On Saturday afternoon, eight Democratic presidential hopefuls appeared for MoveOn’s “Big Ideas Forum” in San Francisco.
Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Cory Booker, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Secretary Julián Castro, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Kamala Harris, and Senator Amy Klobuchar were in attendance. Each candidate had the opportunity to pitch “one big idea” that they believe would help create an America that works for everyone.
Here is a summary of the presidential candidates’ Big Ideas at the MoveOn Forum:
Sanders: Stop endless wars
Booker: Baby Bonds
Warren: Clean up corruption
O’Rourke: Humane immigration/border policy
Gillibrand: National paid family leave
Harris: Equal pay
Castro: Police reform
Klobuchar: Voting rights
Senator Bernie Sanders kicked off the forum with his one big idea: stop endless war.
“Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” reverberated throughout the room as the Senator made his way on stage. He called for cutting military spending, stopping the war in Yemen, and avoiding war with Iran.
“It’s time to end the entire policy of endless wars,” he stated. “It’s not just Republicans who support too-big military budgets, it’s many Democrats as well.” In terms of concrete policy proposals, Sanders wants the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force policies repealed to prevent the authority of any US presidential administration to wage needless war, and he also wants to reallocate the Pentagon budget towards climate solutions that will create good paying jobs and save the planet.
Sanders’ focus on foreign policy for this forum is significant and strategic, as many critiqued his approach to foreign policy as weak during the 2016 race. His message this time around focused onfinding diplomatic solutions to international conflict and moving towards creating “a global community” in which all have decent jobs, adequate food, clean water, education, health care, and housing.
Senator Cory Booker followed Sanders, and proposed his own big idea: correcting wealth disparity through “Baby Bonds”— a $1,000 interest-bearing account that gets up to $2,000 invested per year for low-income children in order to build wealth from birth. His big ideas focused on wealth creation in order to achieve opportunity, equality, and the “American dream.”
For the lowest-income children, these accounts could accrue upwards of $50,000 by the time they reach adulthood at 18 years old, which Booker suggested could then be used to invest in things that create wealth, including college or homeownership. “In America, paychecks help you get by, but wealth helps you get ahead and create generational wealth and strength,” he said. He also added that this could help erase the racial wealth gap in the US.
Booker also directly addressed racism and white supremacy during his speech, labeling white supremacy as a threat to our country’s democracy, safety, and security. “Since 9/11, the majority of terrorist attacks in our country have been homegrown right-wing groups and the majority of them have been white supremacist attacks,” he says. “I’m going to make sure that here in Silicon Valley, these social media platforms do not become platforms for hate and bigotry.”
Senator Booker was a clear crowd favorite— his speech was fired up and his delivery was passionate.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s big idea? Clean up corruption.And she’s got a plan for that. Her anti-corruption plan, which she calls the “biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate,” includes ending lobbying in its current form, instituting a lifetime lobbying ban on elected officials, creating an ethics agency in DC, and requiring all individuals who run for federal office to release their tax returns online.
Needless to say, Warren offered policy proposals left and right and couldn’t limit her discussion to only one big idea. She proposed a 2-cent wealth tax, which would tax the top 1/10th of the one percent two cents on every dollar above $50 million and go towards funding universal childcare and Pre-K. She discussed cancelling student debt. She received roaring applause for her comments on gun violence.
Warren also talked about her housing proposal, which would create 3 million housing units both in urban and rural areas and provide housing subsidies to those in previously redlined areas. “We need to make a federal commitment,” she said.She eloquently discussed racial inequity and the history of racial discrimination through the practice of redlining.”Housing is the number one way that families pass on wealth in America… It should surprise no one in here that starting early in the 20th century, America started investing in the purchase of housing and subsidizing it for white people, but not for Black people [and] communities of color…” she stated.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke asked: What if we treat immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers with dignity and respect?
Switching between English and Spanish, Beto offered his comprehensive immigration reform plan, which includes cancelling Trump’s orders along the border, ending the caging of children and family separation, waiving fees for citizenship applications, and speeding up the process of naturalization and creating more pathways to citizenship for all, not just the undocumented.
Beto also discussed aiding and investing in Central America to reduce the cycle of immigrants fleeing and seeking refuge. “Instead of meeting them with a wall or this inhumanity, this cruelty, or this torture, what if we obviate the need for them to make this journey in this first place?” he asked. He also suggested that it was time to cancel the president’s bullshit, and his simple use of a swear word was enough to fire the crowd up.
What was most interesting in his speech was his pivot towards talking about his own white male privilege and his commitment to diversity. How would Beto use his privilege as a white male to address sexism and racism?
“There are advantages that I have brought into this race that I did not earn,” he stated. He talked about listening to those who have not enjoyed the same advantages as him, and reflecting diversity in his campaign and any future administration he may lead to counter innate privilege. Within the same vein, he discussed supporting H.R.40, which would study reparations, and also addressed the school-to-prison pipeline, decriminalization of marijuana, and the foundational racial inequity in this country that contributed to the wealth gap between white and Black communities.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand demands National Paid Family Leave.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand asked the crowd: What does the United States have in common with Papua New Guinea and no other industrialized country in the world?
They both don’t have national paid family leave.
In fact, Gillibrand stated that eight out of 10 Americans don’t have paid leave and are forced to choose between earning a paycheck or caring for their families. “It’s such a drag on the US economy… it’s something that harms our economy and our families,” she said. According to Gillibrand, working families lose $20 billion a year in wages due to lack of access to paid leave. Her plan to create 3-month paid family leave would be an earned benefit much like social security, costing two dollars a week for the average worker.
Gillibrand expressed that part of the problem is that legislators, the majority of whom are male, don’t represent their constituents well. “It is a women’s issue, but it’s also an economic issue. It’s an issue that affects our small businesses… It’s an issue that affects our lowest income workers,” she said. Senator Gillibrand also stated that paid family leave is a racial justice issue, because a lot of low-wage workers are women and women of color. She also discussed race and maternal mortality rates, racial bias in the delivery room, decriminalization of marijuana, ending cash bail and for-profit prisons, and supporting studying reparations. She urged the crowd to look into her entire platform, especially her “Family Bill of Rights,” which include a set of “common sense” policies to level the playing field and set children up for success starting at birth.
The Senator is polling low and facing difficulties in fundraising, but national paid leave is on the national radar and many presidential contenders, including Kamala Harris, have plans to put it into effect.
Senator Kamala Harris says “Close the gender pay gap and shift the burden to the employer.”
In her home state, Senator Harris called to shift the burden of equal pay from the employee to the employer. She notes that even after the Lilly Ledbetter Act was passed, the burden is still on workers to report the issue of unequal pay and pursue legal processes.
Under her presidency, “the burden will shift to the employer to prove that they are paying women the same amount as men for the same work… I’m going to require that they post on their website what they’re paying people for equal work,” she stated. To enforce this, Harris proposed that for every 1 percent differential between what a woman worker is making compared to what a male worker is making, the employer will have to pay a fine of 1 percent of the profits made from the previous year, which will go towards funding paid family leave. This proposal drew major enthusiasm from the crowd.
While she continued to answer questions by the moderators,an animal rights activist jumped on stageand grabbed Senator Harris’ microphone to discuss his own big idea. Security was slow to respond but Harris calmly walked off the stage amidst the chaos. Luckily, no one was harmed during this interruption, and an unfazed Harris returned a few minutes later after the crowd chanted her name to return and the protester was escorted out.
In response to a question posed by a MoveOn member regarding how she would address LGBTQ rights, Harris discussed the absurdity of the gay and trans “panic” defense utilized in courtrooms during her time as DA and the steps she took to challenge this defense. “When any prosecutor says that they represent the people, that means they represent all people and that all people should be treated with dignity and respect,” she stated.
However, Harris has been critiqued heavily over the past year for her criminal justice record as DA, and later as California’s Attorney General, specifically in regard to gender reassignment surgery for trans inmates and criminalization of sex work, which she has addressed since launching her campaign. This did not seem to be a huge factor in the room, however, as she received thunderous applause as she began her speech.
Secretary Julián Castro calls for police reform: “This is not a case of bad apples— The system is broken.”
Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro laid out his vision to end the culture of over-policing, push for more police accountability, and repair the relationship between police and the communities they serve. He began his speech by naming many of the Black and brown women and men who have died at the hands of police violence. He named Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Pamela Turner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and Stephon Clark, among many others.
“How many of these videos do we have to watch to understand… this is not a case of bad apples? The system is broken,” he declared.
His police reform plan includes the following: 1) Ending over-aggressive policing; 2) Holding police accountable for excessive force; and 3) Healing the divide between police and communities through demilitarizing police, ending stop-and-frisk practices and racial profiling, passing a national use of force standard, tracking use of excessive force by police officers through a public database for all to access, and building trust between police and communities.
Castro said that this is much bigger than just police reform. He specifically discussed the importance of universal health care and investing in both reproductive freedom and reproductive justice for low-income communities of color. “We also need to require health care providers to develop guidelines and policies in their institutions so whether the color of your skin is Black or white or brown… you’re given the same level of care, that you’re respected as a human being in the same way,” he said.
When asked about his thoughts on the attack on women’s rights and abortion, Castro stated that he supports the Women’s Health Protection Act and a woman’s fundamental right to choose, and that as a country, we must vote out politicians who put anti-abortion laws into effect.
Senator Amy Klobuchar ends the forum with a call to action: We must take our democracy back.
Klobuchar began by stating that many of the big ideas discussed by the previous candidates could not be done without taking back our democracy.
Klobuchar focused heavily on democracy reform. She discussed voter suppression, foreign influence on elections, campaign finance reform (proposing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United), making election day a federal holiday, requiring back-up paper ballots in every state (via the Secure Elections Act), public financing of federal elections, and instituting automatic voter registration when citizens turn 18.
Klobuchar was asked how her voting rights plan addresses institutional racism and voter suppression. She brought up Nevada’s recently passed billthat will restore voting rights to those with a felony conviction upon release from prison and suggested that this same policy should be enacted all over the country. Further, she said, under Trump’s reign, income inequality has only gotten worse. “We need to make sure that when we look at that tax code, that tax code works for everyone in America,” she stated. Senator Klobuchar suggested investing in areas that need it the most in order to address cyclical childhood poverty and its impact on America’s urban centers, as well as address institutional racism in urban policy.
However, in the discussion of extending voting rights to ensure democracy, Klobuchar missed an opportunity to discuss how to bring undocumented individuals and other disenfranchised groups into the fold. With California’s non-citizen population at an estimated 5 million, Klobuchar failed to reach out to those who may uphold and display democratic values but are left on the margins. In fact, she has been criticized before for compromising on issues relating to DREAMersand prides herself on her ability to be bipartisan and pragmatic, which doesn’t accomplish very much on behalf of immigrants and other vulnerable constituents that she serves.
The premise of the forum was refreshing. While many continue to relitigate the failures of the 2016 election, it’s been three years and it’s clear that our political landscape has shifted. While proposals to implement Medicare for All, institute free tuition for public colleges and universities, and forgive student debt were considered unrealistic during the 2016 election, these proposals are now mainstream and part of many candidates’ platforms. Democrats have continued to shift left and are beginning to understand that progressive policies will move the country forward.
Each candidate’s big idea was diverse, yet connected to other big ideas. As an entire party, the Democrats would do well to consider how to bridge these big ideas together collectively.
MoveOn’s choice of two women of color as the forum moderators was crucial in shaping the discussions, too. MoveOn’s Chief Public Affairs Officer, Karine Jean-Pierre, and Stephanie Valencia, co-founder of EquisLabs, were not afraid to ask candidates tough questions regarding race and gender. It’s 2019 and our presidential candidates cannot afford to be “weak” on these issues, and most of the candidates did not hesitate to call out systemic racism by name and acknowledge racial disparities and how they impact communities of color economically, physically, socially, and politically.
However, with the exception of Secretary Castro’s comments and Senator Harris’ discussions of the gender pay gap, it’s surprising how little the topic of women’s rights and reproductive freedom in general were truly discussed, given the current political climate. While Gillibrand positioned herself as a leader in women’s rights, her arguments for national paid leave almost centered too much on economic impact and the “drag” lack of paid leave has on our economy and small businesses. In all, I’d say most candidates failed to deliver strong and bold ideas specifically about women’s rights.
Overall, candidates brought valid and important issues to the forefront and have set our expectations for the 2020 race. In blue California, Sanders, Booker, Warren, Castro, and Beto were the clear crowd favorites. While many of the big ideas, rhetoric, and proposals appeared as a full embrace of the left and progressive politics, we must continue to look at the race with a critical eye. We must look at candidates’ voting histories, concrete policy proposals, and alignment with issues that we as a country are not willing to compromise on, including health care, living wages, immigration reform, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and more. Only then can we really discern between what is hype and what is reality.