2020 US Presidential Debates: Night 2

American citizens have long prided themselves on presidents who project strength, providing steady leadership at home and for the globe with moral authority. President Donald Trump faces a large field of opponents: one Republican opponent, former Governor Bill Weld; 24 Democratic candidates; and some independents. The second night of debate for the US 2020 presidential race featured 10 Democratic candidates, including frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden. Health care, including high costs and limited access, dominated the discussion. The Democratic candidates generally agree on the issues, including urgent need to address climate change, and they support improving ties with US allies. Yet the debate over two nights highlighted a paradox – despite many US failures on issues like economic inequality or health care, people from other countries hope to make the United States their home. None of the Democratic candidates offered a convincing explanation for how they might break the gridlock with Republicans that paralyzes the United States. – YaleGlobal

2020 US Presidential Debates: Night 2

Domestic issues like health care dominated the second debate of the 2020 US presidential race, and newcomers targeted frontrunner Joe Biden
Kashif Ahmed
Friday, June 28, 2019

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT: The more anticipated of the two Democratic debates featured current frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders, the main rival to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s main rival, with eight other candidates aggressively making their cases. Congressman Eric Swalwell emphasized the generational divide by repeating Biden’s call from three decades ago: “it's time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.”

The night’s most personal and viral exchange highlighted an ongoing quandary over when the US federal government should supplant state and local rules. Senator Kamala Harris confronted Biden on recent remarks regarding his working relationship with segregationist politicians as well as a compromise on school bussing: "there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.” Biden defended his compromise agreement from the 1970s that allowed city councils to continue segregation practices well beyond a Supreme Court ruling.  Conflict over federal versus state rights confounds action on abortion, climate change, immigration, gun control and health care, all covered by the debate.

Harris continued to question Biden’s legacy, stating she did not agree with the 3 million deportations that took place under the Obama presidency, more than any other administration in history. Like other candidates, she proposed extending protections for the so-called Dreamers brought to the country as children as well as immigrant veterans who served in the US military. She also vowed to launch a meaningful process for reviewing asylum claims, describing migrants' desperation, undertaking a grueling journey from Central America to the US border.  

The Democratic candidates reject the administration’s handling of immigration, especially family separations, refusal to hear asylum claims and lengthy detentions of young children in terrible conditions. Candidates urged addressing root causes of the Central American refugee crisis. “What we have got to do on day one is invite the presidents and the leadership of Central America and Mexico together,” Sanders noted. “This is a hemispheric problem.” Author Marianne Williamson argued US interventions in Central America decades ago contributed to poor governance and poverty. She described child separations as “kidnapping” and “collective child abuse.”  Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pointed out that the Republican Party “likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” and “for a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.” Former Governor John Hickenlooper noted, “The world is judging us.”

Every candidate raised his or her hand to a question on who would provide health care to undocumented immigrants in the United States. Buttigieg contended, “our country is healthier when everyone is healthier.” Biden agreed, noting such coverage is humane and makes economic sense, with immigrants contributing labor and taxes that support the nation’s Social Security retirement program.

Health care, both costs and access, dominated the second debate, replacing inequality as the lead topic during the first night. When asked the same question from the previous debate about abolishing their own private health care insurance, Harris and Sanders raised their hands. Other candidates expressed support for a public option. Sanders stressed that the United States could draw from allies’ experiences despite the mixed success of attempts in California, Vermont, and New York: “I find it hard to believe that every other major country on Earth, including my neighbor 50 miles north of me, Canada, somehow has figured out a way to provide health care to every man, woman, and child, and in most cases, they're spending 50 percent per capita what we are spending.” Senator Michael Bennet cautioned that the US population is almost ten times larger than Canada’s. Sanders concluded that the function of the US system is to provide profits for the insurance industry. The candidates expressed agreement on the need to address the concentration of power of the insurance industry and the nation's top 1 percent. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand calling to “restore the power of our democracy into the hands of the voters,” rather than billionaires who lobby against public programs. Author Marianne Williamson pointed out chemical, environmental and food policies also influence American health.

Democrats agree swift action is required to stem climate change, or what Harris calls climate crisis: “It represents an existential threat to us as a species. And the fact that we have a president of the United States who has embraced science fiction over science fact will be to our collective peril.”   Candidates support the United States rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. Joe Biden often invoked his record, decrying moderator Chuck Todd’s statement that former President Barack Obama “couldn’t get climate change done” despite the historic Paris agreement.

Biden’s opponents criticized his vote supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the conclusion of the debate, Biden claimed responsibility for US troop withdrawal from Iraq and affirmed ending involvement in Afghanistan. Sanders pointed to his own efforts to end US support of the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

The candidates differed on China and trade conflicts. Bennet and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were firm that Russia represents a greater geopolitical threat, with Yang noting “the tariffs and the trade war are just punishing businesses and producers and workers on both sides.” Bennet said the United States must “mobilize the entire rest of the world, who all have a shared interest in pushing back on China's mercantilist trade policies." Buttigieg accused China of “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.”

Hickenlooper tried to distinguish himself by opposing socialism – even though most economies combine elements of socialism and capitalism, as described by Investopedia. Bennet and Hickenlooper proposed pragmatism, drawing from their experiences in Colorado with its mix of conservative and liberal voters. Yang and Williamson spoke less than other candidates, but their non-traditional approaches contributed to spikes in online interest. Williamson spoke of bringing love into politics, and Yang, founder of Venture for America, detailed his $1,000 per-month universal basic income plan dubbed the “Freedom Dividend” on a national stage.

The US economy’s reliance on climbing debt was mentioned only briefly. Sanders was asked how he would pay for free college and health care, and Harris countered: “where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in this country? Contributing at least $1 trillion to the debt of America, which middle-class families will pay for one way or another.”

All candidates expressed eagerness to improve relationships with US allies. Biden suggested that requires “people who know how to corral the world.” As during the first debate, with so many candidates, all could not comment on each topic. Total response time ranged from about 3 to 15 minutes

Each candidate was asked about the first relationship he or she would reset as president:

Marianne Williamson, European Leaders and Western Alliance

John Hickenlooper, China

Andrew Yang, China

Pete Buttigieg, hard to predict but the entire world

Joe Biden, NATO

Bernie Sanders, trust with the United Nations

Kamala Harris, NATO

Kirsten Gillibrand, Iran

Michael Bennet, European allies and Latin American countries for refugee crisis

Eric Swalwell, break with Russia, reset NATO

Overall, the 20 candidates and debate spanning two nights, gave priority to the US economy, health care and improving US relationships with allies. The range of personalities made for a different story, though,  and voters must decide which approach will bring policies to fruition.  

Read a transcript of the debate from NBC News.

Kashif Ahmed is a MacMillan Center fellow and YaleGlobal editorial assistant, is a recent graduate from McGill University. He majored in International Development Studies and has lived in both Peru and Uganda.

Copyright © YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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