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Second Democratic Debates: What We’re Watching For

As the 2020 campaign trail heats up, the Democratic presidential candidates prepare to take the stage for the second round of debates on July 30 and July 31. Experts from the Bipartisan Policy Center are looking forward to a robust discussion between candidates and will be closely monitoring the key policy areas that are likely to play a central role in the upcoming elections. For BPC’s previous debate coverage, check out last month’s pre-debate brief.

Here’s what BPC experts are watching for the second time around.

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BPC President Jason Grumet

I’m interested in hearing about three topics: retirement security, energy policy, and how the candidates aim to reach a majority of the American people.

Eighty percent of the public isn’t prepared for retirement and nearly half the public says they’ll rely entirely on Social Security, which will be insolvent in about 15 years. Unless I blacked out for a key section of the last debate, I don’t remember the candidates mention any aspect of this. A Pew poll found Social Security to be the fifth-biggest issue of concern to voters, ahead of immigration, jobs, and race relations (all of which got plenty of attention during the debate). When did the over-50 demographic lose its relevance in electoral politics?

Most of the candidates have floated ideas: Elizabeth Warren’s plan is to eliminate the cap on income; Bernie Sanders wants to apply Social Security taxes to all income about $250,000; Joe Biden has said he supports taxing wages above $400,000 with a “donut hole” for people who make between $132,900 and $400,000; and Pete Buttigieg wants to raise the cap to $250,000.

Whatever you think of these ideas, Social Security in particular and retirement security in general should be elevated in the ideas primary and raised at every debate.

On energy, I want to see the candidates embrace a plan to tackle climate change that has some plausible possibility of being adopted early in 2021. Climate change is an urgent problem. Having spent a decade watching Republicans lead an irresponsible debate about the existence of the problem, we cannot waste a decade watching Democrats arguing over fake solutions.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have made remarkable strides in the last few decades. Renewable power is a major factor in reducing domestic emissions because it is now big business, led by big companies, that produces big power in massive industrial facilities. But even industrial-strength renewables can’t produce the volume of zero-carbon, around-the-clock power needed to support the global economy—despite anticipated improvements in energy efficiency and batteries to store renewable power for windless days and dark nights.

Nuclear power, carbon capture at coal and natural gas plants, technologies that remove carbon from the ambient air, and a more ambitious national research agenda must be fully embraced if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Finally, I’ll be curious to see which, if any, of the candidates try to rein in the leftward tilt of the first debate and stake out positions that appeal to a broader swath of the party. There have been several recent projections indicating that President Trump could lose the popular vote by even more than he did in 2016—perhaps by 5 million votes—and still win the electoral college. That’s a nightmare scenario for Democrats, who need to turn Michigan and Pennsylvania blue again and fight in Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina to have a chance.

Who will the candidates be speaking to? Party activists in California? Or Obama voters in the Midwest who went for Trump or stayed home in 2016?

While the obvious challenge now for Democratic contenders is winning the primary, the more important goal for Democrats is winning the election and the most important question for the country is whether we will ever again have a president who can summon the trust and support of a majority of the American people. This is the ambition and leadership that I will be listening for between the calls to arms that will understandably dominate the debate.

Whatever you think of these ideas, Social Security in particular and retirement security in general should be elevated in the ideas primary and raised at every debate.
Jason Grumet, BPC President

BPC Senior Vice President Bill Hoagland

I’m looking for health care to once again dominate the domestic agenda discussion. Specifically, I will be looking for answers and clarifications to three main areas of interest: (1) the future of health care, (2) controlling the high cost of prescription drugs, and (3) the exhaustion of Part A of the Medicare Trust Fund in 2026.

On the future of health care—national health care expenditures are expected to reach over $3.8 trillion this year or $11,600 per every man, woman and child.  Of the total expenditures, public expenditures both federal, state, and local will reach over $1.4 trillion, or nearly 40 percent of all health care expenditures. My simple question to the Democratic candidates is, “Are you proposing to turn over complete federal government control of 60 percent of all private health care spending? Isn’t that what Medicare-for-All means?” Besides the potential tremendous disruption to our current private-public health care system, simple math would also suggest that such a policy would cost, at minimum, $25 trillion over the next decade. “How would it be paid for? Are there not alternatives to Medicare-for-All that would be less disruptive and less costly than scrapping our private-public health care system?”

On controlling prescription drug costs—I will be looking for specifics, not generalities. For example, how should public policy encourage drug companies to innovate new cures, while also reducing the cost to the consumer? How would the candidates propose to control the cost of new breakthrough drugs that might mean the life or death of a child, but at the same time could cost millions of dollars? Should we allow drugs to be imported from outside the United States if they are priced below domestic prices and proven to be safe and effective? After Labor Day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will unveil a proposal to direct the federal government to negotiate the prices of drugs within government programs such as Medicare Part D. Do the candidates support the federal government negotiating drug prices?

Finally, if one of the candidates does succeed in becoming the next president of the United States in January 2021, they will be faced with the exhaustion of the Medicare Part A trust fund before the end of their first term in office. This is that portion of Medicare that pays for hospitalization.  With an aging demographic and increasing occurrence of chronic conditions, how would each candidate keep the Medicare program solvent?

After occupying the White House for a few months, the current occupant said, “who knew health care could be so complicated?” There are no easy answers to any of these issues. Candidates aspiring to the highest office of the land need to be prepared before entering the Oval Office to provide clear guidance on how they would address them.

My simple question to the Democratic candidates is, 'Are you proposing to turn over complete federal government control of 60 percent of all private health care spending? Isn’t that what Medicare-for-All means?'
Bill Hoagland, BPC Senior Vice President

Director of Economic Policy Shai Akabas and Economic Policy Analyst Kody Carmody

The initial 2020 Democratic presidential debates have covered a wide range of topics, but one has been conspicuously absent: a fix for Social Security. This program, which is vital to Americans’ retirement security, faces a financial imbalance that could threaten benefits for not only the next generation of retirees, but even those on the program right now. Unfortunately, politicians have shown little interest in reaching across the aisle to enact real reform. In the coming debates, we’ll be looking for candidates to step up and embrace specific solutions to address Social Security’s financing challenge.

Social Security is a crucial component of the American retirement system, representing nearly half of American seniors’ total income. Those with little savings are especially reliant on the program, which unsurprisingly weighs heavily on their minds. A majority of pre-retirement Americans, especially those with low incomes, are concerned about the future of Social Security. And they’re right to worry—Social Security’s finances are out of balance. The program currently pays out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. In fact, the trust fund underlying Social Security is projected to run dry in 2034. If this happens, the program will be forced to cut benefits by almost a quarter.

As we’ve written before, policymakers don’t need more ideas to fix Social Security, they just need to step up to the plate and swing. In 2016, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings produced a comprehensive bipartisan package of reforms that would modernize Social Security and keep the program solvent. These reforms slow the growth in benefits for some, but also raise revenues and protect those Americans who rely on the program most. Hopefully, the next debates will see candidates display a sense of urgency on this issue, offering specific proposals to address this challenge that is confronting the American people.

Unfortunately, politicians have shown little interest in reaching across the aisle to enact real reform. In the coming debates, we’ll be looking for candidates to step up and embrace specific solutions to address Social Security’s financing challenge.
Shai Akabas, Director of Economic Policy
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