that mandated punitive sentencing to nearly all crimes, including nonviolent drug offenses. When Booker pointed this out, Biden referenced his more recent work in supporting prison education and reducing the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine, a disparity that he had early helped create.
Then, he tried to turn the table. During his time as mayor of Newark, Booker enforced a stop-and-frisk policy that disproportionately targeted minorities to the point that it attracted the Justice Department’s attention. Booker, however, was also quick to point out praise that he had received from the ACLU during his time as mayor.
Biden then went on the offensive against Harris, pointing out her lack of concern for injustices within California during her time as the state’s attorney general. Gabbard added on with Harris’s record as a prosecutor, which included putting “over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations” and withholding evidence that would harm her case.
In response, Harris brandished her accomplishments as attorney general, including job training for former offenders. She attributed this to “actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
This speaks to an uncomfortable truth in politics. Anyone who has any record of success will also have some skeletons in their closets. No one is completely pure, so voters must decide which candidates’ past offenses are the most acceptable.
The debate then moved to race, with the moderators asking Michael Bennet, “Why are you the best candidate to heal the racial divide that exists in this country today, which has been stoked by the president’s racist rhetoric?”
Bennet gave a surprisingly emotional answer. “First of all,” he said, “the president’s racist rhetoric should be enough grounds for everybody in this country to vote him out of office,” going on to describe the systematic injustice that stands in the way between racial equality.
Inslee admitted that he approached “this question with humility because I have not experienced what many Americans have.” For this reason, he saw himself as especially responsible to address racial issues, though he strangely decided to change the subject to the filibuster, which other candidates support but which he believes will allow Republicans to obstruct a future Democratic agenda.
Kirsten Gillibrand referred to herself as a “white woman of privilege” and explained that she could explain the concept of white privilege to suburban women who voted for Trump. Whether that would be an effective strategy, however, has yet to be seen.
Environment and Climate Crisis
Climate change was Inslee’s time to shine. It “is not a singular issue,” he declared, “it is all the issue that we Democrats care about. It is health. It is national security. It is our economy.” He denounced “middle ground solutions” like those favored by Biden.
Biden took issue with this characterization. He talked of rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, investing in clean energy, and ending fossil fuel subsidies. But this was not enough for Inslee’s goal to eliminate fossil fuels in 15 years. Preempting any criticism of this as unrealistic, Inslee retorted “I believe that survival is realistic.”
Talk of the environment naturally brought up the case of Flint, Michigan, less than a hundred miles away from Detroit. De Blasio and Castro boasted their records of combating lead poisoning as mayor of New York and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development respectively.
This was a somewhat unusual question, but it was relevant given the debate’s location in a state where Trump’s narrow plurality was essential for his electoral college victory.
When asked how he would motivate the party base, something that was notoriously difficult for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden focused on his ties to the Midwest. As vice president, he helped develop the stimulus plan, invest in Detroit, and bail out General Motors. Meanwhile, Gillibrand emphasized how she would exploit Trump’s broken promises on issues like trade to win over the Midwest.
Yang believes that he has already built a wide coalition, albeit one that largely exists on social media, that proves his electability. As a nominee, he would focus on the disconnect between “GDP in stock market prices” compared to many Americans’ own quality of life and advocate instead for a human-centric economy.
For Gabbard, the key to beating Trump is the eschew typical partisan politics. To her, this would involve withdrawing from Afghanistan and other war zones and instead of using the money to invest in America’s domestic wellbeing.
Booker and Harris, meanwhile, emphasized electoral strategy. Booker’s main focus would be on black voters, who overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, but often do not turn out due to voter suppression. Harris identified two parts of the Trump coalition, farmers and auto workers, that she believes that she can turn against the president.
Trade is an issue that still divides Democrats. Gabbard took a strong stand against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was scrapped by President Trump. According to her, trade deals like the TPP threaten American sovereignty, jobs, and the environment.
Despite the deal being negotiated during his vice presidency, Biden said that he would renegotiate the TPP before he would consider rejoining it. Like his progressive competitors, he feared for its effects on workers and the environment, but he maintained that the trade agreement between US allies in the Pacific is necessary to contain Chinese economic influence.
A question about the gender pay gap shifted the focus on the debate. Harris boasted of her proposal that would impose large fees on companies that do not offer equal pay for equal work. Gillibrand, however, took center stage when she attacked Biden for his 1981 vote against a childcare tax credit, which was accompanied by an op-ed about the “deterioration of the family.”
Biden denied that there was anything sexist about his past actions. According to him, he main problem with the tax credit is that it would it benefit “people making today $100,000 a year.” He dismissed the insinuation that he opposed working mothers, but he did not elaborate on what his “deterioration of the family” quote really meant.
Harris took this as an opportunity to attack Biden’s previous support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from going to abortions. Biden insisted that “everybody on this stage has been in the Congress and the Senate or House has voted for the Hyde Amendment at some point.” His change of heart came once he “wrote the legislation, making sure that every single woman would in fact have an opportunity to have healthcare paid for by the federal government.”
Cory Booker denounced President Trump’s practice of “foreign policy by tweet.” Instead, he promised a more stable and predictable style. However, refused to set an “artificial deadline” to bring American troops home from Afghanistan, as doing so might risk a power vacuum in the region.
This was Gabbard’s moment. As an Iraq War veteran, she criticized leaders in Washington for making foreign policy decisions “without any idea about the cost and the consequence.” For her, bringing troops home as soon as possible is a moral responsibility. Geopolitical interests take the second stage to Americans’ safety.
When it comes to new conflicts, all of the candidates supported diplomacy rather than war as a tool of first resort, but not all of them have the most stable history on the issue. Biden defended his vote for the Iraq War by saying that he believed it was simply a means “to get inspectors in.” He had no idea of the size and scope of the invasion.
This drew an impassioned response from Gabbard, who declared “We were all lied to. This is the betrayal. This is the betrayal to the American people, to me, to my fellow service members.”
With Robert Mueller’s role in investigating the Trump administration done, it is time for Democrats to decide what action they should take. This has caused bitter division among Congressional leaders, and for the first time, presidential candidates were forced to reckon with the question.
Booker unapologetically called for impeachment as the only moral response to the abuses detailed in the Mueller Report, even if Trump is highly unlikely to be convicted by the Senate. “The politics of this be damned,” he said. De Blasio agreed, but he also warned that the party needs to offer a positive message to voters rather than simply being anti-Trump.
Bennet was the sole voice against impeachment. “I believe we have a moral obligation to beat Donald Trump,” he said. A failure by the Senate to convict the president could boost his reelection campaign.
Castro rejected the dichotomy between focusing on the issues and attacking Trump’s conduct. In his words, “I really do believe that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Bennet, however, was not convinced that impeachment would be politically savvy.
This is a wildcard in the 2020 race. Impeachment is such a rare process that its effects on the election are utterly unpredictable. Bennet’s fears that Democrats would snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory if they pursued it, a fear that is shared by House leaders like Nancy Pelosi, who is doing her best to stop any moves towards impeachment.
The end of the debate ended with similar talking points as the beginning. De Blasio again called on Democrats to “tax the hell out of the wealthy.” Bennet gave a more typical appeal to unity and nonpartisanship. Jay Inslee brought it back to climate change.
Kirsten Gillibrand sought to bridge the ideological divide within the party, declaring “We don’t need a liberal or progressive with big ideas or we don’t need a moderate who can win back Trump-Obama voters. You need someone who can do both.”
Gabbard, meanwhile, went to her familiar territory of anti-militarism. Telling the story of the false nuclear missile alarm last year in Hawaii, she dramatically repeated what residents discovered as they searched for safety, “This is the warmonger’s hoax. There is no shelter. It’s all a lie.”
Castro appealed to America’s better instincts, emphasizing the fight for workers’ rights and racial equality as part of its history. In contrast to the many attempts at bilingualism in the June debates, he only said one word in Spanish, telling viewers to say “”Adios to Donald Trump.”
Andrew Yang, who had managed to interject support for his Freedom Dividend throughout the debate, denounced the “reality TV” nature of political discourse. Instead, he hoped that people will focus on issues like automation. His solution, as he said, is “not left, it’s not right, it’s forward.”
For Booker, beating Donald Trump “is the floor and not the ceiling.” He declared his main goal to be healing the partisan divide and “put more ‘indivisible’ back into this one nation under God.”
Harris doubled down on her past as a prosecutor, saying “we have a predator living in the White House.” After defeating Trump, she said that she will enact a 3:00 AM agenda. That is, an agenda “recognizes what wakes people up at 3:00 in the morning.”
Biden finished off the night by denouncing the Trump presidency. However, he characteristically ended his speech with a gaffe, mixing up his web address and text message short code by urging viewers to go to “joe30330.”
The next round of debates will not come until September 12-13. It will take place in Houston and be sponsored by ABC and Univision. The criteria for entry will be stricter, but so far Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, O’Rourke, Sanders, and Warren have already qualified.
After many candidates’ lackluster debate performances, it will be hard for them to stay relevant. A few more are sure to drop out over the next weeks. While a range of choices is usually a good thing, the crowded nature of the latest debates shows that more is not always better. A more selective field may allow for a more in-depth and less superficial debate.