This is the paradox of presidential debates. They’re simultaneously awful — too short, not substantive enough, too distracted by trivia — and the best opportunity most voters have to actually get a look at the candidates.
So let’s ask: If you’re a voter trying to figure out not just which candidate to back but also what this election is really about, what would you have learned? Actually, quite a bit:
The Democrats care a lot about inequality. This was the most pervasive theme of the evening. “Who is this economy working for?” asked Elizabeth Warren. “We know that not everyone is sharing in this prosperity,” said Amy Klobuchar. We have “an economy that is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest,” said Beto O’Rourke. Cory Booker noted that “dignity is being stripped from labor, and we have people that work full-time jobs and still can’t make a living wage.”
There are some differences in exactly how the candidates would address that problem, but there is little doubt that addressing inequality from both ends — attacking corporate power and increasing taxes on the wealthy on one hand, and raising wages and creating more robust social supports on the other — will be an important focus of the next Democratic presidency.
Health care is coming into focus. While all the Democratic candidates want to increase access to health care (in stark contrast with President Trump, who would take it away from as many people as possible), the candidates had a chance to explain where they differ on how to get to universal coverage.
On Wednesday, Warren said she supports Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all approach, explaining that insurance companies exist “to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible.” In contrast, Amy Klobuchar explained her support for a public option — in which anyone could get on Medicare or Medicaid if they wanted but wouldn’t be required to — by expressing concern “about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years.”
Other candidates essentially lined up behind one or the other approach: Bill de Blasio and Tulsi Gabbard for Medicare-for-all, and the rest for a voluntary public option. One of those two basic ideas will be the Democratic position come next year.
The Democrats are adamant in their support of abortion rights. It’s entirely possible that by the time Americans vote next November, the Supreme Court will have overturned Roe v. Wade. The Democrats made clear their support for abortion rights, including allowing Medicaid to pay for abortions.
“I believe in reproductive justice,” said Julián Castro, explaining why it’s important to make sure poor women have access to the procedure. Warren added that she wants a federal law guaranteeing abortion rights everywhere in the country.
The Democrats want to roll back Trump’s punitive immigration policies and find long-term solutions. Castro argued that “we need a Marshall Plan" for the Northern Triangle countries, so people don’t have to migrate, and argued for decriminalizing border-crossing so people who did so will only face immigration court, a position Tim Ryan supported. This proposal has just entered the national debate.
But the most fundamental divide with Trump was articulated by Bill de Blasio: “American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenges, for all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind or feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you.”
The Democrats don’t have real ideas for dealing with a GOP-led Senate. No sane person believes that if Mitch McConnell is still majority leader in 2021 he will allow a Democratic president to do much of anything. The candidates were asked what they’d do in that situation, and though they talked about building public pressure on Republicans and eliminating the filibuster, no one had any real ideas about what to do.
The Democrats want to take action on climate change. While the discussion of this issue didn’t have the depth one might have desired, if nothing else it was clear that all the candidates believe it’s an urgent problem that requires immediate action, whether that’s through carbon pricing, regulations on fossil fuels, new investments in green energy or some combination thereof.
There was more — Iran, Afghanistan, racial justice, the potential prosecution of Trump — but for many people it was surely hard to follow as candidates desperately tried to say what they could in the absurdly limited time they had.
Which highlights the fundamental disconnect about this exercise: These debates have almost nothing to do with what a president does. Dealing with a foreign crisis or getting legislation passed or effectively managing the sprawling federal government does not require the ability to get off a clever quip or bring home a moving closing statement in 45 seconds.
Nevertheless, these debates are the best chance most voters will have to figure out what this party and these candidates actually want to do. And this one did help.