Another ten candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination answered questions last night in the second of back-to-back debates.

On the second night of the first Democratic debate, presidential hopefuls answered plenty of questions about the economy, race, and much more.

And while there was more discussion of our government’s highly militarized priorities than the first night, much was left to be desired. The first and second nights followed the same format, and stuck to the same general talking points. Here’s what they should have talked more about.

Ending Forever Wars

Discussion of our country’s forever wars was muted on both nights, though some candidates did make more substantive comments in the second debate.

Joe Biden said combat troops should be removed from Afghanistan, Pete Buttigieg called for “an end to endless war,” and Tulsi Gabbard, Kristen Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders specifically discussed the present need to avoid a disastrous war with Iran, which would be likely to cost more than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

All of these conflicts deserve much more discussion. At a time when the U.S. is “combatting terrorism” in 40 percent of the world’s nations, it’s well worth unpacking whether candidates propose to continue this utterly unsustainable situation, or how they propose to wind it down.

The Militarized Domestic Budget

Moderators prompted candidates to discuss gun violence on both nights, and many made strong commitments to limit assault weapons. Pete Buttigieg described these as weapons of war that “have absolutely no place in American cities or neighborhoods in peacetime, ever.”

But how about some discussion of how this country’s militarized budget creates an overall atmosphere of violence, not limited to the easy availability of guns to civilians? Democratic candidates broadly agree on limiting the availability of weapons, but what about programs like the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which sends surplus military gear to police departments all over the country at virtually no cost to local police forces, including ammunition, guns, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers?

Military equipment has no place in our city streets. Removing this equipment from police departments  would be a major step toward addressing the violence of the criminal justice system in the U.S., which further entrenches systemic racism.

Tackling Climate Chaos

After meriting not even a single question in the general election debates in 2016, climate change came up on both nights of the first debate. But moderators didn’t devote more than eight minutes to the existential threat in either two-hour session, and candidates largely avoided specifics about how to address the scale and urgency of the crisis.

How do candidates propose to decarbonize the entire economy on a timeframe that matches climate reality? It’s a great start to shout out a Green New Deal, as 3 of the 20 candidates did. But sooner or later, a reasonably ambitious climate-saving program in the U.S. will have to tackle the reality of the Pentagon’s enormous carbon footprint.

Bernie Sanders came close to acknowledging that last night, saying that the president should “tell the rest of the world that instead of spending $1.5 trillion on weapons of destruction, let us get together for the common enemy and that is to transform the world energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency, and sustainable energy.”

That $1.5 trillion figure could refer to the 55-year lifespan cost of the F-35 fighter jet, just one wasteful Pentagon program currently  funded by taxpayers. Or it could refer to the annual cost of global military spending, which falls within that ballpark: in the past year alone global military expenditures hit a total of $1.82 trillion, with the U.S. military budget representing more than a third of that, bigger than the next 7 countries combined. Meanwhile, the UN’s Green Climate Fund has only mobilized a fraction of its $100 billion goal to help developing nations deal with climate change.

In any case, the stated priority is one that could use much more expansive political discussion in the United States: it’s time to demilitarize the federal budget to fight climate change.

Pentagon Spending

The full Pentagon budget didn’t come up at all on either night – even as Congress haggles over an NDAA to honor the current administration’s request to increase the current budgetfrom $716 billion to a monstrous $750 billion.

7 out of 9 candidates at last week’s Poor People’s Moral Action Congress presidential forumwent on the record to support Pentagon spending cuts, and all of those heard our call to cut as much as $350 billion per year from the military to fund priorities that actually meet human needs. Marianne Williamson was the only candidate who committed to that number, but none of the candidates in the first debate mentioned the Pentagon budget at all.

There’s a long slog ahead before the actual primaries begin next year. That’s a lot of time to get real answers to systemic crises from candidates. If we really press them.

Ashik Siddique is a research analyst for the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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