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2020 US Presidential Debates Begin – Analysis

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By Kashif Ahmed*

Night One

Concerns about the US economy and inequality dominated the first Democratic debate for the 2020 presidential race, featuring 10 of 24 candidates. The group tackled foreign policy specifics and promised respect for allies. There was general agreement that the United States has a responsibility to protect people threatened by their governments even if the atrocities do not affect American core interests, with the president seeking congressional authorization. The group expressed willingness to try ideas from other nations like universal health care.

A challenge for the Democratic opposition candidates is that the US economy is on a roll, with the unemployment rate at 3.6 percent, GDP growth hovering at 3 percent and interest rates stable. Still, voters express uneasiness about future prospects: job security amid increasing global competition and automation, massive debt of all types, and rising costs of health care, education and housing.

The candidates underscored how issues like climate change, immigration and health care are linked to economic security. Two candidates, Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, expressed support for a single-payer government-run health system that would abolish private insurance.

Corporations were the major target, with candidates criticizing growing power and consolidation and citing the need for more regulations, especially around campaign financing. The United States has an industrial policy, Warren observed, and “it’s basically been let giant corporations do whatever they want to do. Giant corporations have exactly one loyalty, and that is to profits.” While laws are in place to monitor corporations, she concluded, “What’s been missing is courage, courage in Washington to take on the giants.” As observed by the Financial Times, anti-corporate populism can swing left or right.   

Republican leaders have successfully linked fears about economic insecurity to immigration. “The way that American citizens have been told that immigrants have 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,” argued de Blasio. “The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you.” Senator Amy Klobuchar agreed: “Immigrants, they do not diminish America. They are America.”

Julián Castro, former US secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, spoke to the need for immigration reform, urging a large-scale type of Marshall Plan for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – to improve those economies and stem the poverty and violence spurring so many people to flee. He also promised to end a zero-tolerance policy on immigration and family separations and urged a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants without a criminal record. Senator Cory Booker also promised to review policies: “When people come to this country, they do not leave their human rights at the border.”

With so many candidates, all could not comment on each topic, and total response time for each ranged from about 5 to 11 minutes, reports the New York Times. Congressman Tim Ryan and others expressed concern for forgotten communities that have fallen behind and worry about costs of policies that offer benefits over the long term. Some candidates trail in the polls, attracting voter support in the single digits, and their embrace of broad challenges like climate change may do little to lift those issues to prominence.  One questioner pointedly asked about cost worries forcing governments to backtrack on climate change initiatives in Washington State, Australia and France.

Warren took an economic approach on handling climate change, urging increased investment on research and development for green technology, making that accessible to all nations for what she anticipates being a $23 trillion market. A protectionist twist was her proposal requiring product manufacture in the United States.

National security provokes more anxiety. The candidates underscored the need for the president to pursue congressional authorization for the use of military force. “And this president is literally every single day 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war,” commented Klobluchar. The candidates supported renegotiation and return to the international agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program, with Klobluchar noting US withdrawal gave unlimited leverage to China and Russia.

Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman and a major with the Army National Guard, objected to unnecessary escalation of tensions, especially with Iran, adding that the United States is at “the brink of war with Iran.” She deplored the high cost of war, suggesting that “our leaders have failed us, taking us from one regime-change war to the next, leading us into a new cold war and arms race, costing us trillions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars and countless lives.”

Candidates were divided over withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, in place since the invasion in late 2001. Ryan argued that the United States must “stay engaged in these situations,” while Gabbard urged withdrawal and investing instead in US communities. “We are no better off in Afghanistan today than we were when this war began.” She suggested tackling the root causes of extremism and called out Saudi Arabia for protecting groups like Al Qaeda.

The aberrant, loose gun laws in the United States add to anxiety, and the candidates spoke about the need to tighten laws around purchases and improve background checks. Ryan proposed trauma-based care in every school.

Polarization remains a challenge, and John Delaney, former congressman and entrepreneur, urges Democrats “to become the party of getting things done for the American people, with real solutions and not impossible promises.”

Each candidate named what they viewed as the biggest geopolitical treat to the United States:

John Delaney, nuclear weapons and China

Jay Inslee, Donald Trump

Tulsi Gabbard, nuclear war

Amy Klobuchar, Middle East, Iran and China        

Beto O’Rourke, climate change

Elizabeth Warren, climate change

Cory Booker, nuclear proliferation and climate change

Julián Castro, China and climate change

Tim Ryan, China

Bill de Blasio, Russia

Read a transcript of the debate from NBC News.

Night Two

The more anticipated of the two Democratic debates featured current frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders, the main rival to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s main rival, with eight other candidates aggressively making their cases. Congressman Eric Swalwell emphasized the generational divide by repeating Biden’s call from three decades ago: “it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.”

The night’s most personal and viral exchange highlighted an ongoing quandary over when the US federal government should supplant state and local rules. Senator Kamala Harris confronted Biden on recent remarks regarding his working relationship with segregationist politicians as well as a compromise on school bussing: “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.” Biden defended his compromise agreement from decades ago that allowed city councils to continue segregation practices well beyond a Supreme Court ruling.  Conflict over federal versus state rights confounds action on abortion, climate change, immigration, gun control and health care, all covered by the debate.

Harris continued to question Biden’s legacy, stating she did not agree with the 3 million deportations that took place under the Obama presidency, more than any other administration in history. Like other candidates, she proposed extending protections for the so-called Dreamers brought to the country as children as well as immigrant veterans who served in the US military. She also vowed to launch a meaningful process for reviewing asylum claims, describing migrants’ desperation, undertaking a grueling journey from Central America to the US border.  

The Democratic candidates reject the administration’s handling of immigration, especially family separations, refusal to hear asylum claims and lengthy detentions of young children in terrible conditions. Candidates urged addressing root causes of the Central American refugee crisis. “What we have got to do on day one is invite the presidents and the leadership of Central America and Mexico together,” Sanders noted. “This is a hemispheric problem.” Author Marianne Williamson argued US interventions in Central America decades ago contributed to poor governance and poverty. She described child separations as “kidnapping” and “collective child abuse.”  Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pointed out that the Republican Party “likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” and “for a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.” Former Governor John Hickenlooper noted, “The world is judging us.”

Every candidate raised his or her hand to a question on who would provide health care to undocumented immigrants in the United States. Buttigieg contended, “our country is healthier when everyone is healthier.” Biden agreed, noting such coverage is humane and makes economic sense, with immigrants contributing labor and taxes that support the nation’s Social Security retirement program.

Health care, both costs and access, dominated the second debate, replacing inequality as the lead topic during the first night. When asked the same question from the previous debate about abolishing their own private health care insurance, Harris and Sanders raised their hands. Other candidates expressed support for a public option. Sanders stressed that the United States could draw from allies’ experiences despite the mixed success of attempts in California, Vermont, and New York: “I find it hard to believe that every other major country on Earth, including my neighbor 50 miles north of me, Canada, somehow has figured out a way to provide health care to every man, woman, and child, and in most cases, they’re spending 50 percent per capita what we are spending.” Senator Michael Bennet cautioned that the US population is almost ten times larger than Canada’s. Sanders concluded that the function of the US system is to provide profits for the insurance industry. The candidates expressed agreement on the need to address the concentration of power of the insurance industry and the nation’s top 1 percent. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand calling to “restore the power of our democracy into the hands of the voters,” rather than billionaires who lobby against public programs. Author Marianne Williamson pointed out chemical, environmental and food policies also influence American health.

Democrats agree swift action is required to stem climate change, or what Harris calls climate crisis: “It represents an existential threat to us as a species. And the fact that we have a president of the United States who has embraced science fiction over science fact will be to our collective peril.”   Candidates support the United States rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. Joe Biden often invoked his record, decrying moderator Chuck Todd’s statement that former President Barack Obama “couldn’t get climate change done” despite the historic Paris agreement.

Biden’s opponents criticized his vote supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the conclusion of the debate, Biden claimed responsibility for US troop withdrawal from Iraq and affirmed ending involvement in Afghanistan. Sanders pointed to his own efforts to end US support of the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

The candidates differed on China and trade conflicts. Bennet and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were firm that Russia represents a greater geopolitical threat, with Yang noting “the tariffs and the trade war are just punishing businesses and producers and workers on both sides.” Bennet said the United States must “mobilize the entire rest of the world, who all have a shared interest in pushing back on China’s mercantilist trade policies.” Buttigieg accused China of “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.”

Hickenlooper tried to distinguish himself by opposing socialism – even though most economies combine elements of socialism and capitalism, as described by Investopedia. Bennet and Hickenlooper proposed pragmatism, drawing from their experiences in Colorado with its mix of conservative and liberal voters. Yang and Williamson spoke less than other candidates, but their non-traditional approaches contributed to spikes in online interest. Williamson spoke of bringing love into politics, and Yang, founder of Venture for America, detailed his $1,000 per-month universal basic income plan dubbed the “Freedom Dividend” on a national stage.

The US economy’s reliance on climbing debt was mentioned only briefly. Sanders was asked how he would pay for free college and health care, and Harris countered: “where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in this country? Contributing at least $1 trillion to the debt of America, which middle-class families will pay for one way or another.”

All candidates expressed eagerness to improve relationships with US allies. Biden suggested that requires “people who know how to corral the world.” As during the first debate, with so many candidates, all could not comment on each topic. Total response time ranged from about 3 to 15 minutes

Each candidate was asked about the first relationship he or she would reset as president:

Marianne Williamson, European Leaders and Western Alliance

John Hickenlooper, China

Andrew Yang, China

Pete Buttigieg, hard to predict but the entire world

Joe Biden, NATO

Bernie Sanders, trust with the United Nations

Kamala Harris, NATO

Kirsten Gillibrand, Iran

Michael Bennet, European allies and Latin American countries for refugee crisis

Eric Swalwell, break with Russia, reset NATO

Overall, the 20 candidates and debate spanning two nights, gave priority to the US economy, health care and improving US relationships with allies. The range of personalities made for a different story, though,  and voters must decide which approach will bring policies to fruition.  

Read a transcript of the debate from NBC News.

*Kashif Ahmed is a MacMillan Center fellow and YaleGlobal editorial assistant, is a recent graduate from McGill University. He majored in International Development Studies and has lived in both Peru and Uganda.



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YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

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