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Third Democratic Debate: What We’re Watching For

The narrowing field of Democratic presidential candidates will face off once again on September 12 in Houston. Bipartisan Policy Center experts in the areas of energy and climate policy, infrastructure and disaster recovery, and higher education told us how they hope their key issues will be discussed on stage. For BPC’s previous pre-debate coverage, check out our posts from before the first and second rounds of debates.

Here’s what BPC experts will be watching for as the candidates take the stage.

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Energy Project Director Sasha Mackler

I’ll be watching the discussion on energy and climate policy closely. In the lead up to the recent town hall event on climate change last week, we’ve seen the major candidates outline climate and energy policy platforms that are high on ambition but low on political and arithmetic practicalities. In my view it will be important for the narrowing field to begin identifying some connective threads between aspiration on the left and the pragmatic realities of a divided Congress.

For example, I will listen for nuance in the description of energy technology mandates. 100% renewable energy targets are neither practical in the near term, nor technically required for achieving the deeply decarbonized electric grid we need by mid-century. Calls for retiring our nation’s fleet of nuclear reactors and banning new development of natural gas resources should also signal openness for leveraging our nations intellectual, technological, and material resources to most effectively solve the climate problem, not win political points. The truth is that nuclear energy provides the lion’s share of our carbon-free electricity today, and any effort to take these plants offline will severely hamper the climate agenda. For natural gas, articulating a vision for how the industry can continue to play its part in the low-carbon transition will be important for the political calculus in moderate regions and also critical for ensuring our nation’s energy supplies are secure, cost effective, and clean. This can be accomplished through rigorous management of its upstream supply chain emissions and by integrating carbon capture across its applications downstream.

The clock is against us in the effort to address the risks of climate change. The most effective policies are those that can win passage and become law. Given we are likely to remain in a closely divided Congress after the 2020 election, the debate moderators should examine this tension between heart and mind on climate policy. Posing questions that reveal the candidates’ political strategies on energy and climate would be significantly more informative to voters than comparing the trillions of dollars of imaginary funding between different plans or highlighting which candidate will be first to ban the internal combustion engine. We’ve begun to see their aspirational priorities, now let’s try to understand how they intend to start us down the road to a safer climate future.

Posing questions that reveal the candidates’ political strategies on energy and climate would be significantly more informative to voters than comparing the trillions of dollars of imaginary funding between different plans or highlighting which candidate will be first to ban the internal combustion engine.
Sasha Mackler, Energy Project Director

Director of Strategic Initiatives Michele Nellenbach

The Democratic debate will likely include a lengthy and important discussion about climate change and the impacts it is having our planet. However, the discussion needs to go beyond reducing our carbon and methane emissions to a debate on how we protect communities already at risk from extreme weather events including hurricanes, droughts, flooding and wildfires.

There are numerous flaws in how the federal government approaches these disasters and we need leaders from both parties to outline plans to address them.

The National Flood Insurance Program runs an annual deficit of $1.4 billion and in 2017, Congress simply forgave $16 billion worth of NFIP debt—essentially adding to the overall federal debt. Candidates must outline plans for how to increase homeowner-purchased insurance, decrease development in flood-prone areas, and shore up the NFIP.

Candidates should discuss how they would shift the national discussion to one of adaptation and resilient building as the primary means of reducing loss of life, property, and income post disaster. For every dollar spent on mitigation, an estimated $6 is saved that otherwise would have been spent in recovery costs.

Americans in general and policymakers specifically are not good at forward thinking. However, it is irresponsible of federal decision-makers to treat each disaster as a surprise and declare their recovery costs “emergencies.” This failure to account for these costs only adds to the national debt putting future taxpayers at risk. Candidates should discuss how to change the budget dynamics such that more is invested in upfront mitigation and more is budgeted for, and paid for, to address post-disaster costs.

Most importantly, Americans struggling to rebuild after a natural disaster should never be subject to political debates over who is most in need or most deserving of federal—and therefore taxpayer—assistance. By developing a sustainable system for reducing and addressing these costs, candidates can assure the American public that no one will be subject to the political gamesmanship that has gone on around the citizens of Puerto Rico.

Candidates should discuss how they would shift the national discussion to one of adaptation and resilient building as the primary means of reducing loss of life, property, and income post disaster.
Michele Nellenbach, Director of Strategic Initiatives

Associate Director of Higher Education Kenneth Megan

Higher education has been a major topic on the campaign trail, with candidates developing plans for student loan relief and free college in particular. It is obvious that the system needs reform, given high tuition prices, low completion rates, and swelling student debt. Currently, cumulative outstanding student debt stands at roughly $1.5 trillion, and only half of new borrowers are able to reduce their principal balance within three years of entering repayment.

The status quo is unacceptable, and it is heartening that candidates are thinking through ways to address the problem, which will likely be addressed at tonight’s debate. However, as candidates continue to advocate for student loan relief and free college proposals, it is imperative that thought be put into how new federal spending can be targeted towards low-income students. Otherwise, they risk creating a new entitlement for the wealthy, which will come with an unsustainable price tag and do little to promote positive outcomes and equity in higher education.

However, as candidates continue to advocate for student loan relief and free college proposals, it is imperative that thought be put into how new federal spending can be targeted towards low-income students.
Kenneth Megan, Associate Director of Higher Education
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