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Bernie Puts Corporate Greed Center Stage, Hillary Holds Her Own at #DemDebate

Politics

The Democratic party’s first presidential debate of its 2016 candidates showed the country that the party has stronger candidates and a clearer common agenda than many people may have expected after a summer dominated by the antics of angry Republicans.

Despite what individual candidates may claim, there was not a clear winner. Bernie Sanders, after a nervous start in his first nationally televised debate, found his footing and demonstrated how he fundamentally has reshaped the Democratic party, pushing all the candidates to embrace his strong views about income inequality and the need for dramatic responses to capitalistic excess. There has not been a presidential debate in recent memory with such a detailed economic discussion and the need for remedies that would boost wages, workplace benefits, healthcare and other pocketbook concerns. All the candidates supported a federal family leave law for mothers of newborns, for example. And all agreed that wealthy Americans should foot the bill.

Hillary Clinton also demonstrated why she is the front-runner and likely to remain so. Where Sanders was passionate and emphatic, she was poised and forcefully pushed policy specifics that she said could be enacted and make a difference. She firmly rejected the moderator’s characterizations that she took politically expedient positions and said she was proud to be a “progressive” who “wants to get things done.” On a string of issues, she was not a centrist Democrat in the mold of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, saying, for example that she supported stronger gun controls, criminal justice reform, comprehensive immigration reform, medical marijuana and opposed the latest international trade agreement.

The other three candidates were largely asterisks to the Sanders-Clinton interchange. Ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, ex-Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley sought to distinguish their records and values—with O’Malley giving the most detailed prescriptions. But in most instances their comments lingered in the debate’s shadows, with the exception of O’Malley’s closing remarks where he said that unlike the two previous Republican presidential debates, no candidate denigrated women, made racist statements about immigrants or spoke ill of the other candidates.

There were important differences, however, between the positions taken by Sanders and Clinton on a half-dozen issues, which illustrates both how much Sanders has pushed the Democratic Party to the left—and how Clinton has staked out savvy positions that may sound more progressive to Sanders backers than would prove to be the case if elected. Without Sanders' presence in the race, it is doubtful that Wall Street's excesses, which is shorthand for where and how wealth is accumulated but not shared, would be targeted for reforms by all the candidates.

For example, Sanders wanted to increase Social Security retirement benefits and would pay for that by removing a cap that only taxes the first $118,000 of income. Clinton said that she would raise payments for impoverished seniors, especially women. Sanders said he favored a Nevada ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana, while Clinton said she only favored legalizing medical marijuana. Sanders wants tuition at public colleges and universities to be free, saying he would pay for that with a Wall Street financial transaction tax. Clinton said that she would like free tuition too, but would include a weekly 10-hour work requirement. Only on gun control was Clinton to the left of Sanders, who did a poor job of responding to her attack on his stance—where he has opposed militarized weapons but supported hunters' rights.

On the crucial issue of reigning in Wall Street’s excessive greed, Sanders said that he would break up the biggest banks and restore the Depression Era Glass-Steagall Act, which barred commercial banks from investing in speculative financial deals. Clinton said that she would not restore Glass-Steagall but instead spoke of regulating speculators and risky investments, jailing executives who break the law and looking for the emerging threats posed by non-traditional firms. Sanders replied that she was "naive" if she thought Wall Street would do the right thing because a president was pressuring them.

Nonetheless, these stances by Clinton are shrewd, in so far as they show that she agrees with most of what Sanders is saying is the problem, but her solutions—while clearly left of center—aren’t as threatening to their targets and sound more moderate. While Democrats may be wringing their hands over these differences, saying that they represent a gulf between systemic and incremental reform, it’s noteworthy that there’s almost no crossover or common ground with the Republican candidates, with the exception of saying criminal justice reform for non-violent crimes was needed.

On matters of war and peace, while the candidates had some differences—all were opposed to the kind of adventurist foreign policy of the Bush Administration, which launched a war of choice in Iraq and ignited chaos in the region that continues. They did not want to send ground troops into Syria, nor did any of them believe that Russia’s Putin was trustworthy. They praised President Obama’s restraint for what Sanders termed a “quagmire within a quagmire.”

The candidates, especially Sanders and Webb, said that none of their progressive agenda items would become a reality unless there were changes to the current campaign finance system, where several hundred of the wealthiest Americans are bankrolling most of the presidential campaigns and congressional contests. While Webb pointedly told Sanders that his grassroots "revolution" was not going to happen, Sanders repeatedly said that a record high voter turnout and public protests would force Congress to respond.

Stepping back from the debate stage, it was a good night for all the Democrats. Nobody made any mistakes. All the candidates gave strong presentations of their positions, even if Sanders got off to a somewhat tense start and Clinton showed right off the bat that she was comfortable on the stage. There were even moments of levity, such as when Sanders told the audience and country that everyone was tired of hearing about Clinton’s private e-mail server when she was the Secretary of State—for which she thanked him. And Sanders, unlike any of the other candidates, mentioned the name of African-Americans killed by police in an answer that strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

Another big takeaway is that this debate will probably prompt Vice President Joe Biden to reconsider his presidential ambitions. With Sanders setting the domestic agenda and Clinton embracing much of what he says, but presenting it in a smoother way that likely to have greater appeal across the country—outside its liberal epicenters—there seems to be no void that a Biden candidacy could fill. If anything, Clinton is running to defend Obama's record and legacy, while Sanders is running to take it to a new orbit, where federal safety net programs would be expanded to assist working- and middle-class Americans.

As the candidates continue to campaign in coming weeks, it clearly helps Clinton that Sanders is a strong campaigner and revving up the Democratic base. If she continues to be the front runner, she will have to find ways to bring Bernie’s base into her fold. That will be worth watching. In the meantime, Sanders has made a career of confounding expectations and has the stamina of a long-distance runner. The contest for the 2016 Democratic nomination isn’t over by any means, but it’s getting more compelling.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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