A riot police officer raises a warning flag as riot police try to disperse anti-extradition-bill protesters with tear gas in Hong Kong on Tuesday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Rather than grill the Democratic presidential contenders on the minutiae of their health-care plans (which won’t become law anyway), the next batch of debate moderators — and, before that, reporters and voters on the campaign trail — needs to start pressing the contenders to respond to a wave of financial and geo-political crises, many created by President Trump.

The stock market dropped 800 points on Wednesday. It’s time to ask Democrats: What is the cause of the volatility? How would they anticipate a possible recession if they were in office now, and how would they respond if they arrived in office in 2021 with the economy in the doldrums?

The trade war is proving disastrous, both upsetting our markets and inflicting pain on our farmers while the slowdown in China’s economy is boomeranging on allies such as Germany. How would Democrats end the trade war and get protection for theft of our intellectual property, a genuine concern for the United States? Does this episode suggest we need to redraft tariff laws to give Congress a bigger check on the executive (e.g., narrow or do away with the national security justification, which Trump has abused)?

Our Iran policy is a total mess. Backing out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a. the Iran deal, and applying maximum pressure to Iran was supposed to drive Iran back to the bargaining table. That didn’t happen, and our allies didn’t join us in exiting the deal.

The administration is now ineffectively and desperately trying to drag Iran to the table. “For several months, the United States has been actively attempting to pass messages, via allies, to the Iranians in an effort to move closer to beginning formal diplomatic talks with Tehran,” the Daily Beast reports. “However, diverging opinions within the Trump administration are foiling the nascent diplomatic process, according to two current U.S. officials and another source with direct knowledge of the matter. The dissent is straining foreign intermediaries who are working as go-betweens between Washington and Tehran. They say they are fed up with receiving mixed messages from Donald Trump’s team.”

The Democratic candidates all disapproved of Trump’s exit from the JCPOA, but what now? How do they repair the rift with allies and negotiate our way back into the deal with necessary changes? It’s well and good to say “Trump broke the Iran policy,” but as president they would have to address the world as is and we know precious little about their thinking and concrete plans for addressing this and other crises.

Then there is China’s rising conflict with Hong Kong. In one of his more stupid statements, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross essentially threw Hong Kong under the bus. He said this was an “internal” matter (a talking point for China and justification for repression), and asked, “What would we do, invade Hong Kong?” (If anyone in the Obama administration had said anything remotely like that, Republicans would have had a collective aneurysm.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sounded presidential (someone has to) when she issued a statement, which read in part:

For ten weeks now, the people of Hong Kong have inspired the world with the courage and determination with which they are fighting for the freedom, justice and true autonomy that they were promised. The Chief Executive and Legislative Council must finally, fully meet the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Hong Kong people, as guaranteed under “One Country, Two Systems,” starting by completely and immediately withdrawing the dangerous extradition bill, investigating and ending police violence and granting universal suffrage.

The escalating violence and use of force perpetrated against the Hong Kong protestors is extremely alarming. The pro-Beijing Chief Executive and the Hong Kong police forces must immediately cease the aggression and abuse being perpetrated against their own people.

She then practically begged Trump to step it up. She noted the bipartisan support for Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations and added, "We urge President Trump to walk away from his recent statements, which invite miscalculation, and to work to advance peace, justice and democracy in Hong Kong. … If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out elsewhere.” Well, that’s pretty much shot already.

In a similar vein, Freedom House issued a written statement, which read in part, “As the people of Hong Kong mount a movement to defend their freedoms, they deserve strong support from the United States and other democracies. The U.S. government must stand by those seeking their fundamental freedoms and demand that the Chinese government refrain from military intervention in Hong Kong. We have deep concern that China has been undermining freedom since taking over Hong Kong in 1997." The statement noted that "Freedom House has documented a clear drop in political rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong since 2009.”

Back to the Democratic presidential candidates. What would they be saying? How do they answer Ross’s remark that we can’t very well invade?

Wherever you look around the globe — China, North Korea, the European Union, Afghanistan — there is uncertainty and instability because Trump is a feckless, unreliable leader without the ability to understand events, let alone address them. If they do not raise these issues on their own (and why aren’t they?), the Democratic presidential contenders need to show what a competent, informed and principled chief executive would say and do. It’s one of the best ways for determining who’s ready for the job.

Read more:

Hana Meihan Davis: In Hong Kong, calls for democracy are written on the walls. Literally.

David Ignatius: Democrats need to stop running scared on foreign policy

Jennifer Rubin: Trump policies are increasingly incoherent — and Democrats should point it out more frequently

Josh Rogin: 2020 Democrats must run on foreign policy, not away from it

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The Democratic differences on foreign policy that no one’s talking about