What the Debates Did & Didn’t Teach Us that Voters Ought to Know

The first two debates: Overly heavy on candidates + too light on discussion of how candidates would run the executive branch

As we’ve told you, the core animating principle of Revolving Door Project work is that executive branch personnel matters. A lot. 

So it was a bit sad that while watching this week’s presidential debates, we saw the “myth of president as prime minister” undergird most of both debates.

And yet despite the glaring absence of focus on executive branch regulatory and enforcement priorities, there were a few bright spots. Here are some non-exhaustive reflections.

** Widely viewed as one of this week’s strongest performers, Secretary Julian Castro effectively pointed to humane refinements to US migration policy that he could implement as president. 

** Senator Cory Booker -- another talented politician with a strong resume who had been needlessly overlooked in recent weeks -- peppered his strong performance Wednesday night with: 

(1) References to the need to appoint strong antitrust law enforcers at the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 

(2) A recognition of the need to enforce white collar criminal laws for Big Pharma executives who potentially broke the law pushing opioids.

** Beyond Booker, the only candidate over either night to explicitly reference the President’s Appointment Power over executive branch officials was Congressman Tim Ryan, who referenced how Trump has shriveled the State Department’s capacity to fulfill its diplomatic responsibilities.

More like this please!

** While former Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s performance was generally viewed as desultory, his best moment was identifying the need for the next president’s Justice Department to follow up on the Mueller Report. All candidates should take note that the next Justice Department will no longer be constrained by the (deeply flawed at best, in our view) Office of Legal Counsel memo shielding current presidents from prosecution regardless of whether their actions were criminal. 

** Several candidates missed opportunities to discuss the need to recruit and empower talented public servants at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and across the federal government to implement their climate and Green Jobs agendas.

** Similarly, a broad swathe of candidates discussed tax evasion, such as by Amazon, as solely an issue of legislation. It is not. The erosion of IRS’ staffing and various pro-tax evader and avoider legal interpretations put out by pro-corporate Treasury Department officials play a huge role in how our tax code effectively accelerates economic inequality. It would have been great to have heard recognition of the need to strengthen the IRS and appoint revenue (and fairness) hungry officials to the Treasury Department.

** Several candidates discussed the student loan crisis -- and yet none discussed how Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos have corruptly made it worse. We remain befuddled at the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to discuss Betsy DeVos, whose toxic combination of great personal privilege, extreme ignorance, and corruption makes her a worthy emblem of how Trump scandals materially impact families across the country.

** Vice President Biden discussed the need to put “insurance executives in jail” for “their misleading advertising.”

The moderators and his opponents missed the opportunity to follow-up and ask Biden about the problematic record of the Obama-Biden administration on white collar criminal (non)enforcement.

** Of course, we recognize that much of the aftermath of the debates will (very properly) focus on the dramatic exchange between Senator Harris and Biden on Biden’s record with respect to race. We would argue that not only is Biden’s record noteworthy, it is also directly relevant to how he would guide the civil rights divisions of, e.g., the Departments of Justice, Education, and Housing and Urban Development.

** Similarly, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was unable to do anything other than to apologize for (among several other aspects of policing issues under his watch) how the South Bend police force became conspicuously less black (declining from 10% to 6%) during his tenure in office. Diversity in personnel is a noteworthy issue for a potential leader of the executive branch, and thus Buttigieg’s problematic South Bend record seems highly relevant to how he would govern as president. We hope for many follow-up questions on this critical, multi-faceted issue.

Overall, our main takeaway is to hope that the field as a whole -- and the moderators, who bear much of the blame for this myopia -- does better in July!

So while journalists, campaigns, and activists think about how to shift some attention to executive branch governance, we offer up this preliminary guide to “How Well Do Leading 2020 Candidates Understand the Executive Branch?”

And we note that this guide will be expanded over time -- for instance, it now feels like Secretary Castro has earned a section!

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Revolving Door Project is a project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.