We should probably confess right at the beginning: The first Democratic presidential debate tonight will probably not be as interesting or as colorful as the first Republican debate was. There is no Donald Trump commanding attention by insulting the moderators and inciting the crowd. The stage will not be crowded with 11 podiums, as in the second debate, forcing participants into over-the-top pronouncements aimed at making themselves stand out.
“With no Trump and a less interesting contest overall, ratings should be significantly lower for this debate than the two previous Republican debates,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center on Politics.
That doesn’t mean the debate isn’t important. In five of the last six presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has won more votes than any other presidential contender, which means that it’s very likely that one of the politicians on the stage tonight will be the next president of the United States. And there are real differences between the two biggest contenders on issues that have an impact on people and families. (Yes, we know Joe Biden could still jump into the race, but until he wraps up his Hamlet act, he’s out of the picture.)
There will be five podiums on stage in Las Vegas, with three reserved for long shot candidates Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland; Jim Webb, a former U.S. Senator from Virginia and Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan; and Lincoln Chafee, who served as both governor of and U.S. senator from Rhode Island. But by far, the two dominant figures on the stage will be former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who currently leads most polls, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been relentlessly chipping away at her lead for months.
“It seems like Clinton is going to try to take the appealing parts of Sanders’ liberal platform and try to package them in a more mainstream way,” Kondik said. “In a way, Clinton has been laying the groundwork to defend herself against comparisons with Sanders that make her seem less liberal.”
Here are some of the biggest issues over which Clinton and Sanders will work to differentiate themselves from each other tonight.
Clinton and Sanders take very different approaches to the crisis in financing college education that has left more than 41 million people owing a total of more than $1.3 trillion in student debt.
Sanders has proposed spending $750 billion to provide free tuition at four-year public colleges and universities, and he would allow recent graduates to refinance debt at more favorable rates. There would be no work requirement while students attend classes.
Under Sanders’s “College for All Act,” the federal government would cover 67 percent of the roughly $70 billion a year spent today on tuition at public colleges and universities, while the states pick up the remaining third of the cost.
Clinton’s plan would allow military veterans, low-income students and those who complete a national service program like AmeriCorps to attend college for free. However, there would be a work requirement. Students qualifying for the program would be required to contribute wages from 10 hours of work a week. Clinton would also offer students new options for refinancing debt.
Her plan would also provide new federal funding to states for higher education. However, states would be obligated to increase their own spending on higher education, and universities would be under pressure to control spiraling costs.
Both Clinton and Sanders have focused much of their tax policy proposals on Wall Street and the wealthy.
Clinton has proposed a relatively modest tax on high-frequency securities trading, an activity generally seen as without significant purpose other than to enrich speculators, and one that many believe creates instability in the markets. She has also advocated a risk fee on large financial institutions, which amounts to a tax on size.
Sanders has been more aggressive in pushing for financial transactions taxes, proposing a more far-reaching version than Clinton. Sanders has also decided to eschew a fee on large financial institutions and instead proposes breaking them up altogether.
Clinton has proposed an increase in the capital gains tax that would particularly target investors who sell investments within a several years after buying them. Sanders has suggested doubling the capital gains tax for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
Until last week, it seemed likely that trade would be a major point of division between Clinton and Sanders. The Vermonter has been a consistent critic of major trade deals and, in particular, of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration is preparing to bring to Congress for authorization in a few months.
Sanders and others on the left have charged that, among other things, the deal provides insufficient protection to American workers against low-cost foreign competition, fails to protect the environment and was negotiated with heavy input from the business community but little from other sectors.
Clinton, who pushed for the TPP negotiations as secretary of state, was expected to be vulnerable on the issue. However, she came out against the deal last week, saying that while she supported the idea of a trade agreement in principle, she is unsatisfied with the deal that was actually struck.
Clinton until recently has been out in front of Sanders on immigration reform — an issue that he didn’t bother to mention in his speech when he formally announced his campaign in May.
That same month, Clinton unveiled a comprehensive immigration reform plan to bring the more than 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows and provide many with a potential path to “full and equal citizenship.” Clinton has closely aligned herself with President Obama’s controversial executive actions to spare many illegal immigrants from deportation.
In vowing to provide millions of undocumented immigrants relief from the threat of deportation, Clinton said she would go beyond Obama’s 2012 executive order by extending protection to the parents of so-called “Dreamers,” the young undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
Sanders subsequently embraced immigration policies similar to Clinton’s.
Sanders boasts a staunch anti-war record, and he frequently reminds audiences that, unlike Clinton, he voted against approving the Iraq War in 2002. He has also consistently advocated drawing down troops and deescalating the conflict in Afghanistan. With the exception of his vote to authorize the use of the military force against al-Qaeda after the 9/11 tacks, Sanders has “vocally and consistently been opposed to the use of U.S. military force” in the global war against terrorism, as an analysis by Vox noted. He has shown little enthusiasm for the Obama administration’s leading role in the war against ISIS.
Clinton, by contrast, has shown a strong willingness to project U.S. military might overseas and has been described as “unapologetically hawkish” by journalist Michael Crowley. In the Senate, she voted in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002, but later conceded that she “got it wrong, plain and simple.”
As secretary of state, Clinton supported an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, according to Crowley. She unsuccessfully pressed the president to arm the Syrian rebels, and subsequently favored air strikes against the Assad regime. She also supported intervention in Libya and strongly favored the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.