Economic Issues and the Des Moines Debate

Update 405 — The Purple, Populous Midwest:
Economic Issues and the Des Moines Debate

The 2020 Democratic nomination process alighted on Des Moines, IA last night as six qualifying candidates answered moderators questions for two hours. Close to a third of the debate time focused on economic issues. The fireworks at the event occurred elsewhere, with a temper of consensus predominant on major economic policy and disagreements narrowing to transition issues rather than goals or even means.  

Whether the debate moves the needle broadly, Iowa caucus-goers will tell us in less than three weeks. But important progress toward a consensus among the candidates emerged that might have muted the debate but helped to clarify the Democratic position on critical issues, detailed below per candidate.  

The results of our readers poll of polled of their preferred 2020 Democratic presidential candidate is presented by region at the end of the update.  




On stage for the seventh official DNC debate last night were Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and businessman Tom Steyer. Topics ranged from national security to climate to impeachment, but the debate also raised potential economic policy dividing markers among the candidates: should new spending programs be universal or means tested? Should there be a transition period for reforms?

Means Testing vs. Universality 

Social programs are generally either universal, and apply to everyone equally, or means tested, where benefits depend on income. So Social Security and Medicare – which all Americans are eligible for – are universal, while food stamps and housing vouchers are means-tested (i.e. one’s income determines one’s eligibility). Proponents of universal programs say they are easier to administer; critics who prefer means-testing point to the high costs and free-riders. Universal programs can thus seem counter-progressive, because the government could be subsidizing rich and poor alike. 

The 2020 Democratic candidates’ difference of nuance came through in last night’s debate. We review their positions on this and other economic policy issues and offer a choice snippet from each of them, below.  

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders

Among the candidates, Senator Sanders is the strongest proponent of universality. He and Secretary Clinton sparred on this issue frequently in 2016 and Sanders has maintained support for universal healthcare (in the form of single payer, Medicare-for-All), higher education, and social security expansion. “I believe in the concept of universality,” Sanders told voters last month.

“My democratic socialism says healthcare is a human right.” 

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Senator Warren’s policy agenda includes programs that are both universal and means tested. Warren’s healthcare and free college program are universal. Her childcare proposal is means tested, providing free childcare services for Americans making up to 200 percent of the poverty level. It’s then capped at seven percent of a family’s income above that level. Warren stands apart from some of her rivals by providing explicit pay-fors, including her two cent wealth tax levied on the country’s wealthiest households.

Warren’s proposal of student debt relief is also means tested: she would provide $50,000 in loan forgiveness for anyone making less than $100,000 a year, with tiered loan forgiveness to those making more than that, and no forgiveness for those with incomes over $250,000 a year. Contrast that with Sanders plan, which cancels all student debt regardless of income. 

The lowliest millionaire that I would tax under this wealth tax would be paying about $19 million in the first year in taxes. If he wants to send his kid to public university, then I’m okay with that.”

  • Vice President Joe Biden

During the debate, Vice President Biden voiced his belief that infant care should be free and universal, recounting his own experience being a single father after the death of his wife. His call for true, universal healthcare stops there. Biden’s comprehensive healthcare plan amounts to an expansion of the Affordable Care Act (with its means-tested subsidies). On education policy, Biden has previously offered plans to make community college tuition free, which is universal, and to double the federal Pell Grant program, which is means tested. 

“I think we need to be candid with voters. I think we have to tell them what we are going to do and what it’s going to cost.”

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Senator Klobuchar explicitly rejects universality in favor of means testing. When asked by a voter at a recent town hall about Bernie Sanders’ plan for free higher education, Klobuchar responded: “if I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would. I’m just trying to find a mix of incentives and make sure kids that are in need — that’s why I talked about expanding Pell Grants — can go to college.” Like Biden, Klobuchar’s healthcare policy is built around expanding the ACA, and she often criticizes Sanders and Warren’s Medicare-for-All proposals as being too disruptive and expensive. 

[Our money] should go into K through 12. It should go into free one- and two-year degrees….And then we should double the Pell grants, because we’re going to need four-year degrees…so the money goes where it should go, instead of to rich kids going to college.”

  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Buttigieg is firmly in the “means testing” camp. Buttigieg believes that free public college should be made available to children of low- and middle-income families. In emphasizing the cost to providing free public college for the children of wealthy families, Buttigieg stated that “we could be using those dollars for something else.” 

“I don’t want cost ever to be a barrier to someone seeking to attend college, and under my plan, it won’t.”

  • Mr. Tom Steyer

Asked if he believed that his own children should have access to free public college, Steyer repeated his commitment to means testing, decrying the immense degree of wealth and income inequality in the nation. On healthcare, Steyer stated his agreement with Biden that the best path forward was to build on the ACA by establishing a public option, but voiced his dismay that the government had been captured by corporations which block any effective new policies, calling it, “cruelty for money.” 

“We need to redistribute money so every kid has a chance, so we’re not legislating inequality for the next generation, and so that we actually invest in every single kid, specifically poor kids, specifically black kids, specifically brown kids.”

Other Economic Policy Issues

In December, the House of Representatives voted 385 to 41 to approve the USMCA trade agreement. On last night’s debate stage, Sanders stood alone in opposition to the deal, saying he could negotiate better environmental safeguards. Warren offered support, saying the USMCA “will give some relief to our farmers.” Biden spoke for the free-trade wing of the Democratic party, dismissing Sanders’ opposition to the deal by stating that there wasn’t any trade deal that the Senator would support. Biden praised the USMCA for its modest improvements to NAFTA. In previous exchanges on trade, Biden defended his vote for NAFTA.

On Trump’s trade policy and its effect on Iowan farmers. Warren said, “we have farmers here in Iowa who are hurting, and they are hurting because of Donald Trump’s initiated trade wars.” Steyer bluntly promised to repeal all of the Trump tariffs “on day one.” Buttigieg added a personal touch, saying “I remember when they came around in the ’90s, selling trade deals, telling us, don’t worry about your slice of the pie, the pie will get so much bigger that everyone will be better off. And that promise was broken.” 

Klobuchar levied the most articulate criticism at the President with an anecdote targeted specifically at Iowa caucus-goers:

“I will never forget going to Crawfordsville here in Iowa… and I went to this plant and there was one worker left in that plant. That plant had been shut down because of Donald Trump’s trade policies and because of what he had done to those workers with giving secret waivers to oil companies and ruining the renewable fuel standard. That worker brought out a coat rack of uniforms and he said, these are my friends, they don’t work anymore.”

Healthcare Transition Period

Healthcare reform and the issue of how to do and pay for it was in dispute last night. One thus-far undercovered exchange occurred between Senators Warren and Klobuchar on the topic of transition to single payer. During the exchange, Klobuchar tacitly acknowledged that Warren sees the need for a transition period with Medicare-for-All, creating a distinction between her and Sanders. Later on, when referring to Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan, Klobuchar said, “If you want to be practical and progressive at the same time and have a plan and not a pipedream, you have to show how you’re going to pay for it.” Notably, Warren’s Medicare-for-All plan includes a specific pay-for, while Sanders’ does not. 

Looking ahead

This debate may not have changed any minds, but it gave voters the chance to hear more from the candidates as the field winnows. As we head into the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, the latest polls show that Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg all have a strong chance to win. The next debate will be on Feb. 7 in Manchester, New Hampshire as the candidates prepare for the nation’s first primary in the state on Feb. 11.  


Last week, we polled our readers on their 2020 Democratic presidential candidate of preference and their home state. Below is a compilation of the data organized by region. 

20/20 Vision Presidential Candidate Poll Results

Note: This table only includes candidates who were on last night’s debate stage.  

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