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‘Get down to the real business’: Debates kick off clash of ideas

A sign outside the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County promotes the upcoming Democratic presidential debates. | Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

2020 Elections

The Democratic presidential candidates don’t all think alike. Here’s how they plan to stand out from the field.

The progressive group Indivisible tried something almost quaint last week, just after raucous clashes about the party’s “corporate wing” and engaging with segregationists: It circulated a “debate-watching kit” informing members of candidates’ positions on key issues.

Even the best-informed activists could be forgiven for needing it.

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For months, the Democratic primary has been defined by top-tier contenders who broadly agree on most Democratic policy priorities — and by an electorate less interested in what those candidates believe than whether he or she can defeat President Donald Trump. “The bottom line is first and most importantly, who in this race can beat Trump, and policy, in poll after poll, has taken a back seat to that,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist.

But that approach is starting to evolve as 20 of the 23 main Democratic candidates head into their first debate this week.

Policy disputes are rearing up in fits and starts — a feud over taxes and Medicare for All, bursts of attention surrounding immigration, big tech and the voting rights of felons. In recent weeks, Democrats have released a barrage of proposals on issues ranging from climate change and immigration to housing and electoral reforms.

Now, with the first round of presidential debates arriving Wednesday and Thursday in Miami, a conflict of ideas is in the making. Its emergence is likely to be gradual, fully realized only after the sprawling field of Democrats begins to winnow. And points of difference are likely to be nuanced. But to policy-minded Democrats, the looming season of debates carries the prospect of a significant turn to a more rigorous, intellectually demanding stage of the campaign.

Early in the campaign, said New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, an influential figure in the state’s primary politics, “Everybody’s here, they’re just running around — ‘Oh, he called me,’ ‘They’re asking for my support,’ ‘They want me to do a party at the house.’”

But on policy details, he said the candidates will soon “get down to the real business. It’s going to happen.”

For a comprehensive look at more than 50 issues that have emerged in the Democratic primary — and where candidates agree or disagree — POLITICO on Monday launched “2020: The Issues,” tracking the ideas at the center of major policy debates evolving in this primary election cycle.

Here are three of the major points of contrast to watch:

Medicare for All

Bernie Sanders’ recent eruption at what he called the “corporate wing of the Democratic Party” was hardly a departure for the independent senator from Vermont, who spent the better part of the 2016 presidential primary feuding with establishment Democrats while popularizing Medicare for All.

But it was a reminder of lingering tensions surrounding the issue, after a POLITICO report that centrist Democrats were becoming increasingly comfortable with Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a preferable nominee to Sanders.

“They know our progressive agenda of Medicare for All, breaking up big banks, taking on drug companies and raising wages is the real threat to the billionaire class,” Sanders said on Twitter.

In fact, much of the Democratic presidential field now supports the idea of a universal, government-run health insurance plan. Warren — along with Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — co-sponsored Medicare for All legislation in the Senate.

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But aside from Sanders, many candidates supporting Medicare for All also support more moderate plans. Harris, for example, stirred controversy when she said at a CNN town hall that she would support eliminating the health insurance industry in order to achieve Medicare for All, while also supporting less far-reaching bills.

Moreover, about half the candidates have expressly opposed Medicare for All, instead supporting plans that would allow people to keep their private insurance while expanding government options.

“If you really drill into the details … as far as the candidates, no one agrees on what Medicare for All means,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of Iowa’s Polk County Democrats. “If you drill them down to what they’re all asking for, it’s basically more health coverage, universal health coverage.”

Now, he said, “the nuances are starting to come out.”

Climate change

Long relegated to a backwater in presidential campaigns, polls show climate change has become a top issue for Democratic voters. Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, among other contenders, have released substantial climate change plans, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made it the singular focus of his campaign.

In addition, nearly all of the major Democratic presidential contenders have called for the United States to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and have voiced support for tenets of the Green New Deal.

But climate activists pushing unsuccessfully for a climate-specific presidential debate are prodding debate moderators to force candidates to answer more substantive questions about how, exactly, they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and disagreements on issues ranging from hydraulic fracturing and nuclear power to carbon pricing to a ban on gasoline-powered cars.

“I think part of the answer is that we are going to at least have the beginnings of policy discussions at the debates,” said RL Miller, founder of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote. “I do think that the debates are going to be one of the first places where the policy differences begin to emerge, because everybody who gets up to that high level of presidential politics knows that it doesn’t work when you say, ‘Yes, I totally agree with my opponents.’”

Miller said she has recently encountered “quite a lot” of Democrats “who thought that there was nothing to debate on climate because all the candidates agree.”

“And then I wept,” she said. “They all agree that climate change is real, and they all agree that we should return to the Paris agreement. But there’s so much beyond that where they don’t agree.”

Taxes and income inequality

Despite broad agreement among Democrats about the significance of income inequality in America, there is disagreement about how to address it — and how to pay for it.

Many candidates want to roll back Trump-era cuts to the corporate income tax, and at least half a dozen candidates have proposed increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.

Warren has proposed an “ultra-millionaire tax” that would help fund universal childcare and relieve student loan debt, while Sanders has also proposed higher taxes on the wealthy and wants to establish a federal jobs guarantee. Harris has proposed a $ 6,000 tax break for families earning up to $ 100,000 annually.

Longshot Andrew Yang, meanwhile, has made the first debate, and he is widely expected to tout his signature proposal for a universal basic income for all Americans.

For Democratic voters, said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008, “they’re going to like Medicare for All, they’re going to like free college tuition, but they’re going to want to know how it will be paid.”

That discussion, he said, “will show up later.”

“This is where I think negative personal attacks will not work, but policy difference attacks will work,” he said. “The main criterion is electability. But right behind that will be, ‘Be serious about your policy position, whatever it may be.’ … I just think Democratic voters are wanting a little more substance than food fights.”

— Alice Miranda Ollstein, Zachary Warmbrodt, Matt Daily, Brian Faler, Aaron Lorenzo and Bernie Becker contributed to this report.

More Coverage: The most comprehensive guide to the issues shaping the 2020 Democratic primary

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