Democratic Debate Highlights: National Security and Foreign Policy

Truman Project
Jul 11 · 7 min read

As 20 of the Democratic candidates for president took the stage in last week’s two debates, they were asked questions about healthcare, immigration, and the economy. However, the conversation during both debates skewed towards the domestic sphere, leaving little room for meaningful conversation about issues of foreign policy and national security.

Moments when candidates actually discussed issues relating to the United States’ national security policies and foreign policy choices were few and far between, so here is a round-up of what was said regarding these topics during the debates.


Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) made substantive statements about potential war with Iran. She drew on her experience as a veteran of the Iraq war to hit home the point that.

“The American people need to understand that this war with Iran would be far more devastating, far more costly than anything that we ever saw in Iraq. It would take many more lives. It would exacerbate the refugee crisis, and it wouldn’t be just contained within Iran. This would turn into a regional war. This is why it’s so important that every one of us, every single American, stand up and say no war with Iran.”

This moment of clear speech about the dangers of engaging in military action against Iran set Congresswoman Gabbard apart from the large field of other candidates who did not voice their opinions on Iran as strongly as she did during the debates. On the subject of the Iran nuclear deal, Congresswoman Gabbard emphasized the need for deescalation of U.S.-Iran tensions and a serious renegotiation to improve the deal. She also called for ending the war in Afghanistan, rebutting Congressman Tim Ryan’s (D-OH) claim that the United States “must be engaged” in the country, and was the only candidate on the first night to make this statement during the debate.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) had a less direct statement on the Iran deal, saying that she would have worked to get a better deal had she been at the negotiating table. Although Sen. Klobuchar did make the point that President Trump should seek congressional authorization should he decide to issue strikes against Iran — as she would do if she were to become president — she did not make any definitive statements on a potential war. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also commented on the issue, noting that one of her top priorities as president would be resetting the country’s relationship with Iran.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) was the only candidate on the stage who would not commit to re-entering the deal. His explanation for this refusal to commit was the following:

“We need to renegotiate and get back into a deal, but I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal. Because when I’m president of the United States, I’m going to do the best I can to secure this country and that region and make sure that if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.”

Sen. Booker’s hesitation drew bipartisan skepticism from some conservative news outlets as well as some left-leaning ones, who called his statement naive and somewhat underhanded.


On the second night of debates, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Senator Michael Bennett (D-CO) were asked about how they would handle China and its rising global influence. Both candidates’ replies demonstrated that they believe Russia is currently a greater threat than China, geopolitically speaking, due to the Russian interference in U.S. elections. They both also stated that China is an economic threat, but that the economic threat it poses cannot be neutralized by the ongoing trade war. Neither offered a solution that could replace President Trump’s trade war strategy, however.

Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg also voiced his disapproval of the trade war with China, while noting that the threat China presents cannot be dismissed. His solution to China’s growing economy is to invest in domestic competitiveness, stressing that:

“If we disinvest, we will never be able to compete. If we want to be an alternative, we actually have to demonstrate that we care about democratic values at home.”

However, Mayor Pete did not specify how he planned to invest in domestic competitiveness.

This was the extent to which China was discussed during the debates, save for a brief moment towards the end of the second debate when both Yang and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper mentioned that if elected, they would attempt to reset the current U.S.-China relationship.

Immigration and Foreign Policy

Although many people would classify immigration as a domestic issue, some candidates have been tying it into foreign policy plans as well. Most notably, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro’s proposal for a revamped Marshall Plan-style support system for countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America would attempt to strengthen infrastructure and improve safety in countries where many feel the need to escape and seek asylum at the U.S. Southern border. Castro and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) clashed over the importance of public stances on overturning specific sections of immigration law versus touting a comprehensive immigration reform plan during this portion of the debate.

Sen. Booker also noted the importance of investing in aid packages to these vulnerable nations if the U.S. wishes to solve its immigration problem.

Climate Change

Although many different bodies all agree that climate change is an overarching threat to development, economy, and national security, it was discussed for less than eight minutes (out of a possible 80) during each debate. Although this was more time than climate change received in all 2016 debates combined, this number is still far too low. More importantly, even when climate was mentioned, candidates’ answers tended to be lacking in depth and often left out the specifics of how their climate plans would be implemented. When given a short time in which to answer a question, some generalization is expected, but with an issue as important as climate change mitigation, sometimes specifics are needed to set candidates apart from their counterparts.

Some candidates did elaborate on specific plans, however. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Congressman O’Rourke discussed the necessity of transitioning off of fossil fuel reliance, while Hickenlooper mentioned the necessity of working with oil and gas companies to combat climate change. Former Congressman John Delaney (D-MD) mentioned the theoretical effectiveness of a carbon tax, but was the only candidate to focus on that specific policy choice.

Journalists noted that the Green New Deal, although supported by several candidates, was almost completely ignored, with only Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) bringing it up briefly and Hickenlooper mentioning it only to criticize part of it.

However, one candidate has demonstrated his passion for slowing the effects of climate change: Washington Governor Jay Inslee has petitioned the DNC to host a debate centered solely around the issue of climate. Initially, DNC Chair Tom Perez dismissed the request, but it has recently been reported that mounting pressure has caused the Committee to consider voting on whether to hold such a debate.

Moderator Issues

Some experts believe that the moderators of both debates did not choose to ask enough questions about national security and foreign policy issues, which should ideally be considered when primary voters are choosing their preferred candidate. They maintain that this problem is not new to the 2020 race; the lack of national security-related questions has been noticeable in debates since at least the 2000 election.

However, the moderators in this first round of debates did ask candidates to state what they believe is the greatest threat to America currently. The answers ranged in scope, including President Trump, climate change, China, and Russia, but only Sen. Klobuchar mentioned Iran. This shift in priorities as well as general inconsistency between candidates could suggest their inability to agree on how to prioritize national security among a host of other threats faced by the United States.

Final Thoughts

In an increasingly globalized world, issues of national security are more important than ever. In addition to plans to combat the existential and global threat of climate change, comprehensive policy ideas for mitigating the threats posed by Iran, China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes should be an important part of the platform of the candidate the electorate deems worthy of running against President Trump in 2020.

If there is no room on the debate stage for foreign policy, and no room for healthy discourse about national security on the campaign, candidates will not be pressed to provide concrete details about their stances on foreign policy issues. If not corrected in the next debate, this dangerous oversight could spell trouble for the Democrats this election cycle.

Jaden Baum is a Communications Intern at Truman National Security Project. She is majoring in Communications and Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Views expressed are her own.

Truman Doctrine Blog

We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

Truman Project

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We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

Truman Doctrine Blog

We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

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