The third debate in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries took place last night at Texas Southern University, revealing major divergencies in policies between the ten candidates.
More important than policy though, and what the delegates will be looking for when casting their votes, is the candidate likeliest to pose a real threat to Donald Trump in 2020’s presidential election debates.
Current polls from Reuters / Ipsos, as of Wednesday, have 22% approval ratings for former Vice President Joe Biden, 16% for Senator Bernie Sanders, and 11% for Senator Elizabeth Warren. The majority of polls have Biden in the lead, and Sanders and Warren neck and neck.
By June 2020 however the number of Democratic presidential nominees will have dwindled down to just two candidates. At that point the race will have become a battle for the soul of the party, as progressives, like Sanders and Warren, and moderates like Biden, will face off head to head.
At the moment the two progressive Senators policies are closely aligned. So far, they have chosen not to attack each other on policy during the debates, preferring to be ideological allies while taking jabs at Biden. But this cosy relationship can only last so long.
As the clock counts down to the final candidates, the two progressive Senators may opt to strengthen their alliance further on the basis of whichever candidate between them is most likely to come out on top.
Warren and Sanders could decide to become running mates, with one or the other taking on the role of Vice President. To do so though may run the risk of turning off moderate voters, who may only be able to stomach the prospect of one progressive candidate in high office, rather than two.
The Democratic National Committee though may in the end favour a strong progressive alternative to the current right-wing administration in the White House, regarding it as the best chance they have if they want to win. Donald Trump after-all won his presidency from voters, not by attempting to appeal to the centre, but rather by his whole-hearted commitment to hard lined Republican values.
Joe Biden on the other hand garners his strength from the centre ground -this was one of the reasons Barrack Obama, then regarded as a progressive, selected him as his VP.
His association with the Obama presidency though, while undoubtedly one of his greatest playing cards, may also be something which turns voters off in the same way it appeared to do so for Hilary Clinton in 2016.
The DNC more than anything else will want a candidate who can take on Donald Trump in a head to head debate.
Bernie Sanders fiery temperament certainly gives him an edge which one could easily imagine being used during a presidential debate to disquiet his opponent, at least temporarily. The two at loggerheads would at least make for interesting TV.
Bernie Sanders 2016, taken by Shelly Prevost, available at Flickr
Elizabeth Warren, though fiery and passionate herself, has an approach more reminiscent of Hilary Clinton which may disadvantage her in the eyes of the DNC. Not having served in high office beyond the Senate however, she does not have the same stains of past administrations which proved to be so difficult for Clinton to disassociate herself from.
Biden’s approach in a presidential debate would probably be different from both of the progressive Senators. Although he has fumbled his sentences and words several times during these Democratic primaries, his strategy of grounding arguments and policies towards realistic, achievable goals, gives him broader appeal than either Sanders or Warren.
Biden’s strategy emphasises the need for bi-partisan cooperation in order to achieve goals, which certainly sets apart from the current White House administration who preside over a House wholly divided.
But what were some of the key issues discussed at last nights debate, and what do they reveal about the ten Democratic candidate’s policy positions?
Healthcare was discussed early on, and it perhaps more than any other issue, highlighted the differences between progressives and moderates in the party. While all ten candidates agreed the healthcare system needed to be reformed, they disagreed on how this should be achieved.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favour rolling out Medicare to cover all Americans, which in the process would eliminate coverage from private medical insurance for all, without their consent.
Moderate candidates who take a slightly different position were quick to voice their opposition to the prospect of completely getting rid of private insurance as an option, as not all American families they argue are wholly dissatisfied with their currant coverage.
A Gallup poll from Dec 2018 which found that a majority of Americans were happy with their current healthcare plan does suggest that a Medicare for all policy is likely to prove less popular across the country than the progressive candidates may hope. However, that same poll did also find that Americans were dissatisfied with the state of Healthcare nationally on the whole.
Senator Amy Klobuchar took the first jab at Sanders on this issue, noting that “while Bernie wrote [the 2019 ‘Medicare for All’ bill], I read the bill”, going on to highlight that if the bill were passed it would automatically remove private health insurance plans for 149 million Americans, whether they wanted it to or not.
Joe Biden, the least progressive on the issue of healthcare of the ten candidates, would prefer to focus on expanding Obamacare and making it more accessible and affordable for all Americans to buy into.
Biden’s position on healthcare provided one of the more memorable moments of the night, where Julián Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, and the lowest polling candidate, accused the former Vice President of changing his policy from two minutes earlier.
The issue arose around whether Americans would have to “buy in” to access Obamacare or not, but the main takeaway from the attack by Castro was that he appeared to question Mr Biden’s mental facilities, asking “are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”, which has generally been looked at as an attack on the 76-year-old candidates age and fitness for office.
Condemnations followed from what was surely a political miscalculation by Castro.
The other big issue of the night was gun control, with all candidates condemning what they regard as President Trump inflammatory rhetoric which has encouraged political and social divisions across America, which as a consequence, they equate with having partially inspired mass shooters.
The most emotionally charged response on the issue came from former House Representative Beto O’Rourke, who also once served as Major of El Paso, which last August experienced a deadly mass shooting. In response to questions about gun control, he was unwavering on his position that he was determined to remove assault weapon ownership rights from the public, “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47”.
All the candidates generally have similar positions on gun control, favouring background checks and bans on assault weapon ownership. But they differ in how they will roll out such policies.
Biden, attempting to bring the rhetoric on the issue down to earth, criticised other candidates, like former Attorney General of California Kamala Harris, who said she would rely on executive orders to pass legislation on gun control. Biden railed against the use of executive orders on the basis that any legislative changes they brought about could easily be reversed by future administrations. He instead argued that the most effect way to make long term change is through bipartisan cooperation.
From the progressive camp both Sanders and Warren shifted focus in the issue, attacking rampant corruption in Congress from powerful lobbyists like the NRA, which they regard as being the root cause of legislation to tackle gun control consistently failing to pass both Houses.
It is still early days in the Democratic Party presidential campaign. Some of the other candidates who currently garner less attention than the three frontrunners may in time prove themselves to be a convincing alternative. President Obama afterall was behind Hillary Clinton in the polls by this same stage in 2008 Democratic primaries.
Cover Photo: White House, taken by Diego Cambiaso, available at Flickr