Trade, capitalism, money in politics: These are the business issues to watch in the fourth Democratic debate

Key Points
  • The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is heating up Capitol Hill.
  • But disagreements over fiscal issues could create just as much friction at the Democratic primary debate Tuesday night.
  • Here are the business issues to watch going into the fourth debate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Senator Elizabeth Warren during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019.
Mike Blake | Reuters

The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is heating up Capitol Hill, but disagreements over fiscal issues could create just as much friction at the Democratic primary debate Tuesday night.

The fourth debate of the primary season is guaranteed to be the biggest yet, with 12 candidates set to appear at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio — including Sen. Bernie Sanders, who recently suffered a heart attack.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren will hold court in the center of the stage, flanked by Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Billionaire Tom Steyer, a late entry in the crowded primary field, will be making his debut debate appearance.

They'll have plenty to talk about in the debate, which is being hosted by CNN and The New York Times from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET.

Some of the widest divisions among the Democrats relate to trade, where some candidates see tariffs — a tool condemned by free-marketeers but championed by Trump — as a viable option. Expect to see Democrats respond with skepticism to Trump's recent announcement that he's reached a "phase one deal" with China.

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On the domestic front, many of the candidates recently released their third-quarter fundraising totals — all of which fell far short of Trump's massive war chest. The numbers coming in have stoked tensions within the party about the role of money in politics, which could be further hashed out at the debate.

Biden — who remains the front-runner in the race, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average — has the most to lose at the debate. And he's likely to be hit with some tough and unflattering questions about his son Hunter's business dealings, which Trump has latched onto amid the increasingly popular impeachment inquiry.

Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard will also share the stage.

Here are the business issues to watch going into the fourth debate:


The fourth debate is taking place in Ohio, widely viewed as a swing state and a bellwether for the national presidential election. Trump won the state in 2016 with about 51% of the vote.

It's also a Midwest industrial state that has struggled with the loss of manufacturing jobs and agricultural uncertainty, said Melissa Miller, an associate professor of American politics at Ohio's Bowling Green State University.

That puts the long-running U.S.-China trade negotiations into sharp focus for the debate. Democrats have previously gone after Trump over trade, but the White House's apparent recent progress in the trade talks could complicate their criticisms.

Still, the first "phase" of the deal has yet to be put on paper, and new worries about the negotiations started to emerge Monday.

"The president does have a way of undermining little steps forward with big steps backward on Twitter and the like," Miller said.

"The Democrat who can really simplify and make clear to voters what's at stake and the extent to which actual households will feel the impacts, that's the candidate who can break through," she added.


Warren's campaign has seen a steady rise in the polls over several months, bringing her neck-and-neck with Biden, who had previously enjoyed a comfortable lead.

She also made gains in the constant race to raise more money than her opponents, collecting $24.6 million in the third quarter — more than Biden or Buttigieg, who raised the most in the previous quarter. Sanders brought in $25 million in the third quarter, while Biden posted $15 million.

Warren also vowed last week not to participate in big-dollar fundraisers if she becomes the Democratic nominee — a stance that garnered criticism from those who say she'd be tying one hand behind her back in a race against Trump, whose boasted a total of $125 million in the third quarter.

Some of her Democratic rivals have taken swipes, too. Buttigieg said in an interview Monday that "We're not going to beat Trump with pocket change."

Warren's position lends credibility to her brand as a populist who is willing to take on corporations and the super-rich.

The business community has taken notice: CNBC reported in late September that big-money donors are warning Democrats that they wouldn't support Warren as a nominee.

She's also taken heat from the political left: Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, recently contrasted himself with Warren, who calls herself a capitalist.

"I am, I believe, the only candidate who's going to say to the ruling class of this country ... 'Enough with your greed,'" Sanders said over the weekend.

Health care

As in the previous debates, health care is set to be a major sticking point.

Most politicians support finding ways to expand health coverage while avoiding spiraling costs. But there are chasms of differences among the candidates about how to achieve that goal.

Sanders has long advocated a government-run program — "Medicare for All" — that applies to everyone. His proposal, currently a bill that has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, would widen the types of coverage available, as well as push private insurers out of the Medicare mix in favor of a single-payer model.

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Warren took Sanders' side on health care — which might not play well in Ohio, Miller said.

"I have to tell you, if you look at recent political trends in the state ... selling Medicare for all in Ohio, I think might be kind of challenging."

Buttigieg, on the other hand, has said he opposes abolishing private insurance. Biden's proposal is to reform and improve Obamacare, the landmark health care bill passed when he was vice president.