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Democratic Primary Debate: Here Are Some Questions We Need Answered

We heard you want to be president. What’s your plan to address white racism, climate change and education?

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Emily Blunt" Episode 1707 -- Pictured: Bobby Moynihan as Ken Bone during the "Debate Cold Open" sketch on October 15, 2016 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Emily Blunt" Episode 1707 -- Pictured: Bobby Moynihan as Ken Bone during the "Debate Cold Open" sketch on October 15, 2016

Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Hey, CNN. Big night tonight. Feeling ready? Good. Of course you are. But just in case you’re still light on tough debate questions, or in case some corporate beancounter somewhere has demanded you treat this debate like a UFC fight night (there was a bit of a hiccup there earlier this month), we’ve got some suggestions.

What are the most productive ways for white people to be involved in the struggle against racial injustice in this American moment, and how will you lead by example?

Every single one of the debaters tonight is white. Given that the president has clearly signaled that he is about to run for re-election on a platform of white patriarchy, and that terrorism by white extremists is our biggest immediate domestic threat, this is an essential question to ask, even if the president weren’t in the midst of one of his self-generated controversies about his racism. — Jamil Smith

What is your plan to phase out fossil fuels, and how fast would you do it?

July is on track to be the hottest month in recorded history. There is almost universal agreement among scientists that any serious plan to beat the climate crisis involves phasing out the use of fossil fuels: no more drilling, no more refining, keep it in the ground. But few of the 2020 Democratic contenders have offered a serious plan to end our dependence on fossil fuels before it’s too late for our country and for the planet. No serious climate agenda leaves out a plan and a timeline for getting to zero fossil fuels. The coal, oil and gas companies and their lobbyists will use everything in their arsenal to resist you, so any plan to phase out fossil fuels should also explain how to defeat the fossil fuel lobby as well. — Andy Kroll

Bernie Sanders, do you take issue with other candidates using the term “Medicare-for-All” to describe health care plans that retain the private insurance industry?

Bernie Sanders believes in a single-payer health care system that would effectively eliminate the private insurance industry. After gaining traction in 2016, his Medicare-for-All plan has found its way to the center of the 2020 health care debate — so much so that the term is losing all meaning. On Monday, Kamala Harris, who had signed onto Sanders’ 2017 Medicare-for-All bill, introduced what she is calling her own version of Medicare-for-All, one that retains a role for private insurers. Sanders probably isn’t thrilled that the title of his ambitious plan has been co-opted, by Harris or by other candidates who have incorporated it into the language describing their more moderate proposals. — Ryan Bort

The U.S. is on pace to spend well over $7 trillion on defense in the next decade. We spend nearly three times as much on defense our nearest plausible military rival, China. Who on this stage would seek to cut Pentagon spending as president, and by how much?

Under Trump, the Pentagon budget has swollen to levels not seen since the height of the Iraq War — $738 billion for 2020 under the new budget deal. (House Democrats did not fight to put a lid on military spending, trumpeting instead that they secured proportionally larger increases in domestic spending in the bargain.) The 2020 candidates who advocate sweeping domestic policies like Medicare-for-All or free public college, with price tags in the trillions, have generally called to pay for them with new taxes on the rich, rather than a reallocation of resources away from the military-industrial complex. The question could give candidates with transformative notions for our national defense posture (Tulsi Gabbard, for example) an opportunity to explain whether an end to “wasteful wars” will yield a peace dividend. — Tim Dickinson

If Democrats took the Senate during your administration, would you demand your party eliminate the filibuster if Republicans tried to use it to thwart your agenda?

You say you want radical action to address climate change and Medicare-for-All? A national hike in the minimum wage or a universal basic income? You’re getting 60 Senate votes for exactly none of that, and you’re not getting 60 for any other meaningful progressive bills either. There’s no way around it: Either you give up on the filibuster, or you give up on your own agenda.

Under President Obama, Democrats never even sniffed single payer, excised the public option from their own health plan, and ultimately advanced health-care legislation that relied heavily on private insurance and looked suspiciously like a system once championed by Mitt Romney. Republicans pretended it was the equivalent of a Soviet five-year plan and unanimously opposed it. Democrats put forth a market-based, cap-and-trade climate plan that included billions upon billions of subsidies for the coal industry. Republicans — and a few squishy Democrats who got voted right the hell out of the Senate anyway — killed it because a plan to begin to address (even at the time, it fell far short of what scientists said was needed) an existential threat to the planet couldn’t get to 60 votes. Since then, the Republican Party has moved right, and many in the Democratic field are pushing far more progressive plans than Obama’s. So let’s get real: If keeping the filibuster is part of your platform, all you’re really promising voters is to put forth an ambitious, progressive legislative agenda…that Mitch McConnell will kill. — Patrick Reis

What were the root causes of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016?

Like the Civil War, we’ll be endlessly debating Trump’s upset victory in 2016 long into the future. Yet the Democratic Party (and the news media, for that matter) has never truly reckoned with why Trump won and what that means for 2020. Did then-FBI director James Comey swing the decisive votes to Trump? Would Hillary Clinton have won if she hadn’t taken Wisconsin for granted? Did Russian interference affect the result? Was it Trump’s racism and xenophobia that won over disaffected white voters, or was it his vows to drain the swamp and blow up the established order in Washington? Every Democrat in the race should have a theory of the case for why Trump won — and how that informs their thinking. — AK

Senator Booker, as mayor of Newark you supported charter schools and vouchers, which critics believe can undermine the success of public schools. What is your thinking on “school choice” today? And for the other candidates: What steps would you take as president to encourage or constrain publicly funded alternatives to local public schools? 

When Booker comes onstage Wednesday, we want to talk education. It’s sometimes overlooked amid questions of taxing the wealthiest and reforming healthcare, but education policy is an arena where presidents wield significant executive power. As mayor of Newark, Booker battled public-school unions to champion a “reform” agenda centered on charter schools and voucher programs. He compared the pushback from unions to being “literally tarred and feathered.” At the time Booker even partnered with the billionaire Betsy DeVos on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, though he voted against her nomination as Education Secretary under Trump. The question could surface genuine disagreement among the candidates on stage, while forcing Booker — who hopes to be taken seriously as a candidate and ought to be seriously vetted — to account for his education record in Newark, which also included a controversial donation of $100 million to the school system by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. — TD

Andrew Yang, you’ve expressed frustration with the debate format, and joked last week about attacking Senator Bennet. How would you re-imagine the debates?

The Original Yangsta also isn’t on until Wednesday, but when he takes the stage, we’ve got questions. Yang, who delivered a lackluster performance in his first turn on the debate stage, tweeted last week that “would like to signal to the press” that he “will be attacking Michael Bennet at next week’s debate,” ostensibly as a commentary on how the press rewards such attacks. By basing his campaign around giving every American a $1,000-a-month universal basic income, Yang is perhaps the most free-thinking Democrat in the field. How would he re-format the system by which candidates are vetted by the public? — RB

If you weren’t running, who in the current field would you be voting for?

Granted, we have a snowball’s chance in a rapidly climate cooked planet of getting this one answered, but I really, really, really would love to know. — PR

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