Technology (Ryan Hagemann)

Although cybersecurity and technology issues received less than a five-minute focus in the DNC debate, it was refreshing to hear at least some of the candidates extolling the virtues of Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance leaks. Lincoln Chafee and Bernie Sanders, to their credit, were willing to admit as much. Mrs. Clinton, unfortunately, seems to be confused about the issue of Snowden’s revelations, arguing that “he could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.” As has been documented, however, Snowden attempted to go through official channels, only to be turned away. And, learning the lessons of previous NSA whistleblowers like Thomas Drake and William Binney, embarked on a course of action he thought would produce the national dialogue that had thus far been denied the American people. Love him or hate him, Mr. Snowden has had an exceptionally positive impact on the civil liberties discussion surrounding government surveillance in this country.

Chafee and Sanders also showed support for further reforming the PATRIOT Act. As Mr. Sanders noted, “if we are a free country, we have the right to be free. Yes, we have to defend ourselves against terrorism, but there are ways to do that without impinging on our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.”

While the debate would have been better served with a more robust conversation surrounding surveillance, online civil liberties, and the regulatory environment surrounding emerging technologies, there was still more air time for these issues in this debate than previous ones. Here’s hoping future debates will have a more substantive focus on these important issues – from both Republicans and Democrats.

Immigration (Matthew La Corte)

Surprisingly, the immigration portion of last night’s Democratic debate only lasted a few minutes. In that short time, four out of the five candidates were asked about immigration and they each backed comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. O’Malley delivered the best line of the section when he stated, “We need to understand that our country is stronger in every generation by the arrival of new American immigrants.”

However, once again, a national immigration debate left out the most crucial aspect of the system: legal immigration. Legalizing portions of the undocumented population is a necessary and vital part of comprehensive immigration reform to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. And the Democratic candidates deserve recognition for understanding this. But the undocumented population is a direct result of severely curtailed legal immigration opportunities for those wanting to work and live in the U.S.

Unless lawmakers want to pass another round of legalization in three decades, they ought to examine the root causes of undocumented immigration: a backlogged, inefficient, restrictive  legal immigration system. About three-fourths of immigrants in the U.S. today are here legally. Republicans and Democrats should not be purely focused on undocumented immigration during their debates. The total avoidance of dialogue on legal immigration does little to push forward serious debate on the U.S. immigration system.

Finally, CNN devoted no time to covering the Syrian refugee crisis, which the UN calls the worst  humanitarian disaster in our time. In a lengthy debate with just five candidates, it is unacceptable to ignore this major humanitarian and foreign policy issue. Refugee advocates continue to push for higher resettlement numbers and the Niskanen Center has been spearheading efforts promoting private refugee sponsorship as a policy option.

The refugee crisis is far from over. Syria will be a major issue for the next president with a refugee crisis that has no end in sight. We hope the next Democratic debate will feature a more robust discussion about refugee policy.

Defense (Matthew Fay)

The Department of Defense, and more specifically defense spending and organization, was an unaddressed topic at the Democratic debate. That military intervention was an aspect of the conversation, albeit briefly, only magnified the absence of a defense dialogue. Jim Webb, a former senator and one-time secretary of the navy, is a long shot of the nomination and so could be excused for not providing specifics on how he would pay for his hawkish stance towards China. Hillary Clinton, as the front-runner, owes the American taxpayers more information on how she plans to organize and fund the military. Her consistent calls for military interventions – whether backing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or orchestrating the intervention in Libya in 2011 – mean that her stance on defense spending and use of force is significantly more important for Americans to understand.

Climate (Sarah Hunt)

Four of the five Democratic candidates mentioned climate change in their opening statement. If Republicans are tap dancing around the subject, Democrats appear determined to make climate a campaign issue. In this context, it’s quite interesting only one of the Democratic candidates, Martin O’Malley, has offered up what most energy analysts would consider a detailed, serious plan to address global climate risk.

During the debate, the candidates focused on the geopolitical and national security implications of climate change. Bernie Sanders declared climate change a top national security threat. Senator Clinton defended herself against charges she flip-flopped on Keystone XL. Jim Webb expressed his concerns about climate as a global problem the U.S. cannot solve alone. And Martin O’Malley announced that his ambitious climate action plan will have the U.S. transition to 100% renewable energy sources by 2050.

Bernie Sanders and Lincoln Chafee both took jabs at industry in the climate context. Sanders criticized the Republican party as captured by fossil fuel interests. Chafee said the coal industry to be the political enemy he is most proud to have.

While the Democratic candidates were definitely concerned about climate change in their debate, they were nearly as short as Republicans on proffering practical solutions. As an observer on the right, the climate rhetoric coupled with a relative lack of actionable policy solutions offered during the Democratic debate makes me wonder if the Democratic candidates are serious about climate change, or simply want to make it a campaign wedge issue.