The Democratic primary debates have officially begun. And as the candidates shared a stage for the first time, it was clear that serious contenders needed to not only acknowledge our country’s extreme economic inequality but also put forward concrete plans for tackling the problem.
How much has the conversation changed since the last presidential election? The first questions posed to the candidates in the first Democratic primary debates of 2015 allowed them to vaguely describe their ideologies without going too deep into policy specifics.
That wasn’t the case for the 2020 contenders. A far more crowded pool – and an influx of candidates attempting to woo voters concerned about the structural deficiencies in the economy – pushed inequality into the center of the debates. We’ve rounded up 10 key takeaways.
1. A presumed frontrunner confronted about coddling the 1 percent
Joe Biden recently promised wealthy donors that he wouldn’t “demonize the rich,” reassuring them at a fundraiser that “no one’s standard of living would change” if he became president. At the time, he probably didn’t expect his comments to form the basis of his very first question in the 2020 debates. When asked by moderators to expand on what he meant, the former vice president pivoted to an extended tribute to middle class workers.
2. Taxing the rich
Beto O’Rourke’s first question was whether he’d support a marginal individual tax rate of 70 percent on incomes above $10 million. While O’Rourke managed to include a couple sentences in Spanish in his response, he never answered the actual question. When prompted again, he skipped over specific individual rates, saying only that he’d equalize rates on investment and ordinary income while pegging the corporate tax rate at 28 percent – substantially lower than the 35 percent rate in effect until Republicans cut it to 21 percent in 2017. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the only candidate who volunteered his support for a 70 percent top rate.
3. Middle-class tax cuts
The American middle class pays relatively low income taxes, compared to historical averages, so most progressive tax reformers focus on hiking rates on the rich and corporations to pay for urgent social needs. Sen. Bernie Sanders said middle-class families would pay more in taxes under his administration, but they would come out ahead thanks to more affordable health care. By contrast, Sen. Kamala Harris said her “first issue” as president would be middle-class tax cuts. Her proposal to reduce IRS bills for households earning up to $100,000 per year would shrink federal revenue by $271 billion per year, potentially limiting her ability to fulfill spending priorities.
4. Racial inequality
If you haven’t yet seen the most dramatic exchange of the debates — Harris going after Biden over his 1970s-era opposition to busing to desegregate schools — check it out. What was left unsaid: school segregation is not just a thing of the past. Today, a half century after Harris’s personal experience with busing, more than half of students are in highly segregated districts (more than 75 percent white or non-white). School racial segregation is associated with racial achievement gaps that exacerbate racial economic inequality.
5. Gender pay gap
Julián Castro and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were both asked what they would do to close the pay gap between men and women. Castro began by talking about how his mom, a single parent, worked hard to pay the bills and still faced financial insecurity. He then called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a long-proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution that would ensure equal rights regardless of sex. Gabbard skipped the question, reciting instead her military record and broader platform of shifting resources from regime change wars to domestic needs.