Six Policy Takeaways from the First Democratic Presidential Debate

By Rob Moore

Much of the coverage of the first Democratic Party presidential debate of the 2016 election season has focused on its congeniality and Bernie Sanders’ “damn emails” comment. However, a notable quality of last night’s debate was the amount of substantive discussion on policy proposals. While the five candidates for the Democratic nomination do not diverge much on issues such as reproductive rights, paid family leave, or the broad problem of inequality in America, the debate nonetheless exposed substantial policy differences between the candidates.

  1. Gun Safety Legislation. Last week’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College was the last thing Bernie Sanders needed. Hailing from pro-gun Vermont, Sanders has a checkered history with gun control: he voted against the Brady Bill in 1993, has supported policies allowing guns on Amtrak trains, and has opposed policies that would hold gun retailers criminally negligent in the case of a mass shooting.

    Clinton has taken this issue as an opportunity to draw a policy distinction by positioning herself to the left of Sanders on an issue. She said on the debate stage that “Senator Sanders did vote five times against the Brady Bill. Since it was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented.”

  2. Foreign Policy. Hillary Clinton came under fire from Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley for both voting for the Iraq War and supporting the institution of a no-fly zone in Syria. While the Iraq War vote cannot be taken back, the institution of a no-fly zone—an option that President Obama has been unwilling to take—paints Clinton as more hawkish and, O’Malley and Sanders argue, more reckless than other candidates.

    Sanders also fought to expose a realist tinge in his foreign policy philosophy, saying “I am not a pacifist” and showing his support for the war in Afghanistan and intervention in the Kosovo crisis. At the same time, Sanders hedged, saying that he does “not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action,” showing a more internationalist, liberal view underlying Sanders’s policy positions.

  3. Climate Change. Martin O’Malley went for the jugular on climate change, mentioning his plan to put America on track to 100% renewable energy almost to the point of parody. Sanders and O’Malley both placed climate change on their lists of the greatest national security threats to the United States, while Clinton, who has been weak on climate change in the past, was unable to show that she could stand with the other two on putting forth a bold vision to curb CO2 emissions.
  4. Financial Regulation. In a topic that Sanders has attempted to make central to his campaign, Clinton argued that her plan “is more comprehensive…and frankly, it’s tougher” than Sanders’ plan to break up the big banks. Clinton came under further pressure from both O’Malley and Sanders for being against the Glass-Steagall act. While candidates traded jabs on this issue and Sanders is clearly pushing Clinton to the left, this debate is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about who is going to be tougher on Wall Street.
  5. Higher Education. Sanders has paved the way on the issue of college affordability, putting forth a proposal to make college free for undergraduates. Clinton matched this promise, with the caveat that a Clinton plan will have a work requirement of “ten hours a week” for students to have tuition paid for.
  6. Immigration. A pointed question from debate moderator Anderson Cooper came when Clinton was asked whether she supported O’Malley’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants to be awarded health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Clinton refused to agree to a plan like that.

There were also two people on stage named Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

Rob Moore is a Master of Public Policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He writes on state policy and the politics of public policy.