The Democratic Debate: A Brief Field Guide

Robert Borosage

Will a policy discussion break out in the Democratic presidential debate tonight? Not if CNN’s moderators can help it. Already the pundits are dreading an exchange focused on ideas rather than insults. No Donald Trump to bait and goad. No Carly Fiorina to provoke. CNN, which has turned itself into Trump 24/7 in search of ratings, has to be fretting about the falloff in viewers.

So, no doubt, the moderators will troll for trash. Sanders will be challenged about whether a “socialist” can win. He’ll be cross-examined about his polemic excesses from five decades ago, as if this were a measure of character. The ersatz scandals burdening Hillary – the email server, Benghazi, the family fortune – will be reheated. We’ll get horse race questions about why anyone thinks Hillary can be beaten.

Here’s the reality behind the debate. Democrats are now an unabashed party of liberal social reform. The New Democrats – and their tacking to conservative tides – are no more. Democrats are no longer worried about wedge social issues. Instead they see social issues — from gay marriage to immigration reform to abortion and women’s rights – as glue for their coalition. Hillary Clinton is free to unleash her presumed liberalism, divorcing herself from her husband’s policies on gay marriage, mass incarceration, and eventually welfare repeal.

The Democratic candidates are also united around a populist lite economic agenda. Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley – the leading candidates – all support raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid family leave and sick days, and empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively. All support universal preschool and making college more affordable. All support action on climate change. All favor investing in rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure (although with massive differences in scale). All would curb the role of big money in out politics and champion voting rights reforms. The fight with Republicans is clearly marked.

But the leading Democratic candidates have major differences on the fundamental structure of our political economy. And money – big money in politics – is at the center of those differences. What should be done with Wall Street, and a financial sector that is dangerous to our economic health? How does the U.S. stop running ruinous trade deficits and make things in America once more? What is the scale of public investment needed to rebuild America – and who pays for it? How to we address the looming retirement crisis, curb prices in the most costly health care system in the world, provide jobs for and revive our urban wastelands? Should we continue to police the world? How do we end ruinous interventions that are draining our resources, costing lives, and undermining our security? What is a real response to climate change? And of course, how do we curb big money in politics if every winning candidate benefits from it?

So after the dreck, here are four questions that, if posed, might clarify some of the choices ahead of us.

1. The Economy: George Bush cut taxes, deregulated, ran up deficits and we suffered a recovery in which the typical household lost ground and inequality soared. Barak Obama raised taxes, regulated Wall Street and cut deficits, and we’re suffering a recovery in which the typical household is losing ground and inequality is soaring. What three major things would you do differently than Bush and Obama to get this economy to work for the vast majority, and not just for the few?

2. Security: America and its allies spend more on their militaries than all the other countries in the world combined. We have over 750 bases across the world. Our fleets patrol the seven seas. We are involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, with drones attacking in seven countries or more. Is this necessary for our security? Or should we be cutting back on our military spending and intervention, and focus on rebuilding America here at home?

3. Breaking Gridlock: President Obama has advocated many of the economic reforms that you support, such as raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich, increasing spending on infrastructure and universal preschool. All of his reforms are dead on arrival at this dysfunctional Republican-dominated Congress. What would you do differently that would give your proposals some chance of surviving?

4. The Safety Net: America’s safety net is threadbare. Aid to mothers with dependent children was slashed in “welfare reform.” Child care is unaffordable. Private pensions are rare, and our Social Security benefits are among the lowest of the industrial world. College, virtually free for the boomer generation, now buries millennials under unpayable debts. All this suggests we need not a bit more public spending, but a massive increase in public investment. Do you support that? If not, how do you address our public squalor? If so, how would you pay for it? Can we afford it?

What the mainstream media and CNN moderators have difficulty absorbing is that the center is unrealistic. Moderate policies – from Republicans or Democrats – won’t succeed in addressing the challenges we face. Fundamental reforms – the very reforms the mainstream media considers off the wall, like single-payer health care or breaking up the big banks – are necessary. Moderate reforms have little chance of breaking through Washington’s gridlock.

Politics has usual must change if anything is to be done. And that requires a powerful political movement – a political revolution if you will – that can take on big money, scour Washington’s corrupt stables, and drive structural reforms. Tonight’s debate isn’t likely to acknowledge this reality, but it would be wise not to scorn it.

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