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News Brief: Democrats On Health Care; Interest Rate Cut Expected


When Democratic presidential candidates gathered for a debate last night, the location really meant a lot.


Ten Democrats were on stage in a historic theater in Detroit, which is in Michigan, a swing state - one of three states the Democrats were really counting on that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and assured his election. A big question for Democrats is how to win back the likes of Michigan. And last night's 10 candidates - the first of two sets of 10 - spent much time debating how far left to go on issues like health care.

Let's hear three of the candidates now. The first is Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a centrist who notes that some of his rivals want to go much farther than Obamacare.


STEVE BULLOCK: It used to be just Republicans wanted to repeal and replace, now many Democrats do as well.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: If we embrace a far-left agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda - you know what they're going to do? They're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists...


BUTTIGIEG: ...So let's just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.

MARIANNE WILLIAMSON: And I've heard some people here tonight - I almost wonder why you're Democrats. You seem to think there's something wrong about using...


WILLIAMSON: ...About using the instruments of government to help people.

INSKEEP: The candidates following Steve Bullock there are South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and author Marianne Williamson.

GREENE: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is in Detroit. She covered the debate last night. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: First, how awesome is the Fox Theater? I had some of my wedding photos taken outside of it...

KHALID: Oh, my gosh. It's the most beautiful...

GREENE: ...It's gorgeous, right?

KHALID: Yeah - beautiful, beautiful architecture.

GREENE: Yeah, what a setting. Well, a lot happened there last night. I guess for the Democratic Party, there was no hiding from real divisions between progressives and moderates. How did that all emerge?

KHALID: That's right. That was the overarching theme of the night. And I would say we saw it play out in terms of multiple public policy fronts, most notably health care and immigration. And, you know, these are two issues that are going to animate the debate and the general election as well between Democrats and Republicans. One big applause line around this clash came from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. It was in response to former Maryland Congressman John Delaney when he said that Democrats win when they run on, quote, "real solutions, not impossible promises."


ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for.


KHALID: You know, David, there was a lot of pre-debate chatter about a potential clash between two progressive icons - that's Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. But they did not fight last night. In fact, they tag teamed on progressive policies all night as they fended off attacks from some of the more moderate candidates.

GREENE: Wow. I just think about some of the issues you were talking about. Another that comes to mind is climate change, which is something a lot of Democratic voters are passionate about. Did that emerge as an issue where there are some divisions?

KHALID: You know, David, I would say, not surprisingly, to some degree, the Democrats were fairly in agreement on climate change. It is a top issue, you know, when we look at polling consistently among Democratic voters. But the conversation last night really tried to focus and bring it back to jobs and how you address climate change in a really economically feasible way.

GREENE: One of the really interesting dynamics going into last night was the lineup for last night and then tonight - it's a random draw by CNN. But all of the candidates on stage last night were white, right? And, you know, President Trump has really put racial divisions front and center in this campaign recently. So how did an entire field of white candidates deal with issues of race and racism?

KHALID: Well, you know, also noteworthy to me, this conversation was happening in Detroit. And Democrats on the campaign trail talk a lot about how you win back the White House. Do you try to persuade centrist voters? Or do you really energize the base? - most notably, African Americans. And I will say, given the conversation being in Detroit, we did not hear extensively about race - even, you know, given the comments that Donald Trump has made in the last couple of weeks.

The way that the moderators focused the conversation, I was - even the discussion around immigration, was largely through the lens of the concerns of white suburban voters, right? Is decriminalizing the border, say, going too far? It was not necessarily through the lens of some of the concerns that I hear from Latino voters. That being said, we have a far more diverse field tonight. And so I anticipate we will hear a lot more about racial justice, criminal justice issues.

INSKEEP: OK. So we heard that there were big divisions on some big issues. Let's talk about what some of those divisions are in a little more granular way. NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben was up very late last night but has come back in early this morning, as Asma did as well. Danielle, good morning.


INSKEEP: So what is the difference on health insurance between a centrist Democrat and a more progressive one?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, as it was framed last night, the difference was "Medicare for All" versus not Medicare for All...


KURTZLEBEN: ...It was a very sort of blunt, black-and-white discussion that eluded - in which they sort of alluded a lot of the details. Maybe I'll - I'll highlight one memorable exchange between Senator Bernie Sanders and Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, where Sanders made his ownership of Medicare for All really clear.


BERNIE SANDERS: Medicare for All is comprehensive. It covers all health care needs. For senior citizens, it will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses...

TIM RYAN: But you don't know...

SANDERS: ...Second of all...

RYAN: You don't know that, Bernie.

SANDERS: ...Second of all...

JAKE TAPPER: We'll come to you in a second, Congressman.

SANDERS: I do know it. I wrote the damn bill.



KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. A spicier exchange of the night there. But, yeah. I mean, listen; it's unsurprising that Medicare for All dominated. But it's still important to talk about because you had some real significant other policy differences on that stage. But they didn't really get to a lot of these policy differences because they spent a lot of time talking about Medicare for All. And one other really important thing that I want to bring up in response to your question about moderate versus progressive is that it's really notable to step back and realize that just 10 years ago a public option was - couldn't get into Obamacare...


KURTZLEBEN: ...And now public option is the moderate position...

INSKEEP: That's the minimum.


INSKEEP: The minimum is the government is going to get into the health insurance business more directly. And the question is whether private insurers get to be in the field as well or whether they get knocked out.


INSKEEP: There's also a question about trade and tariffs, which, of course, President Trump has made a big deal. How are Democrats positioning themselves on that issue?

KURTZLEBEN: It's really impossible to generalize because this is an area where you can have a really big rift among Democrats. I mean, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, of course, Trump has pulled America out of, it's a giant trade deal among - that would have been among 11 nations plus the U.S. - now U.S. no longer. That's something that Obama negotiated. Last night, you had former Maryland Rep. John Delaney saying he supports it. Well, the two people at the center of the stage, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were two of the most vocal opponents of that. Not only that, but Donald Trump was a vocal opponent of that.


KURTZLEBEN: So if you got one of those two on the debate stage with Donald Trump, you can imagine that there would have to be some sort of nuanced discussion of, OK, you all - you both opposed TPP. What exactly do you oppose about it and how do you differ?

GREENE: No rest for the weary. Another round tonight that we'll all be covering. Asma, you're in Detroit. What are you looking for on night two?

KHALID: Yeah. The main concern - or the main concern, I would say, for folks here, it would be Joe Biden. And that is a concern for him of how he fends off some attacks. He did not have a particularly strong night last time during the debates.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Asma Khalid in Detroit and Danielle Kurtzleben in Washington, D.C. Thank you both.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

KHALID: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. So today, the Federal Reserve might do something it has not done since the 2008 recession.

INSKEEP: The Fed is expected to announce it is cutting interest rates. This is a bit unusual. Normally, when the economy has grown for years, as it has - we've got about a decade of economic growth - you would expect the Fed to be raising rates or holding them steady. Recently, though, Fed officials have said there are areas of concern in an overall strong economy. Lower interest rates would make it cheaper for Americans to do things like borrow on their credit cards or take out car loans.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley covers economics and, among other things, keeps a close eye on the Fed and joins us on the line this morning. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: All right. So let's talk this through. The Fed raised rates as recently as December of last year - not so long ago. So what warning signs are Fed officials seeing that might make them go in the opposite direction now?

HORSLEY: We're definitely seeing a slowdown in economic growth both here in the U.S. and around the world. Just last Friday, we learned that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of only 2.1% in the spring. That's down from about 3.1% in the first three months of the year. We also learned that last year's economic growth was actually slower than initially reported. At the same time, we're seeing slowing growth overseas, partly as a result of rising trade tensions.

And inflation, which is often sort of the boogeyman for the Fed, is safely trussed up under the bed. So there's no signal of runaway price hikes. What that means is the Fed is ready to goose the economy in an effort to keep this decade-old expansion going a little longer. The Fed chairman, Jerome Powell, has noted that it's only recently that a lot of Americans have begun to enjoy the fruits of that expansion.

So if the old joke about the Fed is they take away the punchbowl just as the party is getting started - Powell and his colleagues seem to feel like, you know, there are a lot of thirsty people who've been waiting in line for the punch. Let's bring out some more punch.

GREENE: Well, I mean, lower interest rates, I mean, as Steve said, can make things cheaper for Americans to do stuff. So, I mean, how do consumers in general react to a decision like this?

HORSLEY: Yeah. It could mean cheaper credit card rates. It could mean cheaper car loans. But here's the thing, David. You know, consumer spending is actually already pretty strong. It's not a lack of consumer spending that's slowing the economy. Instead, what we have seen is a drop in things like business investment. And that may or may not respond to such a modest reduction in what are already, you know, very low interest rates.

GREENE: Could it actually have a negative impact? I mean, what do some economists see as a negative impact of cutting rates like this?

HORSLEY: You know, it could mean lower interest rates for savings - on savings accounts and CDs, so it's not so good for people who actually have money in the bank. Of course, a lot of big banks are already paying next to nothing on savings accounts. But there are some attractive offers out there. I was looking at some internet banks that were paying north of 2% on savings. And, you know, even if that were to go down by, say, a quarter percentage point, that would still be outpacing inflation.

GREENE: Scott, remind me about President Trump's role here. I mean, he's done things that other presidents have not done in terms of his open and very passionate criticism of the Fed. How does that all potentially fit into this?

HORSLEY: He has been loudly jawboning the Fed to cut rates in a big way. He was complaining just yesterday that both the economy and the stock market would be higher still had the Fed not raised interest rates on four separate occasions last year. As you say, a lot of presidents in the past have complained quietly and privately about the Fed's moves. But President Trump has been very vocal...

GREENE: Not like this.

HORSLEY: No. Now, the Fed insists they are going to be guided by economic signals, not political pressure. But that said, Trump's own trade policies have certainly contributed to slowing economic growth and that, in turn, is prompting the Fed to make these moves. So indirectly, the president's having an influence, even if it's not for the reasons he'd like.

GREENE: All right. Scott, thanks so much for explaining all this. We always appreciate it.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

GREENE: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "VIBIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.