Third Dem Debate Recap: Did We Learn Anything New?

Image: Reuters

The third Democratic debate took place at Texas Southern University and the absence of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was noticeable–especially in the opening remarks where candidates mentioned climate change but no one connected the fact that it is directly connected to every other voting priority.

However, climate change, which many experts have called the greatest existential threat, got about 9 minutes of discussion out of roughly 3 hours of air time. This isn’t to say that candidates didn’t want to talk about it, they did. Senator Cory Booker made sure to incorporate environmental justice in a question about racism and Mayor Pete Buttigieg and VP Joe Biden both addressed the fact that environmentalists and labor representatives have to be at the table for trade negotiations with countries like China. It’s for this reason that we believe a climate forum, like our #ClimateForum2020,  lends itself to a much more substantive conversation on climate change than a debate this large at this phase of the Democratic primary process.

The Standout: All in all, we heard a lot of points and anecdotes reiterated from candidate answers from last week’s CNN climate change town hall. But one surprising standout in the climate conversation was Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Klobuchar began her remarks on climate change with the zinger, “You know that movie The Day After Tomorrow? It’s today.” and explained that she is uniquely positioned as a senator from the Midwest to connect climate change to the voters that Democrats will need to win back to reclaim the White House in 2020.

Corruption: The theme of addressing corruption in order to address all other issues was brought up by Senator Warren as well as Andrew Yang. It’s an important political issue but aside from Yang’s Democracy Dollars it wasn’t clear how Warren defined corruption and how she would eradicate it: getting rid of paid lobbying, working to overturn Citizens United, etc. Either way, the outsize influence of industry on our political system is the biggest impediment on federal climate action and this should get more of a discussion in debates going forward.

Making It Local: Aside from Beto O’Rourke, most candidates failed to talk about climate change in the context of Houston, the host city of the debate. Not only is Houston still recovering from Hurricane Harvey and its record rainfall but the city has also suffered from a recent string of oil refinery explosions that have dumped toxic pollution into the air. Houston is also ground-zero for how climate-related disasters hit poor and communities of color the hardest. Overall, it was a missed opportunity that could have helped contextualize the climate conversation for people tuning into the debate.

Why This Matters: While debates are back to being one day, with so many candidates it’s still difficult to give enough focus on any one issue. Those who tuned in looking for a robust climate debate were predictably disappointed. However, during this debate, moderator Jorge Ramos of Univision asked Senator Booker if Americans adopting veganism (Booker is a vegan) was the key to helping stop deforestation in the Amazon. Booker deflected the question but also missed another opportunity to make it clear that the solutions to our greatest environmental challenges require systemic change on the part of government and dwelling on dietary restrictions misses the point. It also allows Republicans to repurpose the playbook on gun legislation by turning this around as Democrats “taking things away” from hardworking Americans.

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