The third debate among candidates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination is tonight at 8 p.m. (scroll down for information on where and how to watch, who is participating, who was excluded, and more). The field has been trimmed to 10 candidates and a persistent 10-point gap has opened up between the three front-runners and everyone else. With time before the primaries growing shorter and the list of dropout candidates growing longer, there's every reason to expect the political promises to get a lot more desperate, and the personal attacks much uglier.
As an independent libertarian who believes in maximal personal and economic freedom, high levels of immigration and free trade, and non-interventionist foreign policy blended with cultural soft power and diplomacy, my vote is up for grabs. Though I typically vote for the Libertarian Party candidate, I have voted Democratic in the past (once, for Walter Mondale in 1984) and could see doing so again under the right circumstances. So I'll be watching tonight with a volatile mix of deep interest, hope, dread, and boredom.
More specifically (and in ascending order of importance), I'll be watching for three things: Andrew Yang's rumored big stunt, Joe Biden's overall ability to comport himself, and whether anyone on stage will posit any meaningful limits to what the government can do to regiment virtually all aspects of our lives. The last is especially important in the wake of last week's CNN's Climate Town Hall, when all the candidates effectively agreed that environmental apocalypse had to be stopped by any means necessary.
3. What is Andrew Yang's big stunt? The campaign manager for the avuncular tech entrepreneur and monomaniacal champion of a universal basic income has promised that his candidate will do "something no presidential candidate has never done before in history." Just what the hell that might mean is anyone's guess, but it's worth tuning in for.
Yang has zero chance of becoming the Democratic nominee, but his enthusiasm, intensity, and basic honesty and decency are attractive qualities. With a nod toward his progressive rivals Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), he is avowedly not a socialist. It is troubling that belief in free enterprise is deeply contested in today's Democratic Party, but Yang rarely fails to talk up the benefits of capitalism, especially its ability to produce lots and lots of stuff.
That said, his fears about automation leading to a jobless future are simply wrong, and his support for Medicare for All should worry any of us who think the already-immensely regulated and government-financed healthcare system in the United States needs more free market forces in it, not fewer. His claim that his plan to give all Americans $1,000 a month would "permanently grow the economy by 12.56 to 13.10 percent" doesn't pass the smell test either, even as it's nice to hear someone on the Democratic side talk about growing the economy rather than merely redistributing existing wealth.
2. Can Joe Biden (literally) keep it together? The longtime former senator and former vice president has been the frontrunner since announcing his candidacy. It's easy to see why: He's got great name recognition and eight years as Barack Obama's second banana helped launder his reputation as a gaffe-prone joke.
It's important to underscore that Biden's documented history of bizarre plagiarism and racist-seeming comments are the least-troubling aspects of his decades in power. He's an unreconstructed drug warrior (who is still dragging his feet on saying he's OK with marijuana legalization) and is far more hawkish than the other Democrats or President Donald Trump. That is to say, his actual policy preferences over the years are bad news from a libertarian perspective.
Despite his frontrunner status, his 2020 campaign in many ways seems to be a reboot of Hillary Clinton's failed bid four years ago. He is the establishment candidate, the ultimate insider who seems a little too smug and entitled. His advanced age—he's 76—becomes more and more of an issue every time he confuses web addresses and text messages or seems to believe Margaret Thatcher is still prime minister of Great Britain. During last week's CNN event, one of his eyes turned red from an apparent blood vessel popping. That wouldn't be a good look in relative youngsters such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) or South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. In an old man such as Biden, having body parts that "are now generating their own gaffes" is a major problem. His slow-out-of-the-blocks performances in the first two debates suggest he's either unwilling or unable to sustain the energy needed to run for president, much less run the country if elected.
Biden's main selling point is a feeling that he is the one Democrat who is centrist enough to beat Donald Trump. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this year, the president begged the Democrats to let him run against the Green New Deal and the new "socialism" being espoused by the like of Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.). Even though he was a major player in an administration that increased the size, scope, and spending of the federal government, Biden is the only Democrat who can easily push back against the notion that his party is going pink. But all of that is for naught if his body breaks down again during a three-hour debate, or if he goes full Admiral Stockdale or fails to come out swinging and with sustained stamina. It might be Biden's nomination to lose so far, but he's always one mental or physical screw-up away from joke status.
1. Will anyone here limit the federal government? The Yang and Biden subplots will make tonight's debate more interesting but they are indeed minor diversions from more serious matters. The major question for me—and I suspect for many of the large number of voters who are taking the 2020 election much more seriously than they did the 2016 race at the same point in time—is whether any Democratic candidate will speak about limiting the power of the federal government. To date, the Democratic candidates have proposed massive expansion after massive expansion.
There's Medicare for All, a vague term that means different things to different candidates but always include tons more spending of tax dollars and regulations emanating from Washington. In the more fully fleshed-out versions by people such as Sanders, it means getting rid of private health care altogether, something favored by only about 10 percent of us. Then there are the plans for student-loan forgiveness, free college for everyone, job guarantees, reparations for slavery, and for taxes paid by same-sex couples who couldn't file 1040s as married, and on and on.
At the Climate Town Hall, Elizabeth Warren waved away a question about whether she would regulate what sorts of light bulbs she would let people buy if she became president. That's exactly the sort of small, divisive thing the energy companies want us to fight about, she said before going off on an error-riddled tear about how "three industries are responsible for 70 percent of carbon pollution" and how she would force them (which means us as consumers) to be more responsible. She's also in favor of breaking up big tech companies. Warren and all the other candidates were more than ready to dictate more and more decisions we get to make in our daily lives. Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.), for instance, said we should ban plastic straws before talking about how bad paper straws were. Is there any space for a Democratic candidate who won't limit what you get to do in the name of the environment, economic fairness, or demographic equality?
All the Democrats on tonight's stage are making a variation on the same pitch: The American economy is fundamentally broken, the system is rigged against you, you deserve better, and I will make everything all right. In an age of anxiety, resentment, and fear—all of which are being stoked by Donald Trump—that sort of paternalism will appeal to many people, perhaps even enough to put a Democrat in the White House.
Yet there are also signs that rank-and-file Democrats are much less progressive than party activists or presidential candidates. African-American Democrats, a key group for the party, tend to be less left-wing than the party leadership on many issues and polls consistently show that "moderates and conservatives" make up about 50 percent of Democrats while only about 19 percent consider themselves "very liberal."
There's no question that the folks up on stage tonight—even relative centrists such as Joe Biden—are more liberal than the party they might up end representing in the presidential race. Even in a moment when an appetite for bigger government is at a 68-year high, the grand plans of this crop of candidates may well be too much for voters in 2020.
Tonight's Democratic Debate is being hosted by ABC News and Univision from Houston. It runs from 8 p.m. ET until 11 p.m. ET and includes the following candidates:
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
- South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg
- Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
- California Sen. Kamala Harris
- Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
- Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke
- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
- Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
For more details on format and where to watch, go here.