Clinton vs. Sanders: 3 Issues to Watch in the Democratic Debate

There are a handful of policy issues that could set sparks flying Tuesday evening

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will face off in the first Democratic debate Tuesday evening. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty; Darren McCollester/Getty

With the first Democratic debate coming up Tuesday evening, let's examine the policy issues that divide the party's frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, from the unlikely figure who's emerged as her chief rival, Vermont's "democratic socialist" senator, Bernie Sanders.

On many issues Sanders and Clinton agree only recently.

Tacking to the left in the past month, Clinton is now on Sanders' side opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that President Obama has championed to expand trade with Asia. Clinton is also now against to the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry filthy Canadian tar-sands crude to the global export market via the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Clinton's opposition to both of these projects is, in part, a repudiation of her own legacy as secretary of state. Clinton set in motion the initial federal review of Keystone that found it would have little impact on carbon emissions, and positioned herself as a TPP cheerleader, hailing it as the "gold standard" of free-trade agreements in 2012.

On other big issues, Clinton and Sanders have been on the same page from the start. Both launched their campaigns vowing that opposition to Citizens United — the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate money in our elections — would be a litmus test for future nominees to the nation's high court. Both candidates are also staunch advocates of reproductive freedom. Sanders even took to the stage at the Christian Liberty University to defend abortion and the rights of women who "don't want the government telling them what they have to do."

But key differences remain, on issues of health care, wages, education and more.

Many of these are not disagreements of orientation but degree. That is to say both candidates identify the same policy problem, but they seek to solve it differently. Consider the minimum wage: Sanders advocates a $15-an-hour national standard to ensure full-time workers are not living in poverty. Clinton supports a higher minimum wage, but has cautioned "what you can do in LA or in New York may not work in other places."

In nearly every case, Sanders' political solution goes bigger — and often at a greater cost. (Sanders is proposing $6.5 trillion in new taxes; Clinton has yet to release a comprehensive tax plan.)

The two candidates have largely avoided directly confronting one another on the campaign trail. But here are three key policy differences that could set sparks flying on the debate stage in Las Vegas Tuesday night.

Gun control
This is one arena in which Clinton has outflanked Sanders as the more progressive candidate.

Sanders:
Hailing from largely rural Vermont, Sanders is a gun-state progressive, and has voted as such, even opposing the Brady Bill of 1993 because of the law's waiting period. Sanders says he's just representing his constituents. "I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about," he told NPR in June. Most damaging to his cred among gun control activists, Sanders voted for the NRA-backed 2005 bill that gave gun manufacturers blanket immunity from consumer lawsuits — the kind that hobbled Big Tobacco beginning in the Nineties. In the wake of the Oregon massacre, Sanders called for an end to the gunshow loophole (buyers at gun shows are currently exempt from background checks) and declared, "We must ban semi-automatic assault weapons which are designed strictly for killing human beings."

Clinton:
Clinton voted against gunmaker liability protection in 2005, and is seeking to transform Sanders' vote for the NRA into a political albatross — much as her own vote for the Iraq War was to her in the 2008 campaign. Clinton has made repeal of gunmaker lawsuit protection the centerpiece of her gun platform. Vowing to take "military-style assault weapons" off the street, Clinton pledges to use executive action to force all high-volume gun-sellers, including those who sell at gun shows, to perform background checks. Clinton also wants to close the "Charleston loophole," which allows gun sales to go through if a background check gets stalled longer than three days. Gun control is one issue on which trademark Clintonian nuance and calibration gives way to a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may stand on principle: "People are quick to say that they offer their thoughts and prayers," Clinton said after the Oregon melee. "That's not enough."

College costs
Both candidates have detailed proposals to tackle the problem of college affordability, which has forced Americans to pile up $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.

Sanders:
The Vermont senator wants to guarantee free college tuition at the nation's public colleges and universities. He would also allow current student debt holders to refinance at very low rates and eliminate all profit from the issuance of federal student loans. This is one of Sanders' most costly proposals, at $750 billion over 10 years; it would be paid for with new taxes on hedge funds and other Wall Street speculators.

Clinton:
If Sanders' college plan is a bit like single-payer health care, Clinton's bears a strong policy resemblance to Obamacare. It is complex and wonky, but it's the kind of pragmatic proposal that might just gain congressional approval. Clinton would invest $175 billion in federal funds over 10 years into public colleges, rewarding states that maintain their own investment and seek to hold down costs for students. She would also streamline student loan applications, expand opportunities for low-income and first-generation college students, cap loan repayments as a percentage of income and offer loan forgiveness after 20 years. Like Sanders, Clinton's proposal also offers reductions to current loan rates and a refinance proposal for existing borrowers. In tandem with the scope of her policy ambition, Clinton's price tag is lower — $350 billion, paid for by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

Health care
The success of Obamacare, bringing insurance coverage to 17 million Americans, has not settled the issue of health care in the Democratic primary.

Sanders:
Sanders wants a single-payer system that builds on the system already in place for seniors — Medicare for All. Noting that the U.S. spends nearly twice as much for health care without truly universal coverage, Sanders has argued, "The time has come to say we need to expand Medicare to cover every man, woman and child as a single-payer national health care program." Sanders has not estimated a cost for this proposal. The Wall Street Journal pegged it at $15 trillion, but did not account for the savings to citizens, who would no longer be paying for private health coverage.

Clinton:
Clinton basically wants "Obamacare plus" — or, as she puts it, "to build on the progress we've made." Clinton wants to repeal the "Cadillac Tax" on expensive, high-benefit health plans, the kinds often prized by unions, at a projected cost of $87 billion. Clinton also seeks to contain spending on pharmaceuticals, limiting out-of-pocket expenditures by consumers to $250 a month, allowing Medicare to negotiate pricing with drug companies and permitting re-importation of (price-fixed) Canadian drugs. With less specificity, Clinton has also called for the authority to roll back "unreasonable" premium hikes and "excessive profiteering" by drug companies.