The Democratic debate season opens tonight in Las Vegas without the showbiz appeal of the Republican forums – Donald Trump serves a purpose – but still potentially instructive.
The focus will be on two of the party’s five presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. For Clinton, the challenge is to address concerns of voters who tell pollsters they’re not sure she’s trustworthy. For Sanders, it’s to convey the sense that he actually could be President.
The other three are walk-ons: Martin O'Malley, a former governor of Maryland; Jim Webb, former navy secretary and ex- senator from Virginia; and Lincoln Chafee, who was a Republican Rhode Island senator before mounting a successful independent race for governor.
Here are some topics that pose political challenges to the candidates and their party.
All but Chafee have criticized the 12-nation Trans- Pacific Partnership, the most sweeping free-trade deal in a generation. OK, then what role do they think the U.S. should play in Asia? How do they propose to address the rising regional influence of China, which is not a party to the TPP?
Hillary Clinton champions a “pivot to Asia,” as a signal achievement of her record as Secretary of State. Last week she came out against TPP. Will she try to have it both ways in the debate? Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former national security aide in the George W. Bush administration, says that’s not possible. “Without the TPP, the Asia pivot is a failed strategy – elaborate rhetoric not backed up by adequate resources,” he said in an interview.
Do federal deficits matter much? Democrats tend to doubt it, but deficit reduction was a staple of President Bill Clinton’s economic policies. Would the former first lady govern the same way?
The Sanders campaign took exception to a Wall Street Journal article last month that enumerated some $18 trillion in new spending the candidate has proposed over the next decade, including a government-funded health insurance program, expanded Social Security benefits, government-paid tuition at public colleges and a massive infrastructure initiative. The article said he has proposed $6.5 trillion in new taxes over that period. All right, senator, what do you think are the real numbers? Would you accept a plan that adds trillions to the deficit over the next decade?
Most of the aspirants support affirmative action and abortion rights and want to expand gay rights. They also want to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, that unleashed billions of dollars of corporate money into campaigns, and they are critical of court decisions that have limited gun controls. Would the candidates require a Supreme Court nominee to pass a public litmus test on all five of these issues? On any?
Clinton is the only one of the Democrats to have robust Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited cash from corporations, unions and others in support of a candidate. Sensitive to widespread opposition among Democrats to big-money influence in politics, she has said her Super PACs exist only to match Republican fund-raising efforts and would be used to answer charges against her, or to attack Republicans.
Yet one pro-Clinton Super PAC, Correct the Record, has sent out e-mails assailing Sanders and, according to news reports, is digging up background information on Vice President Joseph Biden in case he enters the Democratic contest later.
All presidential candidates are called upon to explain how they’d decide when to use military force. How about these hypotheticals? What if Russia invaded one if the former Soviet countries now protected by NATO? What if China cut off shipping lanes in the South China Sea? What if Islamic State came close to capturing Baghdad? What lessons should be drawn from the chaos in Libya that followed western support for toppling that country’s dictator, Moamar Gadhafi?
Demanding topics, all – important subjects that some of the candidates may wish they could avoid, but can’t. Let’s see if they can resist the easy ones. Who’s most indignant about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who defied a court order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples? Who’s most scornful of Republicans’ advocacy of a Mexican wall to stop illegal immigration? Who’s most opposed to the policies of George W. Bush? Who most vigorously supports Planned Parenthood? For Democrats, no-brainers, all. Literally.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.
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