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Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: The Democratic Debate Edition

Fewer candidates took the stage Thursday, promising deeper discussions on issues that impact many Americans, such as criminal justice reform and higher education. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case.

Democratic presidential candidates from left, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer on stage during the Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday in Los Angeles. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

In the sixth Democratic presidential debate, held in Los Angeles, fewer candidates took the stage, a head count that held the promise of deeper discussions on issues that impact many Americans, such as criminal justice reform and higher education. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. Here, a look at our thumbs up/​thumbs down of Thursday night’s discussion:

Thumbs up

Climate Change

We welcomed a discussion on climate change, in which some candidates touted carbon capture technologies as a viable step forward. The bipartisan USE IT Act, which should be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, calls for federal investment in crucial next-generation carbon capture technology, such as direct air capture, and is backed by labor groups, environmental nonprofits and energy companies. 


It came up briefly in response to a question about voting rights in America, but we were happy to hear a call for addressing the issue of gerrymandering. It has a complex legacy, but grass-roots efforts, like those spearheaded by Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians, are paving the way to a fairer process. Here’s a great discussion on the movement to redraw political maps in a way that puts democracy front and center. 

Health Care

We were just happy that candidates finally got to health care at the tail end of the debate, even if it was almost singularly focused on Medicare for All. Amid that discussion, we can’t ignore dysfunctional private-sector pricing. The health care marketplace is increasingly dominated by a single or a few large health systems that stifle competition and drive up prices for patients. One solution: Apply Medicare prices to commercial markets that lack competition and limit how much health care providers are paid for a specific service — something Medicare does well.

To a direct question from moderators about smaller ways to make health care more affordable, we would point to H.R. 3, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s signature drug pricing bill that just passed the House and is aimed at lowering the prices Americans pay for prescription drugs. It is unlikely to pass the Senate, and Senate Republicans have introduced their own drug pricing package, but we are buoyed by Congressional momentum on checking an industry that has increased its profits at the expense of Americans for too long. And addressing the issue of surprise billing, in which patients are slapped with expensive medical bills for services they thought were covered by their insurance, could go a long way toward relieving the burden on Americans. Polls show voters are demanding change, and Congress is currently working toward a solution to end the practice.

Thumbs down

Issues Getting Lumped Together

Students who want an affordable higher education, patients struggling with health costs, and over-incarcerated Americans started to feel like props in this debate, mentioned as check-off items in answers to broader questions about Trump, climate change, and women in leadership. These were topics that deserved their own discussions, and some, but not all, got their fair hearing.

Higher Education

When candidates finally did turn more specifically to higher education, the brief conversation again centered on free tuition, which doesn’t address larger issues in the system: Are students graduating in a timely manner — or at all? Are they getting the support they need to be successful? Are they leaving with a degree they can use? 

Forty percent of bachelor’s students haven’t graduated six years later, and more than two in three students at two-year colleges haven’t. Students and taxpayers deserve more transparency and accountability in the system, and they deserve to get a strong return on their investment in higher education. Evidence-based programs like the CUNY program ASAP have been shown to dramatically increase graduation rates and is going national. 

One group that consistently gets left out of higher education discussions is veterans. They need more protection from potentially predatory institutions that get billions in GI Bill funds and often leave veteran students without the degrees they seek. As we’ve said before, The College Affordability Act would close loopholes that allow institutions to prey on veterans and fail students, require institutions to show they are committed to student success, and improve transparency.

Criminal Justice

One in two Americans has had a family member incarcerated, yet the debate did not address ways we can end mass incarceration and its drivers, including a probation and parole system that has become a tripwire, contributing to 45 percent of admissions to state prisons and costing states billions of dollars a year.

America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of its prisoners, and we’ve done little to address the conditions for those living and working inside U.S. prisons, which are excessively punitive and incarcerate people of color at disproportionately higher rates. But there are movements committed to changing this reality. For example, the Young Men Emerging unit in the D.C. Department of Corrections is reimagining what prison can look like by building a community that helps one another take ownership of their stories. And The Restoring Justice project by Vera Institute of Justice and Milpa Collective is expanding to three more states with a mission of putting human dignity as a core value in correctional facilities.

While we know that incarceration is largely a state issue, the federal government can lead the way, as it did with the First Step Act. And states like New Jersey and New York, as well as jurisdictions like Harris County, are redefining justice by recognizing that money bail discriminates against the poor and instituting groundbreaking reforms in our country’s cash bail system, efforts overwhelmingly supported by the public.

The Opioid Crisis

We heard scant mention of the nation’s opioid crisis, which killed 49,000 Americans in 2017 alone. We need states and cities to embrace evidence-based solutions in the fight. We worked with Manatt Health on a toolkit that holds promising strategies that state Medicaid programs are adopting to address the substance use disorder crisis, and specifically the opioid epidemic. And there are cities leading the way: Huntington, W.V., once dubbed the overdose capital of America,” has become a model for recovery, thanks to Mayor Steve Williams’ innovative approach to drug policy. 

And as opioid lawsuits pick up steam, states, counties, and cities will have to make decisions about how to any allocate funds they are awarded. Those decisions, if done right, can save lives.

Final Thought

Gun safety played a much larger role in previous debates, but it was mentioned in only one answer Thursday night, in response to a question related to climate change. That’s interesting, considering the historic agreement that took place this week. Congress reached a bipartisan agreement to fund federal gun violence research with a $25 million commitment to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. We applaud the end to a decades-long stalemate over federal funding for gun violence research, and we hope the Democratic candidates do, too.