Politics

The Five Best Ideas From the Democratic Debates

Democrats can win the mainstream with this agenda.

From center, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks while former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris look on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday in Miami.
From center, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks while former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris look on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday in Miami.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Are Democrats moving too far to the left? That’s what Bret Stephens, David Brooks, and other right-leaning pundits are saying after last week’s presidential debates. In some ways, I agree. But the dichotomy between left and right—the idea that you have to go one way or the other—has grown stale. The best course for Democrats, in elections and in government, is to develop a new agenda that synthesizes progressive values with conservative wisdom. They can start by adopting the best ideas from the debates. Here are some of them.

1. Medicare for all who want it. In each debate—one on Wednesday, the other on Thursday—NBC’s Lester Holt asked the candidates, “Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” Three of the top contenders—Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Kamala Harris of California—raised their hands. That’s foolish. Polls show most Americans oppose any system that would eliminate their current health insurance. Harris says she meant only that she would give up her own insurance. But the question was whether the candidates would “abolish” it, not withdraw from it. Harris also supports Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill, which explicitly makes it “unlawful” for “a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and former Texas Rep.
Beto O’Rourke offered a better approach. Buttigieg called it “Medicare for all who want it.” Instead of forcing everyone into Medicare, Buttigieg explained, “You make it available on the [Obamacare] exchanges. People can buy in. And then, if people like us are right—that that will be not only a more inclusive plan, but a more efficient plan than any of the corporate answers out there—then it will be a very natural glide path to the single-payer environment.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who supports the Sanders bill, made a similar point: that a government-run insurance plan, offered as an alternative to private plans, would “create competition with the insurers.” A system that allows private competition preserves freedom of choice and maintains market pressure on the government to satisfy consumers.

2. Healthy capitalism. Sanders has spent a lot of time in this campaign, as he did in 2016, defending socialism. It’s a losing and unnecessary battle. Democrats actually believe in capitalism. They just don’t like the ruthless, runaway version that has betrayed and antagonized working people. “There’s a big difference between capitalism on the one hand and greed on the other,” Gillibrand argued. “We want healthy capitalism. We don’t want corrupted capitalism.”

Healthy capitalism starts with stronger competition. When powerful companies aren’t regulated, the first thing they do is crush or buy out their competitors to escape market pressure. To preserve the market, the government has to constrain such behavior. “We have a serious problem in our country with corporate consolidation,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey explained in Wednesday’s debate. “Consumer prices are being raised by pharmaceutical companies that often have monopolistic holds on drugs.” Booker argued that the government must “check the corporate consolidation and let the free market work.” Warren agreed, noting that excessive consolidation “constrict[s] real innovation and growth.”

Healthy capitalism also requires a fairer distribution of profits. Stocks are flourishing, Harris observed, but wages aren’t. These two kinds of income are also taxed differently. O’Rourke proposed to “tax capital at the same rate that you tax ordinary income” by raising the corporate tax rate.

Democratic capitalism, unlike Democratic socialism, adheres to an ethic of personal responsibility and reward for work. In Thursday’s debate, former tech executive Andrew Yang advocated giving every adult a $1,000 monthly check from the government. But Harris outlined a different approach: need-based financial assistance through tax relief. “For every family that is making less than $100,000 a year, they will receive a tax credit [so] they can collect up to $500 a month,” said Harris. This policy, she proposed, would help such families “get through the end of the month with dignity.” Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, a businessman, sketched a series of proposals: “a doubling of the earned income tax credit, raising the minimum wage, and creating paid family leave.” These are modifications of capitalism, not rejections of it.

3. A hemispheric immigration plan. All the candidates denounced President Donald Trump’s inhumane border policies. But they failed to explain how, by decriminalizing illegal border crossings, they could maintain order and deter unauthorized entry. They were more persuasive when they broadened the discussion and addressed the migration crisis as, in Sanders’ words, a “hemispheric problem.” “Honduras, among other things, is a failing state. Massive corruption,” Sanders observed. “You’ve got gangs who are telling families that if a 10-year-old does not join that gang, that family is going to be killed.”

What the candidates agreed on, essentially, was a merger of foreign policy and immigration policy: coordinating foreign aid with political and economic reform to improve living conditions in Central America, thereby reducing the flow of migrants. Former Vice President Joe Biden accused Trump of aggravating the migration crisis by cutting aid to Central America. Booker called for “major investments in the Northern Triangle.” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary, proposed “a Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador so that people can find safety and opportunity at home instead of coming to the United States.” This line of argument plays to a Democratic strength—working collaboratively with other countries—and shows how Trump’s pugnacious treatment of our neighbors to the south has backfired. It also signals that Democrats are serious about controlling migration, not just protecting immigrants.

4. Environmental dividends. Several candidates were asked how they’d persuade Congress and the public to accept carbon taxes and other climate-change measures that are costly or inconvenient in the short term. Some said they would build in rewards and incentives. “All the economists agree that a carbon pricing mechanism works,” said Delaney, but “you can’t put a price on carbon, raise energy prices, and not give the money back to the American people.”

Buttigieg proposed “a carbon tax and dividend,” with money “rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion, so that most Americans are made more than whole.” This would include payments to “rural America,” he explained, in exchange for “soil management and other kind of investments.” O’Rourke offered a similar arrangement: “paying farmers for the environmental services that they want to provide” so we can “capture more carbon out of the air and keep more of it in the soil.”

5. Values, God, and country. Progressive politicians tend to shy away from religion, nationalism, and military language. That’s a mistake. It gives Republicans a free hand in defining faith and patriotism. The only Democrat in this presidential field who talks regularly about faith is Buttigieg. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” he observed in Thursday’s debate. “A party that associates itself with Christianity [but says] 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.”

Democrats can’t outdo Trump at bluster or military parades. But they can attack him from the right for siding with anti-American dictators against our government. Harris, a career prosecutor, has led the way in that attack. Trump “embraces Kim Jong-un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op,” she charged in Thursday’s debate. “He takes the word of the Russian president over the word of the American intelligence community when it comes to a threat to our democracy and our elections.” In a post-debate interview on MSNBC, Harris slammed Trump for taking “the word of a Saudi prince over the word of the American intelligence community” on the question of who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, “a journalist who has American credentials.”

All the Democratic candidates support abortion rights. But only one, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, has pointed out that by promoting contraception and preventing unintended pregnancies, Democrats have reduced the abortion rate. In Thursday’s debate and in speeches last month, Hickenlooper said his administration had reduced teenage abortions by nearly two-thirds, not by banning abortion but by providing long-acting reversible contraceptives to any woman who wants them. That message won’t satisfy people who think abortion is murder. But it could mollify millions of voters who believe that the procedure, while safe and legal, should also be rare.

It’s true that much of what was said on stage was dogmatic, tone-deaf, and self-destructive. But that’s only half the story. The other half is that through these debates, Democrats are beginning to articulate new ways of thinking about these problems and solving them. There’s nothing wrong with this party that can’t be cured by what’s right with it.