Election Coverage / Opinion / Politics

Candidates, Issues, Debates, and the Media in the 2020 Election


You’d be forgiven if you watched the 20 Democrat candidates in their televised debates and concluded they were auditioning for the role of Santa Claus.  After all, Santa delivers most of the goodies on people’s wish lists without charge to those receiving them.  Alternatively, you might have concluded there must be a tree in the backyard of The White House that the winning candidate could shake down for money at any time for their high-priced proposals.  Either way, the candidates’ comments were far removed from practicality.

Show Me the Money

Given this, one would expect the media to fulfill its role as watchdog and fact checker to hold the candidates to account for free college, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, canceling student debt, and the like.  But this is not happening, as precious little questioning and follow ups from both the CNN and NBC panelists focused on pinning the candidates down for how their pet projects would be paid.  It’s as if all on stage had never heard Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman’s famous quote, “The government doesn’t have any money.  The only power it has is to take from some and give to others.” 

Take Medicare for All.  Numerous experts have estimated its cost, including former Medicare Board of Trustees member Charles Blahous.  He estimates the cost to the federal budget at $32.6 trillion.  The Urban Institute estimated $32 trillion over 10 years as well.  Medicare for All would double the size of federal government spending.  Even a doubling of corporate and individual income taxes would fail to cover its costs.   

Purity or Pragmatism?

The Democrats must come to terms with their true goal for 2020 before the primary and caucus season gets under way.  Do they want to win the presidency or win the argument?  The debate is not trivial, as it’s unlikely they can have both.  Nationally syndicated columnist Victor Davis Hanson wrote in July that, “It may be that the Democratic Party would rather lose in a fashion it considers noble than win insincerely.”

Being true to liberal ideology (i.e. being “pure” in beliefs) without compromise is the current view of activists and progressives in the party and a majority of the 20-plus presidential candidates.  Several progressives on the debate stage accused their more moderate colleagues of using “Republican talking points” whenever they strayed from the liberal line.  This smaller group of moderate pragmatists does occasionally note that many of the far-left proposals are too expensive and could never pass both houses of Congress. 

The pragmatists want to win and know that the white working-class voters that deserted the Democrat party for President Trump in 2016 are key.  Border security is important to this voting bloc, and Joe Biden tried to make the point that it should continue to be a crime to cross the border illegally.  But the progressives were having none of it, as Mayor Bill de Blasio and Secretary Julian Castro wouldn’t let it go that Biden, as part of the Obama Administration, was a part of deporting more illegal aliens than the Trump Administration. 

America has seen this movie before.  The GOP wrestled with this dilemma in 1964 with Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater was viewed as too extreme by voters and many in the party Establishment, but the convention delegates nominated him anyway.  At the 1964 convention Goldwater exclaimed, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.  Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  He went on to lose the election and 44 states to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

Debt: A Four-letter word?

The four-letter word almost never appearing in questions asked by the media and rarely mentioned by the candidates on their own is “debt.”  America owes $22.6 trillion, which equates to $69,000 for every U.S. citizen (adults and children) and $183,000 per U.S. taxpayer.  Every dollar must be repaid to the individuals and governments (some foreign) who lent the funds, plus interest

It is precisely these interest payments that will handicap the next president, whether he or she likes it or wants to talk about it or not.  The Congressional Budget Office projects the U.S. will pay more in interest to service its debt than it will spend on Defense in just five years.  The budget deficit, the annual amount that spending exceeds tax revenue, will exceed $1 trillion every year in perpetuity starting in 2020. 

Add to interest payments the spending on just the four largest programs—Defense/Veterans, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and you are at 82 percent of the entire federal budget.  It is worth noting these four tend to be precisely the programs politicians say must not be touched.  Medicare is indeed an important program for America’s seniors, but few know it does not cover its costs with payroll taxes and the small premiums people pay.  Medicare will reach insolvency in 2026 according to its Trustees.  It would seem unfathomable to talk about drastically expanding a program that is already fiscally unsound, but the Democrats running for president see it differently.

On June 13th the Editorial Board of The Chicago Tribune wrote a lengthy op-ed criticizing the Democrat candidates for their spending proposals and lack of interest in budget deficits and debt.  The op-ed acknowledged that many candidates talk about repealing the Trump tax cuts, but the paper noted, “Raising tax rates to where they were when Donald Trump took office would merely slow the growth of the debt, not cover the cost of new programs.  Reducing the rate at which you are accumulating debt, alas, does not give you more money to spend.”

What the Media Missed

Besides failing to ask the tough fiscal questions, the media lets candidates get away with claims that have no merit.  The list is lengthy, but one that stands out from the last debate is Senator Corey Booker’s voter suppression claim.  Yes, it is fact that Hillary Clinton got fewer votes in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012 in many Rust Belt counties with large minority populations.  But the reason is far from an army of racists dressed in bed sheets that kept voters away from the polls.  The answer is simple.  Hillary Clinton was an uninspiring candidate, and millions of Democrats in Midwestern states simply disliked her enough to stay home and sit the election out.  The question now is, will a similar number of Democrats do the same in 2020 if a progressive like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Kamala Harris is the Trump alternative? 

Jeff Szymanski works in political communications for the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC), a senior benefits organization with nearly 2 million members.

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