Democratic debate moderators haven’t done American voters any favors

Three debates in, candidates and media seem averse to discussing economy, jobs and growth

Moderators at the next Democratic debate should go deeper on extreme policies such as Elizabeth Warren’s assault on capitalism and Bernie Sanders’ socialist health care proposal, Winston writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Moderators at the next Democratic debate should go deeper on extreme policies such as Elizabeth Warren’s assault on capitalism and Bernie Sanders’ socialist health care proposal, Winston writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted September 18, 2019 at 6:30am

OPINION — The first three Democratic presidential debates — five, if you count the double features in June and July — are, thankfully, in the political rearview mirror. It turns out that despite the hours and hours spent debating, and then the hours and hours talking about the debates, and then the inevitable polls trying to pick winners and losers, the political landscape hasn’t changed much. 

A Sept. 13-15 Morning Consult poll of Democratic primary voters done after the latest debate found Joe Biden still in the lead at 32 percent. Bernie Sanders was in second place at 20 percent with Elizabeth Warren closing in at 18 percent. Everybody else huddled at the bottom with 6 percent or less. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

Despite his many gaffes, Biden keeps on keeping on and showed in the last debate a willingness to push back. Warren has picked up some steam as she and Sanders continue to battle for the party’s extreme left wing.

Still, the debates have provided a number of the candidates with a viral moment though not always a positive one. Kamala Harris hitting Biden in the first debate. Tulsi Gabbard hitting Harris in the second. Julián Castro taking on Biden and Beto O’Rourke promising to take America’s guns in the third. Mayor Pete’s penchant for biblical citation and Cory Booker’s eating habits have earned them more than a few comical jabs. So has Andrew Yang’s “freedom dividend” lottery, which seems unserious until one actually looks into the details of his rivals’ policy plans to “fix” the country.

But did America really learn anything new in this latest magical mystery tour into the phantasmagorical policy realms of the Democratic Party’s presidential contenders?

The answer, sadly, is no and that has been a wasted opportunity for voters of every stripe to become better educated on where the candidates stand, especially on the economy, one of the electorate’s top two issues.

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In their comfort zones

It’s been disappointing to see that the one thing all three debates and the candidates have shared is a seeming aversion to actually discussing economic growth and the jobs and revenue it produces. Clearly, it’s more than a little awkward for both the media and the Democratic hopefuls they’ve been moderating to acknowledge the current strength of the economy.

And voters aren’t stupid. Other than true believers on the left, most Americans are rightfully skeptical of candidates who promise the world but fail to produce any realistic path to paying for trillion-dollar plans from “Medicare for All” to free college to climate change. The only things missing on last week’s debate stage were a couple of unicorns grazing happily among pots of gold, shining under a glittering rainbow. As an independent voter in a recent focus group told us about the Democrats’ debate promises, “The money has to come from somewhere.”

It’s not a surprise that the last debate didn’t move voters. Unlike the moderators, most Americans haven’t signed on to these progressive proposals that represent the largest redistribution of wealth in the nation’s history and would turn our current economic system upside down.

People want to understand the Democratic candidates’ various economic visions and how those ideas will affect them. To make an informed choice in the Democratic primaries and the general election, they need to know how much money and control Sanders and Warren intend to move from the private sector to the federal government and where Biden or the other candidates fit into the mix.

But the moderators’ questions didn’t move the country forward in the ongoing and crucial debate on the merits of capitalism versus socialism; whether more federal intrusion into the economy is a good or bad idea. The journalists have seemed almost wholly uninterested in pushing the candidates to explain how they intend to pay for their multi-trillion-dollar proposals beyond “taxing the rich.”

Real consequences

None of the questioners thought it important enough to ask Warren, for example, about what she calls “accountable capitalism” even though millions of the nation’s retirees would likely take a huge hit if her proposed “Accountable Capitalism Act” becomes law. While Warren loves to take aim at those who own stocks — whom she portrays as the rich — the fact is that 73 percent of the value of U.S. stocks belong to people nearing or in retirement, through IRAs, 401(k)s and pensions and through life insurance companies that pay for annuities and death benefits.

In a sobering recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, former Senate Banking Chairman Phil Gramm and economic policy consultant Michael Solon argued that Warren’s proposal would rewrite the rules that require corporations, unions and investment advisers to act “solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries.” Instead, her plan would require companies to broaden their stakeholder fiduciary responsibility to include political interests from “the community” to “the local and global environment” to “community and societal factors” among others.” What could possibly go wrong with this idea?

As Gramm and Solon put it, “This subversion of capitalism would hijack Americans’ wealth to serve many new masters who, unlike shareholders, don’t have their life savings at stake in the companies that are collectivized.” This is a radical legislative proposal that would upend our current economic system and create a command-and-control system totally at odds with capitalism. Yet not a single debate moderator has asked Warren a question about it or her various wealth tax proposals, also likely to have a negative impact on economic growth.

“Socialism always destroys wealth; it doesn’t redistribute it,” Gramm and Solon wrote, while speculating whether “current and near-retirees will stand up and fight for their retirement savings.” I would argue that before they can fight against this kind of socialist agenda, they need to be armed with the facts.

Political debates offer a good forum to begin the discussion; to hear the pros and cons of economic proposals of all the candidates and give voters the information they need to make an informed choice. It was and is the responsibility of the journalists chosen for the debate panels to ask tough questions on issues that matter to voters — and the economy matters. As moderators, their job is to put aside their personal biases and get to the substance of policies like Warren’s assault on capitalism or Sander’s extreme proposal to trade private health care for a socialist alternative.

The next Democratic debate is Oct. 15. What voters don’t need is another debate like the first three. The journalists who will ask the questions next month need to change direction and go deep into to the economically risky policies offered up by this increasingly left-wing field of candidates.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.