The focus reflects, in part, the lessons of the 2018 midterm elections, when Democratic congressional candidates in swing districts successfully emphasized economic disparities and health-care overhauls rather than focus on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But Democrats’ focus on pocketbook issues also reflects conflicting partisan views of the economy. Trump says the economy is strong, pointing to historically low unemployment and a highflying stock market. No U.S. president has lost reelection when the unemployment rate was below 7.4 percent; it currently is below 4 percent.
Trump’s approval numbers on handling the economy also remain strong, and his campaign has said the economy — including relatively strong economic growth and jobs numbers — is an asset for a president mired in scandal.
“We as Democrats need to fight for a just taxation system,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said at the debate. “But as I travel around the country, we Democrats also have to talk about how to grow wealth as well.”
“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump,” because doing so will cost Democrats the 2020 election, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) described their plans to mandate paid family leave, with Harris saying she would guarantee millions of new parents six months of paid time off work. The United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid family leave to new parents.
To pay for her plan, Harris would implement new payroll taxes on employers and employees. Klobuchar’s plan would provide three months of paid leave; she has co-sponsored Senate legislation that has a similar financing mechanism as Harris.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pitched her housing plan to create millions of new affordable homes by beefing up federal subsidies, paid for by increasing the estate tax, as well as rewarding local governments for relaxing strict zoning laws that have prevented developers from expanding the supply of housing. Despite low unemployment, homelessness has risen in the last two years.
Booker, while breaking with Warren on the wealth tax, discussed the need to tax capital gains at the same rate as income. The returns on stocks and dividends are taxed at up to 20 percent, which means wealthy people who earn their fortunes on the stock market pay far less in taxes than they would if they were paying the top income tax rate of 37 percent.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang pitched his plan for universal prekindergarten, extending the public education system for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a policy supported by most of his Democratic rivals.
To be sure, the Democratic presidential candidates did strongly condemn Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, as described in the House impeachment inquiry. Harris called Trump a “criminal.”
The candidates also may have talked less about impeachment because they are largely in agreement on that issue but have important divisions on economic issues, noted Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
With the exception of Klobuchar and perhaps an implicit reference to it by former vice president Joe Biden, Ukraine did not surface in the candidates’ closing statements.
Klobuchar began her pitch about the Ukraine investigation by acknowledging the centrality of economic policy issues in the race.
This election “is an economic check on this president” on issues such as education and health care, Klobuchar said. “But this is also a patriotism check, a value check, a decency check.”