Brits tuning into the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night would have been forgiven for drawing two conclusions: the 2016 US Presidential elections are finally underway, and Democrats want America to be much more like Britain. Neither is exactly true.
In fact, it’s been “2016” for the better part of three years. In both parties, most hopefuls started positioning themselves for the White House the day President Obama began his second term. The really keen ones were vying for the Oval Office before they even got elected to the Senate; those late to the game had either the billions or the gravitas to comfortably slot in.
Now the ambiguity has come to an end; the candidates have finally begun to build themselves up and go after each other. We must pick them apart as well. There is nowhere better to start than Tuesday night’s spectacle.
The Democrats should be careful what they wish for. Many left-leaning pundits were concerned the field looked too unimaginative, which could make Hillary Clinton’s elevation to the nomination seem too easy. Like Labour during its leadership contest, they wanted more diversity, that much-loved “genuine alternative”.
And now they’ve got it in spades. Their top two front-runners are a self-proclaimed socialist (senator Bernie Sanders) and a suspect in an FBI investigation (secretary Clinton). Many predict they’ll be adding another big personality to the next debate, who has the reputation of speaking off the cuff a little too often. Tick tock, Vice President Joe Biden.
The two-hour debate was dominated by social issues and gun control, not touching once on the US federal debt (at over $18 trillion) or the current deficit (at over $400bn). In fact, it managed to avoid addressing economic issues altogether.
The closest the candidates came to having an economic discussion was the showdown between Clinton and Sanders over the benefits of capitalism. Clinton appeared the “moderate”, who thought it was the government’s job to rein in “excessive capitalism”. She received weak applause compared to Sanders, whose denouncement of the whole system drove the crowd wild.
The evening also revealed the Democrats’ soft spot for Europe. Sanders in particular envies Denmark and its welfare model, and called for everyone to be put onto government-controlled healthcare. Yet the senator, secretary and other candidates only see what they want to see where Europe is concerned. Denmark enjoys low public debt and low corporation tax rates; the UK’s Conservative Party just won a general election on the basis that they could be trusted with the economy and not to overspend. Their opponents are trailing in the polls with an anti-capitalist platform.
According to Gallup, 86 per cent of Americans say the economy will be “extremely or very important to their vote next year”, and with no proposal laid out on Tuesday night for how such projects will be financed, it’s hard to believe the Democrats’ magic money-tree pitches will be met with enthusiasm by anyone other than the party’s far-left base.
But there’s a catch: despite claims that Americans care about the economy, the debates have kept Sanders and Donald Trump – arguably the most economically illiterate candidate of all – leading in the polls. Maybe prosperity comes second to good television, which Gallup didn’t include in its survey. But with plenty of debates left, we will soon discover the specific policies of the candidates, and the real priorities of their supporters.