Monday night US time (Tuesday afternoon NZ time) there was one of the few chances for USians to see the Democratic candidates on television. It was a Town Hall style affair, moderated by CNN’s Chris Cuomo. The audience, who were mainly Democratic voters, submitted questions to CNN. They chose which questions would be asked to make sure, they said, a wide range of topics would be covered. Candidates were not told what questions they would be asked beforehand.
First up was Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who has been surprising pundits with the success of his campaign. He appears to be particularly popular amongst younger voters, which is good for packing campaign venues but notoriously unreliable when it comes to actually voting. Sanders explained his popularity as being part of a desire for bold changes. Basically it was the same thing as we hear from the non-establishment candidates on the right (e.g. Trump, Carson, Fiorina) except appealing to a liberal audience. Sanders also made a point of establishing his credentials up front as being against the war in Iraq back in 2002 to show his judgement was sound.
In Sanders’ first question he was asked to define what Socialism meant to him – the voter herself appeared fearful of the term, as are many USians. Sanders immediately changed the term to Democratic Socialism and explained it in terms of income inequality, the problem of the rich getting richer while everyone else got poorer, and lamented the condition of the elderly surviving on US$11-12,000 per year. He said government should play a role in ensuring that all children can get a higher education, regardless of their income. He pointed out that in other countries around the world (he named Scandinavia and Germany) these are not radical ideas. He made the statement:
It means to me, in its essence, we cannot continue to have a government dominated by the billionaire class, and a Congress that continues to work for the interests of the people on top while ignoring working families. What this campaign is about, what I believe in, is creating a government that works for all of us, not just a handful of people on the top. That’s my definition of Democratic Socialism.
His second question was from a nurse who doubted the viability of his single-payer healthcare programme because of the problems already seen with the US programme for the elderly – Medicare. She talked of a man who didn’t take the full dose of the insulin he needed in order to stretch it out because he couldn’t afford to pay for the medication. Apparently (according to figures Sanders quoted) one in five USians can’t afford to pay for the medication they need while the three major drug companies make a combined profit of $45 billion a year. Despite the improvements of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) there are still 29 million USians without health insurance. Sanders pointed out that the US is almost the only country in the world where healthcare isn’t considered a right, and that USians pay far more for their healthcare than any other country in the world. (The US pays triple per capita of what the British pay, double the French, for example.) He said:
I believe, as a principle, everyone should be entitled to healthcare, comprehensive healthcare.
Cuomo said the criticism of this is that it would mean a tax hike to pay for it, which he seemed to believe himself. Sanders pointed out the obvious that no-one would have to pay the exorbitant healthcare costs they’re currently paying, and the new tax would be far less than their current health insurance.
Sanders described how he would fund his policies by making sure that the wealthiest pay their fair share of taxes, including via a speculation tax. Cuomo pointed out that opponents described that as vindictive, but Sanders had his answer ready – the top one-tenth of one percent of USians have the same income as the bottom 90%, the wealthiest 20 people have the same income as the bottom 50%, income inequality is the worst it has been since 1928, there has been a wealth transfer from the middle class to the wealthy of trillions of dollars over the last forty years. And it was those wealthy people who caused the GFC that destroyed the lives of many in the middle class.
Sanders says he has a history of working with people despite being probably the most progressive senator in Washington. He was able to reassure voters on his record supporting women’s rights, and his plans to continue that in the future. He talked about his opposition to FTAs, which is an area I can’t agree with him on. He thinks NAFTA cost USians jobs, for example, which I think is questionable.
When questioned about gun control, his answer was weak. He tried to pull down Clinton by, for example, referring to Obama calling her “Annie Oakley” years ago. He got pulled down into policy detail, which was confusing, and not convincing. As always in the US, mental health care was coupled with gun control, and his answer there was better. He coupled it with healthcare instead of gun control, which is where it belongs.
Governor Martin O’Malley was up next. I guess they did that so everyone didn’t switch off early.
You’ve got to feel sorry for O’Malley. He does his best to be up beat, but he just isn’t getting the attention. Cuomo pointed out that the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s leading newspaper (who gave their endorsement to Clinton), said O’Malley would be better as a cabinet secretary than president. O’Malley’s message regarding his leadership ability sounded very like that of Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. As a former mayor (Baltimore) and governor (Maryland) he does have experience in actually managing a city and state in a way that neither Sanders nor Clinton does, and historically, governors have been strong candidates. This campaign season has been very different, but there’s always a chance that normality will return and if it does, O’Malley is ready. He has no potential legal issues hanging over his head, and doesn’t have the difficulty of the label of “Socialist,” which could bring Clinton and Sanders respectively down.
He made the great visual move of standing, taking off his jacket, and rolling up his sleeves ready for his first question. It made a huge difference to helping him seem in touch with the audience. He sometimes didn’t quite know how to stand, but he did a better job than Trump did during Palin’s endorsement.
His first question was a complicated one about structural racism and drugs. His state has had a mixed history in the area, but he answered the question well – he said that as a manager he constantly looked at what worked and what didn’t and adjusted strategy accordingly. He pointed to his record of reducing violent crime and incarceration rates to new lows, abolishing the death penalty, and decriminalizing marijuana use.
Next was a question on healthcare from a voter who’s leaning towards voting for Sanders. O’Malley’s plan isn’t as drastic as that of Sanders – he want’s to reform Obamacare, and specifically mentioned the high deductibles that many plans have now. He also wants to put a greater focus on preventable care, which is eminently sensible. He pointed to a programme he’d established in Maryland called an “All-Payer” system that changed the way hospitals were funded which gave them a financial incentive to put more effort into primary care to reduce the need for expensive tertiary care later.
We got a verbal fry question next from a voter wanting to know what he thought young voters should care about the most. (Seriously CNN?) O’Malley talked of the success he’d had in reigning in the cost of college in his state, and his plan to reduce costs in future, but he said the thing that is most important for young people is climate change. He also pointed out that this is also a great business opportunity. (Which means he’s almost – unlike Republicans – realized it’s also about business survival. Business that don’t become clean and green will lose customers to rivals that do. It’s already happening all over the world. Smart businesses are already preparing for that.) O’Malley is the only candidate (he says, and I suspect it’s true) that has a plan to make the US’s electricity 100% from renewables by 2050. He says this will create 5 million new jobs. I’ve no idea whether the number of jobs created is a good estimate, but it’s an excellent initiative.
The next person wanted to re-establish the military draft, or for those deemed unfit to serve their country for two years in another way. He prefaced this with a reference to the problem of PTSD, though I couldn’t see the linkage – I would have thought forcing people into the military would increase this. This was apparently a reference to a plan O’Malley actually has to cut youth unemployment in half. However, O’Malley referred to the public service plan as an “option,” and isn’t preferencing military service over other service such as environmental work, public health etc. He also has a plan for full employment for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s pretty shocking the number of veterans that end up living on the streets in the US, and it’s good that someone has a plan to make an effort in this area.
O’Malley’s third question was about the economy. He turned it into an emotional question in many ways, but proposed some sensible overarching principles such as equal pay for women, making it easier to join a union, breaking monopolies, and comprehensive immigration reform. He reverted to platitudes a bit, and didn’t propose much in the way of specifics, but at least he lambasted trickle-down economics. There was a later question related to farming too, but again O’Malley wasn’t specific.
The next questioner asked O’Malley what he would do to ensure LBGT equality on the federal level. He talked about what he’s done in the past in his state (marriage quality and anti-discrimination legislation for trans people). However, he gave no specifics, just a general feel-good statement.
Cuomo rudely and inappropriately basically told O’Malley he wasn’t going to get enough votes (due to the 15% rule) and asked O’Malley who his supporters should vote for instead. The audience didn’t like that, and fair enough too. O’Malley talked of his ability to bring people together in a way neither of the other two candidates can, and perhaps he’s right.
Hillary Clinton brought a different though no less positive mood. Cuomo talked of the Boston Globe and Des Moines Register both endorsing her over the weekend, along with Obama referring to her positively, including saying she was”wicked smart.”
Clinton talked of wanting to carry on the work Obama has done. Like O’Malley, she made a point of getting up out of her seat and connecting with voters. (I’m not sure she would have done that if he hadn’t.)
Clinton’s first question was also a tough one, though it was probably good to get the elephant in the room dealt with up front. The questioner described himself as leaning towards Sanders and said young people all seemed to be enthusiastic for him, that her candidacy didn’t seem as exciting, and that many appeared to view her as dishonest. She dealt with the question well. She basically said she’s been fighting for people since she was in college, and accusations have always been thrown at her. Those people have fallen by the wayside and she’s just kept on fighting. Like all three candidates, she emphasized that the Democrats were in a debate of ideas, not personalities, and that can be tough, but that the important thing was that people got involved and heard the different arguments.
Her second questioner accused her of being a newcomer to the idea of income inequality while Sanders was a more authentic voice. Clinton broadened her answer to all inequality and talked about her record there, but came back to work she did relating to income inequality as far back as the early 1990s when Bill Clinton was president.
For the first time we got a question about foreign policy next. Clinton stated that military force should always be the last resort, not the first choice, and that diplomacy should be persisted with as long as possible. She emphasized her experience as Secretary of State, and pointed out a couple of examples where she managed to prevent military intervention. She answered Sanders’ criticism of her vote for Iraq by saying she has a much bigger record than one vote, which she’s admitted was wrong.
She got a question from a veteran next, and she was the first candidate that remembered to thank her for her service. (I expected to hear both Sanders and O’Malley do that when they got questions from veterans, but neither did.) The question though related to discrimination of various minorities. This gave Clinton the chance to point out the constant bigotry from several candidates in the GOP race, especially Trump (without actually naming him) and his denigration of Muslims. Clinton has called Trump out for his bigotry several times, and was thus able to point to examples of doing that, and again talked of her life-long history of working to address equality and human rights issues.
Clinton’s next question was a soft one about bringing people together. If any politician didn’t have an answer for that, they shouldn’t even be in the race. She got the opportunity to back down over her “Republicans are the enemy” comment from an earlier debate, and did okay there. However, she also made some stupid comment about giving them “big ole bear hugs, whether they like it or not,” which was a bit weird. She got a bit arrogant too about being gracious when she went back after going so well at the Benghazi hearing. That might have been alright for an audience of supporters, but was a bit of a loose response.
The next person even mentioned the bear hugs, so I think that one’s going to be all over the papers tomorrow. When I watch Fox News in the morning, I can already imagine the sarcastic remarks I’ll be hearing. He wanted to know how she was going to deal with The Benghazi Question in the general election. She did a good job here too. Further, she admitted that a criticism the Des Moines Register made of her was fair, but there was still a bit of inability to admit she’s wrong. She got a bit tongue-tied too. She should have expected the question and didn’t appear to have a good answer ready.
Clinton got another soft-ball question next – which president inspired her the most? After a quick apology to presidents Obama and Clinton, she chose Abraham Lincoln, for the obvious reasons.
I think this Town Hall was useful in helping Democrats choose who to vote for. They talked on the issues, and they all did a really good job. I personally think Clinton is the best prepared to be president, but any of the three would do a good job.