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First Democratic Debates: What We’re Watching For

The Brief

We gathered three of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s experts for a discussion on what to expect when the Democratic candidates take the stage on June 26 and 27 and how key policy issues may figure into the campaign. Here’s what BPC’s experts are watching for.

Now that President Trump has held his first official re-election campaign rally and the first Democratic primary debates are upon us, the 2020 presidential campaign is officially in full swing. We gathered three of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s experts for a discussion on what to expect when the Democratic candidates take the stage on June 26 and 27 and how key policy issues may figure into the campaign. Here’s what BPC’s experts are watching for.

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Bill Hoagland, senior vice president

I’m looking for a very simple level-setting question at the outset. “What’s the average price of a dozen eggs?” or “What is the average price of a gallon of milk?” I want to see if these candidates are attuned with what the average American is dealing with out there.

Recent polling shows that health care is a top issue for many voters, and with this debate is taking place in Florida I think it will be an especially hot topic. I’ll be listening to whether the candidates are focused on alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, whether they support the Medicare-for-All concept, and if so, how they intend to pay for it. Recent studies have further highlighted the huge disparity between what hospitals charge private insurance versus Medicare or Medicaid for the same procedures—up to a 90 percent difference in some cases. So I also want to know how the candidates feel about that disparity and if they are proposing to move toward Medicare-for-All whether that would mean cutting what hospitals can charge as much as 90 percent.

I want to see if these candidates are attuned with what the average American is dealing with out there.
Bill Hoagland, BPC senior vice president

Elsewhere in health care, Florida has recently taken steps to allow the purchase of prescription medications from Canada, and that’s an approach that does seem to have bipartisan support, so I expect to hear the candidates get behind that plan.

Florida is a state with lots of retirees, so I’m also watching for a discussion about the solvency of Social Security. The trust fund is set to expire sometime around 2034 without action. How will the candidates address that? Younger people in the audience are looking at a 20 percent cut to their future Social Security benefits unless Congress acts, so what are these candidates prepared to do on that front?

Next, I’m an old budgeteer, and even though the debt and deficit don’t seem to rank high on voters’ list of concerns, I think it’s extremely important. There’s a new concept out there called Modern Monetary Theory, which essentially suggests that deficits don’t matter. I want to know if the candidates support that view. I admit that right now we have the longest economic recovery on record, historically low unemployment, and T-bill rates are unbelievably low at around 2 percent. But does it no longer matter that we have the highest level of debt to GDP in history? More broadly, does fiscal policy matter anymore?

Finally, President Trump has been highly critical of Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell, who is an alumnus of BPC and who he himself appointed to that position. I want to know whether the Democratic candidates support the long-held notion that the Federal Reserve is an independent institution or if they want to see changes in the norms and rules around the relationship between the president and the Fed.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy

The Democratic candidates have not spoken a lot about immigration as a policy issue. It hasn’t been a centerpiece of anyone’s campaign so far and what policy proposals have been released have been fairly high-level and tied to standard Democratic talking points. All of them have come out in favor of legal status for the DREAMers, for example. Quite a few have commented on their position on a border wall. And they’ve all, obviously, been critical of the administration’s handling of the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Notably, none of them have embraced some of the more extreme positions we heard advanced by the left wing of the party such as abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nor have they addressed what changes they want to see in the legal immigration framework. The White House, through Jared Kushner, has put out a plan to shift toward a merit-based legal immigration system. If that plan isn’t what these candidates want to see, what kind of approach would they support? Would they balance between family reunification and the economic needs of the country? Would they want to keep immigration levels the same, or increase them?

A lot of the candidates have supported some form of legalization for the undocumented currently in the United States. But the charge has been leveled that “Democrats are for open borders.” How will they counter those charges? How would they conduct interior enforcement differently from this or past administrations?

Interestingly, immigration is now the highest we’ve ever seen it on voters’ list of policy concerns in recent Gallup polling. So, I think it’s going to be incumbent on these Democratic candidates to put forward some more details on how they will handle our immigration system, and what they’re going to do differently from the Trump administration to handle the situation at the border. It’s a complex and complicated problem, and it’s not enough to simply be critical of the current approach.

It’s also important to hear how the candidates would work with Congress to tackle immigration issues. The last two administrations have relied heavily on executive orders, and some candidates have already suggested they would do the same. That approach is hugely problematic because it enables wild policy swings from one administration to the next. One administration’s executive order-based policies can be shifted 180 degrees by the next administration. We’ve got to get back to policymaking that includes both the president and Congress—legislative action that adds some certainty to the system.

It’s also important to hear how the candidates would work with Congress to tackle immigration issues. The last two administrations have relied heavily on executive orders, and some candidates have already suggested they would do the same. That approach is hugely problematic
Theresa Cardinal Brown, BPC's director of immigration and cross-border policy

In addition to what’s happening at the southern border, since this debate is in Florida, I’m hoping to hear from the candidates about their Cuba policies. President Obama changed the rules for Cubans to apply for asylum in the United States. Do they support that, or would they change that policy?

Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project

Most, if not all, of the 20 Democrats who will take the stage in these debates have commented publicly on election security, democracy, or voting policies. Personally, this is very heartening to me because these issues don’t often rise to the level of discussion in a presidential campaign, and it’s so important to see them getting the attention they deserve.

The candidates currently serving in Congress have all signed on to some kind of election security bill, such as the PAVE Act or the Election Security Act. One question I’d like to hear the candidates answer is what they believe is the appropriate role for the federal government in election administration. Certainly in 2016, our elections process was attacked by a foreign adversary. In other kinds of attacks, we don’t expect individual states to repel those foreign adversaries. Is there a more robust role the federal government needs to play? Is it just money? Should the Defense Department or the Department of Homeland Security be involved? There are options that should be further explored.

Congress did appropriate $380 million in 2018 in response to the foreign interference in the 2016 elections. That money was ostensibly to prepare for the 2018 elections, but due to the lateness of the appropriation, much of that money was not spent before those elections took place and is only now being drawn down by the states. That money also has a five-year period in which it can be spent. The action now is in replacing electronic voting machines with paper-based systems, instituting audit programs nationwide, and additional block grants akin to what was provided last year. Any of these proposals would improve election administration in the states. Where do the candidates stand on the next steps?

I expect candidates to be asked about the likelihood of foreign interference in the 2020 elections and also to comment on what happened in 2016. We recently learned that at least two Florida counties were among those whose voter registration databases were accessed by Russian hackers in 2016. Certainly states have taken steps to prevent the kind of infiltration that happened in 2016 and was probably attempted in 2018. Questions about how prepared states are for these attacks in 2020 are valid, but they’re also not the only questions. I hope the candidates are prepared to discuss a forward-looking strategy to protect elections, not just focus on the problems of the past.

I hope the candidates are prepared to discuss a forward-looking strategy to protect elections, not just focus on the problems of the past.
Matthew Weil, BPC's director of the Elections Project

The candidates should also be asked about the resiliency of our democracy and their role in it. Our election system is certainly not perfect, however, recent election cycles have shown that losing candidates are incentivized to attack the system itself as fundamentally flawed and question the legitimacy of results, often with little to no evidence. These attacks undermine voter confidence. With a number of real foreign threats to combat, I hope all the candidates are willing to dial down the attacks on the electoral system in light of the fact that we are likely to see very close elections in a number of states in both the primaries and the general election, including in Florida.

For real-time analysis and insights during the debates, follow BPC, Bill Hoagland, Theresa Cardinal Brown, and Matthew Weil on Twitter.

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