The recurring theme as Democratic hopefuls squared off in Westerville was the question of whether to go for broke or pursue policies that are more attainable.
Healthcare was the first place the contrast presented itself.
Moderate candidates like Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg criticized the Medicare for all plan backed by their more progressive counterparts Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Klobuchar and Buttigeig instead support a public option.
The theme played out again when moderators brought up former Congressman Beto O'Rourke's (D-TX) plan for mandatory buy backs of AR-15 and AK-47 style weapons.
Buttigieg opposed the idea arguing, “We cannot wait for purity tests, we have to just get something done.”
The South Bend mayor contends the idea threatens more modest proposals like universal background checks, red flag laws or a new assault weapons ban.
But referring to the rifles as weapons of war, O’Rourke insisted if they’re dangerous enough to consider banning them going forward, they’re too dangerous for ordinary people to own.
“Let’s decide what we are going to believe in, what we are going to achieve, and then let’s bring this country together in order to achieve that,” O’Rourke said.
Idealism versus realism also presented itself in terms of overarching campaign strategy. Former Vice President Joe Biden argued for a campaign based on pragmatism rather than bold promises.
“We all have good ideas, the question is who’s going to be able to get it done? How can you get it done?” Biden asked. “And I’m not suggesting they can’t, but I’m suggesting that that’s what we should look at. And part of that requires you not being vague.”
That point about being vague was a barb directed at Warren who refused to concede taxes would rise if Medicare for all were to pass. Instead she returned again and again to the point that healthcare costs would not rise for middle class families.
Responding to Biden, Warren called back to her push to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“People told me go for something little, go for something small, go for something that the big corporations will be able to accept. I said no, let’s go for an agency that will make structural change in our economy,” Warren said.
What About Ohio?
The candidates touched on a number of issues tied to the state, but Ohio was more of a jumping off point for broader national conversations.
Jobs played a big role as candidates talked about the disappearance of manufacturing jobs for products like cars and the threat of automation.
Businessman Andrew Yang argued his Freedom Dividend, would help Americans through the transition as traditional jobs go away. Sanders meanwhile argued for a New Deal style federal jobs guarantee. Warren said the bigger threat is international trade policy, which has allowed employers to shift jobs overseas.
Reproductive rights came up in light of Ohio lawmakers passing a so-called heartbeat bill which would prohibit abortions after only about six weeks of gestation — before many women even know they’re pregnant.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) floated the idea of establishing a preclearance system through the Department of Justice for state laws that deal with abortion. The idea is similar to a now-defunct provision of the Voting Rights act which forced certain jurisdictions to get a federal approval before making changes to local voting policies.
Candidates also discussed the opioid crisis. Notably, Yang and O’Rourke suggested decriminalizing low-level possession so that people can get treatment rather than wind up in the criminal justice system.
A few candidates referenced climate change. Sanders, for instance, suggested a Green New Deal could create millions of jobs. But the issue didn’t play a big role during the evening.
While Green New Deal legislation may not win converts in rural Ohio, farmers are seeing the effects of a changing climate as planting start dates seem to shift later each year. Steady rain this spring forced many Ohio farmers to simply give up on the year and take a crop insurance payout.
Those farmers, particularly if they plant soybeans, were already on their heels from the Trump administration’s trade war with China. Although the United States Department of Agriculture has come up with programs to make them whole, many farmers worry that isn’t a long term answer.
Agriculture, trade and climate policy form a sort of constellation of issues that could prove important in Ohio come 2020. None of them got much time during Tuesday’s debate.