Real Distinctions Between Democrats Emerged During Last Night’s Debate

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What happens when the Democratic presidential candidates stop being polite and start getting real? The most substantive and watchable debate yet, apparently.

Last night’s Democratic Party showdown on CNN saw plenty of candidates (and debate moderators!) calling each other out for past missteps. But candidates also seemed more intent on singling themselves out. Rather than simply agreeing to support slogans popular on the left—”Medicare for All,” for instance—many offered at least some details on how their preferred policies would work and specified ways in which these plans differed from those of their colleagues.

I watched the debate from the Reason DC office along with a gaggle of other staffers. We were pleasantly surprised by Andrew Yang; stunned (but pleased) by the poor performance turned in by Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.); and happy to hear so many candidates at least pay lip service to getting out of Afghanistan and ending America’s endless wars.

To me, one of the biggest takeaways of the night was how much the various candidates differ in their trust of individuals. Again and again, candidates kept coming back (implicitly and explicitly) to the idea of trusting Americans to make decisions for themselves versus trusting politicians to know what’s best for everyone. Libertarians obviously appreciate the former. And while none of the candidates are perfect in this regard, Yang, Pete Buttigieg, and to some extent Cory Booker seem to fall into the trust people camp, with Sanders, Harris, and Warren falling most strongly in the “no, trust us” camp.

This divide was most on display in a discussion about health care. Here are some of the high and low points from that exchange:

• Former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan was the easiest to understand. He stressed that it will build on Obamacare, not tear it down; that there will be an option for government-run plans, but people can still choose private insurance; and that it will cost a lot less money than grander plans from other candidates. He also noted that he has actually specified “how we’ll pay for it”—in contrast to other candidates who dance around direct questions about their health care proposals and their costs.

• Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) said how we’ll pay for Medicare for All is simple: We, as a whole, won’t. No, she’ll make “the rich” pay. When a moderator asked if taxes will go up for the middle class, Warren evaded the question, instead rambling about how lowering point-of-service health care costs is what families really care about. She seems to hope Americans are too dumb to realize that they would have more money for out-of-pocket costs if the government took less money from their paychecks.

• Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) shouted about the pharmaceutical industry again and championed his version of Medicare for All.

• Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL–Minn.) bashed Sanders’ plan as not a “bold idea” but a “bad idea.” She pointed out that it would abolish private insurance within four years. She was striving hard to position herself as The One True Moderate up there.

• Pete Buttigieg said Sanders’ bill doesn’t put enough trust in the American people. “I trust the American people to make the right choice for them, why don’t you?” he asked. (Sanders’ response was, essentially, that people will like Medicare for All and they can still choose between government-approved doctors so who cares.)

• Kamala Harris took her usual all-sides approach—we should have “Medicare for All” but also “choice”—and then launched into a tirade about President Donald Trump. (Nearly every time she was called to talk during this debate, Harris tried to turn it into a referendum on Trump. It got tedious.) Harris also talked about how everyone on stage wanted good things for health care and they shouldn’t fight on stage about policy specifics, saying that the “discussion is giving the American people a headache.” It felt like the wrong move—a condescending, elitist bid for the masses to just trust that these benevolent leaders have their best interests at heart and not worry about who provides their insurance, who provides their care, who will pay.

• Andrew Yang made the bold choice to lead with an ethnic joke (“I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors”) and then talked about needing to trust people to make their own health care decisions.

• Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro praised Obamacare but went on to bash Biden, implying the vice president was losing his memory and saying he would be better at representing Obama’s legacy on health care than Biden is.

• Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (R–Texas) both tried to be uniters, talking about supporting universal health coverage policies that still preserve choice.

The debate stage saw some (but too little) criminal justice reform commentary, with Castro and Booker bringing up the need for reform policing and roll back mass incarceration. Then moderator Linsey Davis threw Harris a question about her criminal justice past:

You used to oppose the legalization of marijuana, now you don’t. You used to oppose outside investigations of police shootings, now you don’t. You said that you’ve changed on these and other things because you were, quote, “swimming against the current and thankfully, the currents have changed.” But when you had the power, why didn’t you try to affect change then?

Harris called these “distortions” of her record. C.J. Ciaramella explains why that’s not true. (If you want a deeper dive on all that, see Reason‘s July cover story).

Harris was shaky—seriously, she literally appeared to be slightly shaking—and stumbled over her words during this answer, and some subsequent ones. At one point, she said Trump reminds her of “that guy in the Wizard of Oz” behind the curtain (that would be the wizard) and then broke into a strange fit of giggles. She had this bizzare exchange with Biden about executive orders:

“Let us not now pretend that Joe Biden brought anything like coherence to [the debate],” writes Reason editor-at-large Matt Welch in a recap this morning. But Biden was perhaps the only one who seemed at all concerned with constitutional “constraints on the executive branch carrying out the domestic policy whims of the Democratic electorate.”

I missed most of the debate exchange on guns, as we discussed what the heck was going on with Harris and then dealt with rumors of a rodent by the Reason TV desks. (False alarm, phew.) Then came the immigration portion (and the Biden pile-on).

• The former vice president presented an overly rosy picture of immigration policy during the Obama years, and Castro rightfully (and forcefully) calls him out on it. Castro also accused Biden of taking credit for all the good parts of the Obama years while keeping his distance from all the bad parts.

• Warren blamed a lack of U.S. aid to Central America for the current “crisis at the border.” (Even on this, she can’t help but making her big solution to just get the government to pay for more things.)

• Buttigieg gave a good answer, which included proposing “community renewal visas” that would draw immigrants to rural and small-town areas suffering from population decline. He complained that the last real reform and new ideas on immigration came in the ’80s.

• Yang offered possibly the best answer on immigration, one that didn’t let bad policies off the hook but also didn’t dwell solely on the plight of the most misfortunate immigrants or the blame owed to the Trump administration. “My father grew up on a peanut farm in Asia with no floor and now his son is running for president. That is the immigration story that we have,” he said, adding some numbers on how many immigrants start their own businesses. He thinks we need to tell Americans more positive stories about immigrants and their contributions to this country, and to give potential immigrants a more positive image of America as a good place for businesses and families.

“I don’t hate Yang,” Peter Suderman said at this point, and we murmured in agreement. (More here on Yang’s performance last night and his announcement that his campaign will hold a contest to give people money.)

On trade, most of the candidates condemned Trump’s tariffs and the trade war with China but varied on how much economic protectionism they would employ themselves.

• Klobuchar talked about Middle American soybean farmers, because she is incapable of answering a question without reminding us she’s from the Midwest.

• Castro said he would “ratchet down” the trade war with China but use U.S. leverage to force countries like China and North Korea to address human rights abuses.

• Harris condemned Trump conducting “trade policy by tweet” and said, surprisingly directly, “I am not a protectionist Democrat.”

• Sanders touted his opposition to free trade agreements and said “what we have got to do is develop a trade policy that […] understands that if a company shuts down in America and goes abroad, and then thinks they’re going to get online to get a lucrative federal contract, under Bernie Sanders, they got another guess coming.”

• Booker made a bald joke—”I’m the only person on this stage who finds [Canadian PM Justin] Trudeau’s hair very menacing”—in service of condemning Trump “using a national security waiver to put tariffs on Canada.”

• Biden said “the fact of the matter is, China—the problem isn’t the trade deficit, the problem is they’re stealing our intellectual property.”

• Warren condemned U.S. companies who move operations abroad and said she wants to negotiate trade with unions, environmentalists, and farmers “at the table.”

“She is genuinely worse on trade than anybody,” said Shikha Dalmia, to a collective mmmm-hmmm from the table here.

Finally, we got around to some foreign policy talk.

• Warren had her best moment of the night here, in my opinion. She said she had asked a lot of military leaders what winning would like like in Afghanistan, and their response was [nonsensical mush-mouthed noises]. “We are not going to bomb our way to a solution with Afghanistan,” she continued. “The problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by the military. We need to work with the rest of the world.”

• Yang said “we have to start owning what we can and can’t do. We’re not very good at rebuilding countries.”

• Buttigieg said “we have got to put an end to endless war,” mentioned that troops serving in Afghanistan today may not have even been alive during 9/11, and said that the best way to not be in bad wars is “to not start them” in the first place. He called for three-year sunsets on congressional authorization for use of military force.

• Sanders criticized military spending (“I don’t think we have to spend $750 billion on the military when we don’t even know who our enemy is”) and got in a good dig at Biden: “One of the differences between you and me — I never believed what Cheney and Bush said.”

• Biden gave a confused answer that downplayed his previous support for military interventions.

The night ended with the candidates 1) doing that thing where they all compete to have the most simultaneously sad and relatable origin story, and 2) talking about what this election means. Booker said the election wasn’t a referendum on Trump but “on us and who were are going to be together.” Biden inexplicably quoted his dad and Kierkegaard.

The candidates also talked about everything from education (“most of the Democratic debate participants had one big idea: throw more money at public schools and public school teachers,” writes Robby Soave) to factory farming, climate change, Venezuela, guns (O’Rourke wants yours), child care, reparations for slavery, racism, and much more. You can see a transcript of the whole thing here.

Noticeably absent was any discussion of abortion, birth control, or other reproductive issues. Nor was there much talk about drug policy, prison reform, or overcriminalization. Aside from Buttigieg telling his coming out story, little was said about LGBTQ rights. And nobody asked about vaping panic or (and thank goodness on this last one) Russian collusion.

None of the candidates proved perfect (or even especially good) in their willingness to put more trust in the American people than in politicians and bureaucrats. But at least some candidates were willing to entertain the idea. Alas, those are the same candidates that consistently go nowhere in the polls.


  • In case you haven’t yet tired of reading about David French, Sohrab Ahmari, and “the future of conservatism.”
  • Reason‘s resident cocktail snob evaluates White Claw:

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