The third televised debate among the Democratic candidates for president was held in Houston last night, and it didn’t take long for fireworks to erupt. Prompted by the moderators, the candidates staked out opposing positions on the subject of health care. Not surprisingly, former vice-president Biden tried to occupy the political center with an impassioned plea to offer Americans a choice between private sector coverage and an optional health care plan provided by the federal government. Senators Sanders and Warren argued just as vehemently for an exclusive single payer system. The dissension on stage became so animated that a few of the candidates felt compelled to call for a temporary truce.
Subsequent topics, ranging from criminal justice reform to gun control to immigration, provided a forum for the candidates to express more comity. There was enough unanimity on these topics to allow the Democratic candidates an opportunity to refocus their animosity on the sitting president. As the debate continued, the subject of trade policy was broached. And after two debates during which the subject received scant attention, the candidates were obliged to discuss the subject in greater detail. Each candidate took pains to criticize the president’s approach to trade negotiations and the adverse impact on the US economy, but also seemed reluctant to promise a prompt reversal of tariffs. Instead, most advocated a return to the negotiating table and more coordination with traditional allies. The protection of intellectual property and the importance of fair dealing was raised often enough to confirm our view that that the GOP and the Democratic Party are more aligned on the subject of trade then is commonly believed.
The higher threshold for admission to the debate stage limited the number of candidates to ten and allowed all of the front runners to occupy the stage at the same time. The three hour debate provided enough time for every candidate to unveil their rehearsed sound bites. A few - but not many - even appeared to be spontaneous. Front runner Joe Biden was the subject of sustained criticism, while each of his challengers tried to make enough of an impression on primary voters to warrant their inclusion in future debates. In terms of performance, post-debate punditry appeared to favor senators Warren and Booker. But in the end, there were no breakout performances or abject failures. It’s still early days in what promises to be a very long campaign.
Thomas McLoughlin, Head Americas Fixed Income, UBS Financial Services Inc. (UBS FS)