When the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates went head to head for the first time, America's extreme economic divide was at the center of the debates.
The Democratic primary debates have officially begun. And as the candidates shared a stage for the first time, it was clear that serious contenders needed to not only acknowledge our country’s extreme economic inequality but also put forward concrete plans for tackling the problem.
How much has the conversation changed since the last presidential election? The first questions posed to the candidates in the first Democratic primary debates of 2015 allowed them to vaguely describe their ideologies without going too deep into policy specifics.
That wasn’t the case for the 2020 contenders. A far more crowded pool – and an influx of candidates attempting to woo voters concerned about the structural deficiencies in the economy – pushed inequality into the center of the debates. We’ve rounded up 10 key takeaways.
1. A presumed frontrunner confronted about coddling the 1 percent
Joe Biden recently promised wealthy donors that he wouldn’t “demonize the rich,” reassuring them at a fundraiser that “no one’s standard of living would change” if he became president. At the time, he probably didn’t expect his comments to form the basis of his very first question in the 2020 debates. When asked by moderators to expand on what he meant, the former vice president pivoted to an extended tribute to middle class workers.
2. Taxing the rich
Beto O’Rourke’s first question was whether he’d support a marginal individual tax rate of 70 percent on incomes above $10 million. While O’Rourke managed to include a couple sentences in Spanish in his response, he never answered the actual question. When prompted again, he skipped over specific individual rates, saying only that he’d equalize rates on investment and ordinary income while pegging the corporate tax rate at 28 percent – substantially lower than the 35 percent rate in effect until Republicans cut it to 21 percent in 2017. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the only candidate who volunteered his support for a 70 percent top rate.
3. Middle-class tax cuts
The American middle class pays relatively low income taxes, compared to historical averages, so most progressive tax reformers focus on hiking rates on the rich and corporations to pay for urgent social needs. Sen. Bernie Sanders said middle-class families would pay more in taxes under his administration, but they would come out ahead thanks to more affordable health care. By contrast, Sen. Kamala Harris said her “first issue” as president would be middle-class tax cuts. Her proposal to reduce IRS bills for households earning up to $100,000 per year would shrink federal revenue by $271 billion per year, potentially limiting her ability to fulfill spending priorities.
4. Racial inequality
If you haven’t yet seen the most dramatic exchange of the debates — Harris going after Biden over his 1970s-era opposition to busing to desegregate schools — check it out. What was left unsaid: school segregation is not just a thing of the past. Today, a half century after Harris’s personal experience with busing, more than half of students are in highly segregated districts (more than 75 percent white or non-white). School racial segregation is associated with racial achievement gaps that exacerbate racial economic inequality.
5. Gender pay gap
Julián Castro and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were both asked what they would do to close the pay gap between men and women. Castro began by talking about how his mom, a single parent, worked hard to pay the bills and still faced financial insecurity. He then called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a long-proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution that would ensure equal rights regardless of sex. Gabbard skipped the question, reciting instead her military record and broader platform of shifting resources from regime change wars to domestic needs.
6. The popularity of taxing Wall Street
Sanders was the only candidate to mention taxing Wall Street during the debate. He’s long called for a small tax on trades of stocks and derivatives to fund tuition-free public college and eliminating student debt, and repeatedly offered it up as a proposal during his 2016 run. But in a clear sign of the progressive shift, several other candidates have also come out in favor of such a financial transaction tax, including Andrew Yang, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, and Gabbard. Harris also expressed support in the last congressional session for a Sanders bill that included such a tax to pay for his College for All plan.
7. Wealth gap
The first words at Thursday’s debate were a startling statistic from an Institute for Policy Studies report: the wealthiest three men in the United States – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett – have more wealth than half the country combined. Sanders both opened and closed his remarks with the stat, illustrating the need for a new vision of American politics. Factcheckers at The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN all verified his claim.
Sanders was far from the only candidate to highlight wealth inequality. Sen. Elizabeth Warren used her opening remarks to expand on the need to reshape the economy so that it no longer enriches a thinning slice at the top at the expense of the rest of the population. And Sen. Michael Bennet made a reference to Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s oft-cited research on wealth inequality. Rep. Tim Ryan also made a nod to wealth inequality, but with an inaccurate claim – that the top 1 percent controls 90 percent of the wealth. While the top 1 percent does have a larger share than the bottom 90 percent of the country combined, they control 40 percent of the wealth – which is still outrageous.
8. CEO pay
Overpaid CEOs got off fairly easy during the debates, with just a few mentions. Washington Governor Jay Inslee slammed McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook for making “2,100 times more than the people slinging hash” at the fast food giant. Warren, Biden, and Sen. Cory Booker all took jabs at health industry executives. Booker said pharma executives were part of the opioid problem, while Biden said he’d put insurance executives in jail for “their misleading advertising, what they’re doing on opioids.”
9. Mentions of Trump tax cuts benefiting the rich
Candidates were eager to jump on the disastrous Republican tax cuts of 2017 and the windfall they provided to the country’s wealthiest. When asked about how Democrats would pay for many of the plans offered up that night, Harris asked why no one had challenged Republicans with the same question about tax cuts. Gillibrand called the tax cuts a gift from Republicans to their donors, Sanders pointed out that the 1 percent would receive 83 percent of the tax cut benefits from the legislation by 2027, and Biden promised to end the tax cuts if elected. And while O’Rourke waffled in his answer on marginal tax rates, he did use his response to say the tax cut favored corporations and the wealthiest.
10. Calling out the 1 percent
Several candidates broke down silos, drawing connections between inequality and the other pressing issues mentioned over the course of the debates. De Blasio connected pervasive narratives that scapegoat immigrants to the wealthy elite. Immigrants aren’t responsible for working conditions, de Blasio said – the 1 percent and big corporations are. Among his other references to wealth inequality, Sanders cited numbers released earlier this month that showed the top 1 percent had seen a wealth increase of $21 trillion over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar tried to take advantage of the narrative to bolster her opposition to free college, arguing instead for means-tested programs.