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Seventh Democratic Debate: What We’re Watching For

Many of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage tonight for the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses on February 3. We asked three of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s experts what they’ll be watching for tonight and what issues may continue to resonate on the campaign trail in coming weeks. For BPC’s coverage of previous debates, check out the briefs from the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth debates.

Here’s what BPC experts had to say.

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Andy Winkler, associate director, housing and infrastructure

Last week the White House released its rewrite of regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the nation’s most important environmental laws. NEPA requires that federal agencies understand the impacts of their actions on the human environment and give the public a meaningful opportunity to engage. However, the law doesn’t lay out how best to resolve differences between federal agencies—or levels of government—acting out potentially conflicting missions. It also doesn’t provide for enough transparency and predictability in the review process. These oversights have resulted in significant and costly inefficiencies that policymakers have been trying to fix since NEPA was signed into law 50 years ago.

The administration’s rulemaking set off a frenzy among environmental groups and Democrats, concerned by provisions they believe will narrow scrutiny for some infrastructure projects, set overly strict deadlines, and diminish the role of climate change in environmental assessments. They vowed to take action to stop or reverse the new rules.

It’s little surprise the administration’s motives were held suspect given the irresponsible position they have taken on climate change to-date. Yet the current NEPA process has longstanding inefficiencies that merit attention and are an obstacle in transitioning to a low carbon economy. Rules that tie up pipelines also slow down the construction of massive scale renewables, innovative facilities to sequester carbon, transit projects, and other critical investments needed to meet a 2050 target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Absent meaningful improvement to the NEPA review and permitting process, it is hard to imagine the nation dramatically revamping its energy and transportation systems in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change or strengthening our resilience against the climate-driven risks that are already unavoidable.  Previously, we called on the candidates to outline their plans for disaster readiness and recovery. In this last opportunity for Democratic voters to hear the presidential candidates debate the issues before the Iowa caucuses, there should also be substantive discussion of needed NEPA reforms and their place in a broader national climate strategy.

In this last opportunity for Democratic voters to hear the presidential candidates debate the issues before the Iowa caucuses, there should also be substantive discussion of needed NEPA reforms and their place in a broader national climate strategy. 
Andy Winkler, associate director, housing and infrastructure

Marilyn Serafini, director, health

With health care shaping up to be a defining issue in this election, I’m interested to hear how the candidates’ health care plans may evolve to account for strong, bipartisan support to improve the current system. In a poll that Morning Consult conducted for BPC, more than half of voters (56%) listed health care as a top voting issue for 2020, but a majority doesn’t want Congress to focus on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act or moving to a “Medicare-for-All” style single-payer system. To be sure, the clear first choice for Democrats and Independents was to improve the current health care system, and one-third of Republicans also supported that approach. As public opinion bears this out, I’ll be watching to see how much candidates begin to move away from more polarized health care reform approaches. There is clear bipartisan support for improving the current health care system, and I will be paying close attention to see which candidates reach across the aisle to make the changes that the American public needs.

Importantly, the BPC poll also showed that voters’ top health care concerns are health care costs, especially prescription drug costs. Moreover, voters said that a number of public health problems existed in their communities, led by illicit drug and opioid use, mental and behavioral health issues, smoking/vaping, and obesity

With health care shaping up to be a defining issue in this election, I’m interested to hear how the candidates’ health care plans may evolve to account for strong, bipartisan support to improve the current system.
Marilyn Serafini, director, health

John Fortier, director, governance

There are many parallels between the impeachment trials of Presidents Clinton and Trump, including the timing: the House passed two impeachment articles in December, and the Senate trial commenced in January. And given that a number of the leading Democratic candidates are senators, the details of how a trial will unfold may matter to their campaigns.

Even after the trial begins, expect close to a week for the House managers and President Trump’s defense team to compile briefs. At some point, expect a senator to offer a motion to dismiss the charges. Several motions along these lines were offered by Democrats in 1999. If Republicans prevail, the trial will proceed in a similar way to the Clinton trial. The decision on witnesses will be made after the trial begins and likely after the prosecution and defense make their cases.

If witnesses are called, the process will likely take longer than it did in the Clinton case, where all three witnesses had been previously deposed by the independent counsel. In 1999, there was a week and a half delay between the Senate vote to hear from witnesses and the time when senators were able to view videotapes of the deposition. How witnesses will be heard from will also be the subject of debate.

In 1999, the Senate trial commenced at 1pm, allowing the Chief Justice the ability to preside over the Court in the morning. I expect the same this year. The trail is very likely to still be going on when President Trump is scheduled to give his State of the Union address on February 4, just as happened with President Clinton in 1999.

Unlike 1999, though, we are on the eve of primary season. I expect the trial to continue at least through the Iowa caucuses on February 3. That means those senators running for president will need to figure out how to keep a campaign running in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early states while they are tethered to Washington for a multiple-week trial.

In tonight’s debate, looming in the background will be the issue of whether the trial will take several senators off the campaign trail in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses.  Moderators may ask the candidates their thoughts on the need for witnesses and the importance of a robust trial of President Trump.

In tonight’s debate, looming in the background will be the issue of whether the trial will take several senators off the campaign trail in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses.  Moderators may ask the candidates their thoughts on the need for witnesses and the importance of a robust trial of President Trump.
John Fortier, director, governance
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