Democratic presidential hopefuls discuss free college, climate change in first debate


Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS

Ten presidential hopefuls stand on the debate stage. Wednesday marked one of two parts to the first round of debates in Miami.

Daisy Conant, Reporter

Part one of the Democratic presidential debates took place Wednesday night, featuring 10 randomly-selected candidates from the crowded field. Because the debate included Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), the only candidate polling in the double digits, many speculated the stage could act as a launchpad for those on the fringes to propel themselves into the national spotlight.

Although the debate was dominated by discussions about healthcare and immigration, it included three issues that may have a large impact on Northwestern students and Illinois residents.

Free college

One of the first items discussed was the economy — including the merits and drawbacks of free college. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) was the only candidate to speak in-depth on the matter, saying universally tuition-free higher education is akin to “paying for college for rich kids.”

She proposed a broad three-pronged plan: make community college tuition-free, make sure everyone else besides “that top percentile” receives aid to afford an education and make it easier for students to pay off their student loans.

“If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans,” Klobuchar said.

To ensure an increase in financial aid, she said she plans to use Pell Grants — doubling their cap from $6,000 to $12,000 a year — and expand coverage to families that make up to $100,000. The senator did not elaborate on how she would ease the burden of student loan debt.

For perspective, 20 percent of Northwestern’s class of 2022 is Pell Grant-eligible. Thirty-seven percent of NU graduates had student loan debt in 2017.

Her plan was neither directly rebutted nor addressed by the other candidates, but New York City mayor Bill de Blasio did comment that as Democrats, he and his fellow candidates “are supposed to be for free college.”

Gun control

An increase in school shootings and gun-related violence across the nation has pushed the issue of gun control to the forefront of political activism. Warren was the first to respond to a question on the role of the federal government on dealing with gun control — her answer was to treat gun violence as a “virus that’s killing our children” and double down on research. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) drove the discussion afterward.

“My colleague and I both have been hearing this on the campaign trail, but what’s even worse is I hear gunshots in my neighborhood,” Booker said. “It is time that we have bold actions and a bold agenda. I will get that done as president of the United States because this is not about policy. This is personal.”

Booker attributed the problem of gun violence to letting the corporate gun lobby frame the debate. The senator, whose platform includes a government buyback plan, added that the government must initiate a bolder agenda on guns. He cited statistics showing a 40 percent drop in gun violence and a 15 percent drop in suicides after imposing license requirements, age restrictions and safety trainings upon purchasing a gun in Connecticut.

Four other candidates jumped into the debate, including Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who argued that the focus needs to be on trauma-based care in schools.

Booker closed by arguing the issue of gun control is “common sense.”

“If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm,” Booker said.

Climate change and the green economy

A large portion of the climate change debate last night centered around addressing the increase in flooding across the country as moderators questioned candidates on their plans for environmental mitigation. Regions across the nation are experiencing negative effects from climate change and rising temperatures — in Illinois, many suburbs have experienced recent flash floods while the Chicagoland area is witnessing a potentially dangerous rise in lake and river levels.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee has staked his candidacy on the issue of climate change. He pointed to his “gold standard” plan of putting people to work and his 100 percent clean electric grid bill when asked how he would aid Miami, a victim of rising sea levels. He added the most important decision Americans can make is to elect a president whose first priority is attacking climate change, then claiming he is the only candidate who will do so.

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last that can do something about it,” Inslee said. “Our towns are burning, our fields are flooding, Miami is inundated and we have to understand this is a climate crisis — an emergency — and it is our last chance in the next administration to do something about it.”

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said his administration would plan to “fund resiliency” in communities on the “front lines of climate change,” eliminate dependence on fossil fuels and pay farmers for producing renewable agriculture and environmental services.

Former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro echoed O’Rourke’s commitment to investing in communities recovering from natural disaster in a sustainable way. He added that the first action he would take as president would be to sign an executive order recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accord.

The topic of climate change and the environment first arose in the debate when Warren was asked if the democratic candidates can promise the revival of industrial jobs with the same vigor of their rivals across the aisle, namely President Trump.

The senator said she would shift the country’s industrial policy towards the production of green technology by increasing government research and development into green energy, restricting manufacturing to the United States and selling to a global market.

“There’s going to be a worldwide need for green technology, ways to clean up the air, ways to clean up the water,” Warren said. “And we can be the ones to provide that…. There is a $23 trillion market coming for green products. We should be the leaders and the owners, and we should have that 1.2 million manufacturing jobs here in America.”

When asked what the greatest geopolitical threat to the nation is right now, O’Rourke, Booker, Warren and Castro all responded, “climate change.”

Thursday’s debates will feature another 10 candidates vying for the nomination — viewers can watch the politicians discuss similar issues starting at 8 p.m. CST.

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Twitter: @daisy_conant