Debates 2020

The Democratic Debates So Far: Nearly 300 Questions, but None About the National Debt

Will tonight be any different or more of the same?


The first three rounds of Democratic primary debates have lasted a total of 12 hours, included 21 different presidential candidates, and have featured 297 questions from moderators.

Here's a number that hasn't come up, not even once: $22 trillion—the size of the national debt.

"It's a crowded time, obviously, in the policy and political arena," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for balanced budgets. "But moderators are going to have to push these candidates at some point to address the growing federal budget deficit and the national debt."

Will tonight's fourth presidential debate—scheduled for 8 p.m. and featuring a record 12 candidates sharing the stage in Westerville, Ohio—give some attention to the national debt? Don't hold your breath. If the earlier debates are any indication, candidates will be trying to outdo one another with promises of government-funded "freebies" like college tuition and health care. To the extent that questions of spending have found a footing in the debates so far, it's been candidates calling out one another for price tags on various health care proposals.

Even the candidates who are trying to show they would be able to pay for new spending plans are actually just promising to increase the national debt. Take Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who takes the stage tonight as the frontrunner in the field. She's pitched a "wealth tax"—it would be a 2 percent annual tax on assets for households worth more than $50 million, plus a 1 percent surtax on households with a net worth of $1 billion or more—that wouldn't even cover all the new spending she's proposed, as Reason's Peter Suderman has explained.

"A sound fiscal situation is the basis for everything else these candidates want to talk about," says MacGuineas.

Even if Warren and the rest could make the math work for their new spending proposals, that wouldn't do anything about the nearly $23 trillion already owed. Relative to the size of the economy, America is carrying more debt now than at any time since the end of World War II. Meanwhile, the budget deficit—the gap between how much revenue the federal government takes in and how much it spends in a single year—is higher than it has ever been during periods of strong economic growth.

Though the Treasury Department has not yet published final figures for the fiscal year that ended on September 30, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the budget deficit was $984 billion. That's more than double the $442 billion deficit in the final year of President Barack Obama's term in 2015.

That report would be a good hook for a debate question, right? Well, you'd have thought the same thing a month ago, when the Democrats' last debate coincided with the bipartisan passage through Congress of a $2.7 trillion spending deal expected to add about $1.7 trillion to the national debt in the next decade. It never came up during that debate, however.

Given the astounding rate at which the federal government spends money, the 12 hours of Democratic primary debates translate to about $1.3 billion in deficit spending, according to data from the Campaign to Fix The Debt, a CRFB project.

There will be three more hours of debating tonight. That's another $300 million, approximately, that will be added to the nation's tab. Probably not worth talking about.

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  1. You can’t talk about something as mundane as money, there are lives at stake!

    1. Make a John Wick parody video about deficit spending and maybe you’ll get a rise.

    2. Is it really a campaign issue?

      Democrats and Republican politicians seem to all be in favor of unlimited deficit spending.

  2. Another question is how Lizzie considers her “wealth tax” constitutional.

    1. Why would any tax besides a head tax be unconstitutional? The question is how she plans to enforce that sort of tax. How do you calculate it at any given moment? Would it be your current net worth on a particular date of the year? That might be easily circumvented so her plan would probably involve creating an entire new agency tasked with constant surveillance of rich people’s money moving around.

      1. A head tax (or per capita tax) is the only one that could be libertarian. If you don’t pay it, you’re not a citizen. Then the government becomes like a private club of concerned people willing to chip in their fair share. Unfortunately with current spending levels that would be around 25,000 dollars per adult per year.

      2. Well, the AML system combined with FATCA madness kind of already does that. What was once for “drug dealers and terrorists,” then for “fat cats evading taxes,” is now about to become for all of us.

      3. That is in fact precisely the idea she floated a while back.

        But to the constitutionality question, there’s three things that would probably bar it. First, capitation taxes aren’t the only tax specifically banned by the constitution – it says “any direct tax” is forbidden, which in the language of the time means more or less exactly the kind of wealth tax she’s proposing. Even if that’s not enough to convince the nonoriginalists on the court, there’s the matter of bills of attainder, also forbidden. Finally, there’s the takings clause from the 5th amendment. Any one of those would probably be sufficient to sink the proposal, but all three together means that you’d need a legion of “living constitution” screwballs on the bench to have a hope of it passing scrutiny.

      4. Are you fucking stupid? The constitution outlines the valid taxes, wealth is not one of them as it is not apportioned. Income tax was granted by amendment for a reason dumbfuck.

  3. Debt is the elephant in the room for both parties.
    If this debt is paid off, then America just might go bankrupt like the USSR did in the early 1990’s.
    The question becomes is how and who pays for the debt.
    I’m sure the taxpayers won’t warm up to the idea of paying for a debt they didn’t create.
    This debt has to be paid off and soon.
    But I don’t see any politician from either side giving an answer to this huge problem.

    1. But I don’t see any politician from either side giving an answer to this huge problem.

      MMT. IOW, we’ll confiscate the money we need from the developing world. But don’t say that out loud.

    2. Why pay it off soon when you can roll it over into 30 year treasury bonds at 2 percent interest? Just jack up inflation and the debt vaporizes (along with the buying power of anyone with substantial cash savings.)

    3. “But I don’t see any politician from either side giving an answer to this huge problem.”
      Including the biggliest Democrat of them all, Donald Drumpf?

  4. If you look at the dems policy proposals you’ll see the debt is far from there mind.. And, it seems they can’t do math. Or maybe they don’t give a rats ass as long as they punish the right people.

  5. Who watches this crap?

    1. Reason reporters who have it assigned as homework.

      1. And people being held in ChiCom prison camps.

        1. “And this is why your American paymasters can never win!”

          “I don’t have American paymasters, I just told someone at a bar that it would be nice to have more freedom.”

          “Shut up, spy!”

  6. Three Points :

    1. If politics is an ugly pandering business in general, primary politics is that ugliness many times multiplied. Please recall this point four years ago : Donald John Trump was promising ten trillion dollar tax cuts, trillions in military spending, trillions in infrastructure, etc. Anticipate a shift back towards reality (of some degree) with the general election.

    2. While we’re on a nostalgia kick, let me remind everyone which major candidate last election made the least extravagant fantasy promises & treated voters most like an adult: The one who lost, Ms Clinton. Just say’n.

    3. Leaving basic arithmetic and math aside, why should the Dems talk about the deficit? Bill Clinton made deficit control a central goal of his presidency; a major part of Al Gore’s campaign was preserving the gains against debt . W Bush ran on trillions in tax cuts, a trillion in unpaid new drug benefits, trillions worth of debt to transition to Social Security private accounts, and trillions in new military spending. W won and destroyed every single damn bit of progress which had been made reducing red ink. As Republicans always do, he exploded the deficit.

    Obama cut the deficit he inherited from Bush & the Great Recession year by year. Trump then destroyed all that progress in over just half of one term.

    How long should we expect the Democratic Party to play hectoring responsible adult? Every time the GOP holds power it’s time to max-out the country’s credit card, partying hearty with hookers, champagne, caviar and cocaine (that’s mostly metaphor).

    Ya gotta expect the Dems will want some of the fun too. When stolid virtue goes unnoticed & unrewarded, it begins to slip, (human nature). I imagine Post-Reagan Democrats are tired of cleaning-up after the GOP’s fiscal irresponsibility.

    1. OBL Award winner!!

      Read and learn, OBL. THIS is how you do parody!

      1. Using real numbers and irrefutable facts, no less. Do you really want to examine the deficit record of Republicans and Democrats post-Reagan?

        I thought not.

        1. Sure thing. It was 1.6 trillion in 2009 and 0.445 trillion in 2015.

          1. “It was 1.6 trillion in 2009”

            Correct Obama ran the largest deficit in the history of the country.

          2. FY09 signed by obama. You’re also including TARP in your calculation which was deficit neutral, but included outlays in 09 and payments in Obama’s terms like a dishonest shithead.

    2. Obviously the Dem candidates don’t want to talk about the debt.
      But as the biggest real problem facing America, it is journalistic malpractice for the moderators not to ask about it.

    3. Bill Clinton made deficit control a central goal of his presidency;

      Um…Newt made him do it. Slick Willy even said the days of big government were over, soon after getting his tail kicked.

      Congress writes and passes budgets. Compare deficits after Donkey and Heffalump Congresses for the real comparison. O’Bama and Pleurisy pushed all the crazy health ins spending into the future to avoid taking the blame.

  7. I wish Reason would do what they did during the 2016 debates and post a page with the Reason Twitter list embedded.

  8. The sad part is the Dems are mostly more fiscally responsible than Trump. But if they asked them the question about reducing the debt it could only be answered with much higher taxes, which isn’t a good look if you’re a TV network that supports Democrats (but I repeat myself.)

    1. The really sad part is “more fiscally responsible than Trump” means absolutely nothing. Who isn’t? Of course, this country did get control of its debt not that far back. It took two presidents (GHW Bush & Bill Clinton) with Congress making unpopular choices. It took higher taxes, spending cuts, and structural spending restraints like pay-go. It took all the country focused on the issue of debt just long enough for politicians to make a few hard decisions.

      But that was all undone by the next Republican in the White House. Even GHW Bush campaigned on reversing what good he accomplished while running for a second term. And if you look at last election from a perspective of fiscal sanity, it’s not even close: Clinton over Trump easily.

      But I bet the people here posting the loudest posturing bluster on debt all voted fiscally irresponsible last election, and the election before that, and the election before that, and the election before that (and the election before that). After all, talk is cheap.

    2. No they arent. Add up the costs of their wish lists.


    Rodney Reed, who maintains his innocence, has been on death row for the past 21 years for the murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. Since his trial, there is substantial evidence that exonerates Reed and implicates Stites’ fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a local police officer. Reed is scheduled for execution on November 20, 2019, despite an enormous amount of evidence that supports his innocence.

    1. Same with Richard Glossip in Oklahoma. If they try to execute him (again), I’m going to drive down to Oklahoma and give them the middle finger and take a giant shit on the prison lawn outside the fence.

    2. I just read that link – holy shit that is truly awful.

    3. It’s a spook? Fuck em.

  10. Nor will they ask this one:
    “Will you accept the results of this national election?”.

    1. “Yes, because I’ll win.” (applause)

  11. With special appearance by Greta Thunberg?

  12. I have two!

    1. What was the deficit when Socialist Obama left and what is it now that we have a free market President in office?

    2. When some GOP douche tells us that they are the party of fiscal responsibility how much hysterical laughter is socially acceptable in mixed company?

    1. What was the 2020 projection for debt this year when obama left office? Blaming trump for entitlement growth is retarded even by your standards.

      1. Ahahahaha… you GOP fan girls are fucking amazing. Never change.

        1. Not funny. Never will be.

  13. “Asserted without evidence”

    That’s the new phrase of art.

    Well, let’s see if they really are honest about that sort of thing. They just asked the first debate question. Basically, here’s a chance to attack Trump on impeachment.

    Warren got the first bite at the apple. And alleged without evidence that Trump had broken the law repeatedly, including twice this year. No actual citation of any law or action.

    All the rest called him the most corrupt president ever, putting personal interest ahead of the country. Without evidence. Not even an assertion of a single action that is in his personal interest.

    1. yeah. Once he leaves the presidency, will he be able to sue them for libel if they continue with these allegations? I feel like we’re getting into libel territory

      1. US law fortunately sets the bar for libel of politicians almost as high as the national debt. Hence, you needn’t be afraid of saying mean things about them in public or in print. Why not, you’re paying for the privilege after all.

    2. Asserted without evidence….my ass. It takes a willful suspension of reason and logic to state there is nothing corrupt in Hunter Biden cashing in on his name and father’s political power.

      Ordinary Americans see this ‘Beltway Behavior’ by Hunter Biden and are repulsed. Why on earth do you think POTUS Trump won in 2016? This is exactly the kind of thing he talked about.

  14. Anyone want to translate Biden’s statement about the Capital Gains Tax for me? I think he short-circuited.

  15. Biden is still talking in tongues . I almost feel sorry for the old geezer.

  16. The Republicans talk about the national debt and expand it.
    The Democrats don’t talk about the national debt and expand it.
    Please explain the difference to me?

    1. The difference is that Republicans want to make cuts but can’t until the Democrats come around.

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