Twenty hopeful nominees across four hours of debates stretched over two total nights ignited the Democratic party’s most important quest: finding a challenger to President Donald Trump for the 2020 elections.
Candidates touched on health care and economic inequality. They called out the dangers of giant corporations and mounting student debt. Though it’s only the beginning for next year’s presidential race, the first round of debates this week offered many Americans a primer of the hot-button items to come.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.) headlined the first round of discussions on Wednesday, set in Miami, while former Vice President Joe Biden took the main spotlight Thursday. Though all of the candidates are vying for the same ticket, not all were aligned on the issues — and further division within the Democratic party seems likely.
Five more debates are scheduled for this year, and there’s a chance that a few of the candidates won’t make it to the final stretch.
“Admittedly, this was the televised political equivalent of early-round March Madness, with more action still to come,” says Mark Hamrick, Bankrate’s senior economic analyst. “As the debate underscored, economic issues are important in this election, given escalating health care costs, income inequality and the toll of $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt.”
Here’s a breakdown of six economy and personal finance-related topics that emerged from the initial round of debates — all of which have implications for your wallet.
Inequality took a prominent spotlight during discussions Wednesday, with candidates pledging to make the economy work better for everyone, not just the wealthy, if they reach the Oval Office.
“Who is this economy really working for?” Warren asked during her opening remarks at the podium. “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. … When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy, that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple.”
To address these issues, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) highlighted plans to make community college free and to expand Pell grants. Julian Castro, former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, emphasized closing the wage gap and passing the Equal Rights Amendment, a modification to the constitution that would guarantee equal legal rights for all citizens regardless of sex. Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City pointed out that he’s been championing inequality on his home turf by raising minimum wage to $15 an hour and improving employee benefits, “by putting money back in the hands of working people.”
Those comments come at a time when the U.S. economy zeroes in on a big superlative: becoming the longest expansion on record. While both corporate profits and the stock market have soared, the pace of wage gains have been slowing in recent months. Average hourly earnings on an annual basis breached 3 percent for the first time in October and climbed as high as 3.4 percent in February. Wages, however, edged back down to 3.1 percent in May.
“This economy has got to work for everyone. And right now, we know it isn’t,” said Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX). “And it’s going to take all of us coming together to make sure that it does.”
Democrats in the first quarter of night one took swings at big business, with nearly every candidate appearing to align on the idea that corporate America has exacerbated the situation of inequality.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said large corporations have made it harder for small businesses to compete, directly calling out companies such as Halliburton and Amazon by explaining how they “pay nothing in taxes.” Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) brought up the wage disparity between CEOs and rank-and-file employees, saying, “It is not right that the CEO of McDonald’s makes 2,100 times more than the people slinging hash at McDonald’s.”
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), meanwhile, said General Motors’ decision to move its plant to Mexico “rippled throughout our community.” O’Rourke, after initially dodging the question, said he supported a 28 percent corporate tax rate.
Big technology companies such as Amazon have been hit with criticism in recent months, including after the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reported in February that the online retail giant paid nothing in federal taxes on its $11.2 billion in profits. In October 2018, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the online retail giant would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all employees, after coming under fire.
Warren has been a long critic of big business, pushing to break up big tech companies from Facebook to Google. Booker said during the debate that he “wouldn’t disagree” with her on those policies.
But the biggest clash of the night came on the health care front. After moderators with NBC News asked candidates whether they supported replacing private health insurance with a single government-run plan, only Warren and De Blasio raised their hands.
Known as “Medicare for All,” the bill was introduced by Sanders in 2017. The plan would give all Americans four years to transition into a government-run insurance package, leaving behind their private programs. Coverage would include hospital visits, primary care, medical devices, prescription drugs, vision and dental.
“I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke,” Warren said. “And one of the number-one reasons is the cost of health care, medical bills. And that’s not just for people who don’t have insurance. It’s for people who do have insurance.”
A 2019 research report from the Rand Corporation estimated that financing the program would cost $3.89 trillion. To pay for the program, Sanders has listed possible funding options such as taxing employers a 7.5 percent income-based premium and households a 4 percent income-based premium.
But the bill still has encountered its fair share of opponents, including from those on the stage that night. Rep. John Delaney (D-N.J.) says the legislation would take away Americans’ right of choice — “Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people?” said former Rep. John Delaney (D-N.J.). Klobuchar, on the other hand, said she was simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years.”
Sanders received the first question of the night on Thursday, giving him a chance to explain why he believes that we “have got to pass a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system.” But he quickly turned to a new proposal that’s stirred up quite a discussion: canceling the $1.6 trillion in student loan debt by taxing Wall Street.
“Education is the future of this country,” Sanders said. “We must make public colleges and universities tuition-free and eliminate student debt.”
The proposal, floated this week by Sanders’ campaign, would include a 0.5 percent fee on all stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on all bond trades and a 0.005 percent fee on all derivative trades. That, he asserts, would raise up to $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years.
Warren has proposed similar legislation, with up to $50,000 of debt relief for every American who makes under $100,000.
Buttigieg said he wanted to make college free for middle and lower-income students, but not for children of the wealthy: “The children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition. And while I want tuition costs to go down, I don’t think we can buy down every last penny for them.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Ca.) chimed in, saying, “This is the generation that’s going to be able to solve student loan debt. This generation is ready to lead.”
The word “tax” came up 32 times in Thursday’s debate, with the most concrete proposal coming from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Harris said she would propose changing the tax code, so every family making an income less than $100,000 receives a tax credit of up to $500 a month. On her first day in office, she also pledged to eliminate the Trump administration’s tax bill “that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations of America,” she said.
“Working families need support and need to be lifted up. And frankly, this economy is not working for working people,” Harris said. “For too long, the rules have been written in favor of the people who have the most and not in favor of the people who work the most.”
Sanders, however, was forced to dodge criticisms that his plans would increase taxes on the middle class — while also disputing fears that a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” may actually hand the re-election back to Trump.
“Yes, they will pay more in taxes, but less in health care for what they get,” Sanders said. “The last poll I saw had us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump because the American people understand that Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist.”
Universal basic income
But along the lines of tax proposals came some previously unexpressed ideas — this time from Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur with no previous political experience.
Yang supports giving every American $1,000 a month in cash through a program he dubs “freedom dividend.” Essentially, it’s a form of a universal basic income.
Moderators directly asked the potential candidate to elaborate on his ideas, specifically how he would choose to pay for the cost of it — estimated to be around $3.2 trillion.
To generate revenue, Yang said he would establish a value-added tax. That levy would increase incrementally depending on the product or service at each stage or production or distribution, making it difficult for big companies such as Amazon and Google to avoid paying duties.
Under his system, the government would charge a 10 percent value-added tax, while also raising taxes on top earners and polluters, according to Yang’s website.
“It’s difficult to do if you have companies like Amazon, trillion-dollar tech companies, paying literally zero in taxes while they’re closing 30 percent of our stores,” Yang said. “We need to put the American people in a position to benefit from all these innovations in other parts of the economy.”
Across both nights, Trump’s name was mentioned 68 times — with more than half of those mentions (or 41) coming in during night two.
Candidates made a point to boast that they’re unafraid to take on the chief executive — and fully capable of doing so. “Donald Trump wants us to fight him on his turf and his terms,” Booker said Wednesday. “We will beat him.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that she had “stood up to Trump more than any other senator in the U.S. Senate.”
“Democratic voters have signaled the most important quality in a candidate they’re looking for is the ability to defeat Trump,” Hamrick says. “That’s even if they have to give some ground on key issues. For now, though, the race is on to rise above the noisy crowd of fellow Democratic aspirants.”
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