Democratic Debate in Atlanta

Update 397 — Democratic Debate in Atlanta:
Will Candidates Tussle over Taxes and Trade?

If you can tear yourself away from the limelight of the House impeachment hearings, we can move to the sublime light of the Democratic presidential debate, 9-11 pm ET tonight in Atlanta. Sans late entries Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Deval Patrick, the ten leading contenders for the nomination will participate. 

Below, we look at the domestic economic policy agendas of the ten candidates. We consider the opportunity or peril the night affords their efforts to promote or defend policies, ranging from inequality and the wealth tax to spending priorities and maybe even fiscal policy (gasp).




The fifth Democratic presidential debate stage has changed quite dramatically since the last encounter. Several high profile candidates have dropped out and others have jumped in. On stage will be only nationally-recognized candidates, front-running former Vice President Biden, surging upstart Mayor Pete Buttigieg, two veteran progressive Senators, three younger Senate Democrats, an anti-establishment Representative, and two businessmen. 

Below, we analyze each of the candidates main economic policy proposals and highlight how these proposals have been playing out on the campaign trail so far. 

Vice President Biden 

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s economic plan is simple: to save the middle class. There are three main prongs of his plan: 

  • investing in middle-class competitiveness
  • strengthening workers’ rights and organizing
  • revitalizing rural economies

This week, Biden proposed a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure and transportation, aimed at connecting rural and middle-class Americans to prosperity in large cities through broadband and better roads. For his union supporters, Biden would penalize union-busting companies and encourage collective bargaining by passing the Employee Free Choice Act.  For now, though, Biden’s biggest asset on stage is not his economic policy as much as his moderate position and strong name recognition that will win electability points in early primary states.

Senator Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax has undergone increased and sustained scrutiny since she rocketed up the polls. Her wealth tax is revenue neutral and could pay for her ambitious plans for college affordability, paid family leave, and the newly published Medicare For All (M4A) proposal. This new and supplemental tax, combined with the M4A proposal pay-for, has lit up debate on both universal healthcare and how much money a wealth tax could raise. For Sen. Warren’s big policy ideas to have any traction, she ultimately has to convince the American electorate, and the House and Senate, that the wealth tax is one of the best revenue raisers going forward. She will likely have to make a persuasive defense of her wealth tax tonight. 

Senator Sanders 

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ideas around expanding the social safety net go even further than fellow progressive Sen. Warren. Sen. Sanders’ three areas of social safety net expansion are:

  • affordable housing
  • guaranteed retirement
  • Social Security

In his affordable housing plan, he proposes an investment of $2.5 billion to build 10 million new affordable homes. For guaranteed retirement, he would expand social security, protect existing pensions, and guarantee comprehensive healthcare. These policies all fit within the Bernie Sanders idea of a political revolution, but the crucial question remains: can and will we pay for it?  It has been asked of Sen. Sanders in almost every debate, and while his policies have become popular, he has yet to give a satisfying answer as it continues to arise. With Warren taking the lead with her recent M4A pay-for release, debate could settle in this space tonight.

Mayor Buttigieg 

Criticized early on for a lack of detail in his policy proposals, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has shored up his economic platform just in time for his popularity to surge. This Monday, Buttigieg released his “American Opportunity Plan,” including provisions to appeal to his millennial base. Buttigieg will pump $500 billion into expanding free public college tuition for students with families earning up to $100,000. He promises larger Pell Grants for students at public colleges in an effort to help those from low-income backgrounds graduate debt-free. The plan strengthens college debt transparency and oversight, targets for-profit colleges, and re-implements debt relief rules Education Secretary Betsy Devos eliminated.

Senator Harris 

In October 2018, Sen. Harris released her Livable Incomes for Families (or LIFT) the Middle Class Act, which provides tax relief for families citing rising costs of living. The Act provides up to $6,000 a year per family in the form of a refundable tax credit. Despite its $3 trillion price tag, some have criticized the proposal for not going far enough. As Sen. Harris’ campaign shutters offices across the country, it is unclear if tonight will be her last time on the debate stage.

Senator Klobuchar 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s infrastructure plan directs the federal government to invest $650 billion in various infrastructure projects, as well as provides another $350 billion in financing systems and Build America Bonds. While Klobuchar’s plan is not widely known, there are some that would suggest that it doesn’t go far enough. The American Society of Civil Engineers argues that $1.1 trillion in investment is needed to fix our roads and bridges alone. Sen. Klobuchar’s plan, while paid for, may not be enough for just roads and bridges, let alone the rest of America’s crumbling infrastructure. 

Mr. Yang

Andrew Yang and his Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposal are synonymous in this cycle. In previous debates, Mr. Yang has answered almost all of his questions with the answer that his “freedom dividend,” or an allocation of $1,000 a month to every American over the age of 18, would solve any policy challenge. In a universe where Yang is president, it is very unlikely that Republicans, and even some Democrats, would take to this idea. While Yang continues to assert that the “freedom dividend” has popular support, and his polling and fundraising numbers would suggest that it does, the proposal has its fair share of critics from both sides of the aisle. Regardless of his primary success, Yang has thrown a very little-known policy idea into the limelight, arguably his goal all along. 

Representative Gabbard

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard only recently qualified for tonight’s debate and is still yet to release a comprehensive economic platform. Her biggest message, holding Wall Street accountable, is a campaign pledge that includes several bills. If elected, she says she would implement a number of policies, including: 

  • the 21st Century Glass Steagall Act 
  • the Wall Street Banker Accountability for Misconduct Act  
  • the Return to Prudent Banking Act. 

An anti-establishment candidate with a record of deviating from the Democratic norm, Gabbard enjoys support from independently-minded voters — but will it be enough to keep her afloat? 

Mr. Steyer 

Tom Steyer has laid out three economic priorities in his “People Over Profits Economic Agenda:”

  • breaking the corporate stranglehold of our government
  • investing in people
  • harnessing innovation and promoting competition

Known as a populist outsider whose main focus is climate change, Steyer has positioned himself as someone who can appeal to both the moderate and progressive wing of the party. While Steyer has shown some encouraging signs in recent polls, even hitting eight percent support in some early states, he has yet to gain any noteworthy attention outside of his ads calling for the president’s impeachment. To break through, Steyer will likely have to focus on the areas that distinguish himself from other progressive candidates in the field, while highlighting his populist ideas that have yet to catch fire.  

Senator Booker 

On Nov. 6, Sen. Booker launched his “Opportunity and Justice for Every Community” plan, which directs federal funds towards rural and low-income communities, regional economic hubs, and invests in internet broadband and rural transit systems. Booker takes aim not only at alleviating the burden on middle-class and working families, but low- or no-income families, too. He does this through direct economic development investments in marginalized and struggling communities. Sen. Booker has yet to have a moment in this campaign that distinguishes himself from anyone else in the field. Though his policies seem transformative, the constituency may not be there for him in the 2020 primary race. 


Vice President Joe Biden, though experiencing a recent slip in the polls, still maintains the top spot. Right on his heels, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s brand of progressive policies and fiery rhetoric have landed her the role of the main progressive challenger. Sen. Bernie Sanders, coming up behind Sen. Warren, continues to bring in important progressive endorsements and millions of small-dollars donations. Finally, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has recently catapulted to the top of several early state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clearly, presenting himself as a moderate alternative to Warren and Sanders and a younger alternative to Biden, he has been successful so far. 

The chief economic policy issues debated tonight are certain to be familiar and perhaps new ground will be broken. At this point, the policy issue, positions, and differences among the candidates is clear enough that a more detailed, granular discussion is possible.  Either way, we will cover it in the next update.  

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