There are going to be a lot fewer people on the stage for the next Democratic presidential debate in September. The Democratic National Committee has significantly tighter selection criteria in terms of poll numbers and fundraising than it employed for this week’s debate in Detroit and last month’s in Miami, and as it stands now, only about a third of the candidates will make it for the event in Houston on Sept. 12. Thank goodness. We need to separate out some of the chaff, and the candidates most people are interested in — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Corey Booker and Beto O’Rourke — have already qualified. But there are two more people we will miss if they fail to make the cut: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
It’s not that we’re endorsing either one of them or necessarily think they’re better potential presidents than several of the other Democrats who are running. It’s that they each have a unique and vitally important focus for their campaigns that has the capability of pushing this primary debate in directions it needs to go — climate change for Mr. Inslee and automation and artificial intelligence for Mr. Yang. They cut across the old fight between the party’s moderates and progressives to tackle new and fundamental threats to our society and even survival on the planet. With all due concern for health care, criminal justice, immigration, education and all the other issues that consumed most of this week’s debates, we can’t let climate change or automation fall off the radar.
Mr. Inslee is, of course, not the only Democrat concerned about climate change. They all are. But he has the distinction of viewing every issue in this campaign — whether it’s the economy, foreign policy or social justice — through a climate lens. He is closing in on 200 pages of detailed policy proposals for remaking the energy sector, transitioning to a clean-energy powered economy and bringing the rest of the world along with us. It’s more focused than the Green New Deal (it doesn’t lump universal health care into the mix) and reflects an understanding of the legacy of injustice and inequity around pollution in this country and the need to make sure the benefits and costs of fighting climate change are shared equitably. His plans cover everything from fossil fuel subsidies, which would end, to urban planning and mass transit. We need not only the comprehensiveness of Mr. Inslee’s climate vision but also the urgency he brings to the issue. The latest research from the United Nations climate panel suggests we have shockingly little time to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions before we do irreparable damage to the planet, and we need someone in this race to be finding every possible opportunity to push that back into the center of the discussion.
As for Mr. Yang, he really is the only candidate talking about automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning in any sustained way, and as he correctly pointed out in Wednesday’s debate, those forces may do more to upend our economy and society than anything else (with the exception, of course, of climate change). His argument is that Donald Trump’s victory in the upper Midwest came as a result of job losses to automation (though President Trump blamed trade deals and immigration), and that the situation is about to get much worse as tech finds ways to replace retail workers, call center employees, truck drivers and myriad other middle skill positions (and eventually, many higher skilled jobs). He says that’s already contributing to the spike in suicide and overdose rates and could lead to much deeper social unrest. He may well be right about that. We can’t say for certain that his proposed solution of a universal basic income program is the right one — he would send $1,000 a month to every American over age 18 to spend however they like — but we need someone who can force all the other candidates to address the issue.
Mr. Yang is on the bubble for the third debate. He has met the fundraising threshold and is close to meeting the polling requirements. Mr. Inslee is short on both measures. Neither one had a breakout moment in the second debate, except perhaps in the eyes of people who are already focused on their signature issues. But the rest of us should start paying attention to them. They’re telling us (and, particularly, whoever is elected president next year) something we need to hear.