The RS Politics 2020 Democratic Primary Policy Guide
The collection of Democrats vying to win the party’s nomination to take on President Trump in 2020 was larger and more diverse than any group of White House hopefuls since the modern primary process began. But with primary season fully underway, the field of over two dozen candidates has been whittled down to two.
Below is a guide to where Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders stand on a variety of crucial issues. Scroll through at your convenience or click a candidate’s name to jump directly to their policy positions. For a look at where the candidates stand in the marathon horse race to secure the party’s nomination, check out the RS Politics 2020 Democratic Primary Leaderboard. Both guides will be updated as the primary progresses and candidates continue to develop policy positions.
Medicare for All
Biden does not support Medicare for All, instead favoring an expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Last summer, he unveiled a health care plan built around subsidizing the “big fucking deal” he helped pass as Obama’s vice president. Biden’s 2020 plan would also offer a Medicare-like public option that Americans would be able to buy into. “I believe we have to protect and build on Obamacare,” Biden said in a video announcing the plan. “That’s why I proposed adding a public option to Obamacare as the best way to lower cost and cover everyone. I understand the appeal of Medicare for All, but folks supporting it should be clear that it means getting rid of Obamacare, and I’m not for that.”
Biden’s claim that Medicare for All would mean the end of the Obamacare is an odd way to promote his plan. While true that Medicare for All would replace and thus end the ACA, no one would lose coverage under a single-payer system.
Closing the Wealth Gap
Biden has pledged to close $1.6 trillion in “tax loopholes.” One staple of his stump speech is pledging to eliminate the stepped-up basis loophole, which allows heirs to pay less in taxes on their inheritance. Biden also wants to crack down on the use of non-compete clauses that make it difficult for workers to change jobs, and has slammed the Trump tax cuts by saying that the vast majority of the benefits go to “folks at the top and corporations.” But he has faced criticism for pointedly refusing to take aim at America’s new oligarchs, a la Warren or Sanders. “I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie Sanders,” he said in 2019. “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason why we’re in trouble.” At a recent Manhattan fundraiser, he vowed not to “demonize” the wealthy if elected president and told the well-heeled donors in attendance, “I need you very badly.”
The Climate Crisis
Biden, who introduced one of the Senate’s first climate bills in 1986, has endorsed the framework of a Green New Deal and unveiled a $1.7 trillion plan to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The plan calls for signing climate-focused executive orders on Biden’s first day as president, recommitting to the Paris climate accord, reinforcing the Clean Air Act to combat growing transportation sector emissions, and demanding Congress pass legislation creating an enforcement mechanism to meet emissions targets, among other goals. Biden also wants to use the reach and buying power of the federal government to combat climate change, mandating that federal infrastructure spending help reduce pollution and all federal permitting decisions weigh the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Biden’s first major policy rollout focused on K-12 education. The centerpiece of that plan is tripling Title I federal spending on schools that serve low-income students from $16 billion to $48 billion. He also wants to increase teacher pay, expand pre-K access for three- and four-year-olds, and invest more in mental health services in public schools. If he’s president, he’ll call on the Department of Education to fund efforts to “diversify” public schools. But school desegregation is a dicey subject for Biden: Before he got in the race, the Washington Post highlighted Biden’s opposition three decades ago to busing as a way to diversify public schools. “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,'” he told a Delaware newspaper in 1975. “I don’t buy that.”
Biden has disavowed Super PACs and fossil fuel money but not corporate PAC money or dark money nonprofit groups. His campaign has reportedly begun recruiting big-money fundraisers, a.k.a. “bundlers,” who receive nicknames depending on how much money they raise — $50,000 for a “Protector,” $100,000 for a “Unifier.”
After eight years as vice president, Biden has logged more miles as a statesman than any other 2020 candidate. His views are decidedly mainstream and centrist, for good and ill. He has slammed Trump’s “need to coddle autocrats and dictators” and called for more support of NATO and a strong response to Russia’s sustained assault on Western democracy, including in the U.S. Yet he also voted for the Iraq war, and supported President Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Last July, he reset his approach to foreign policy for his latest run at the White House. While speaking at the City University of New York, Biden preached the need to restore America’s relationship with the international community to what it was before the current president took office. He promised to rejoin the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, cancel Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim nations, resume sending aid to Northern Triangle nations, and more. “Donald Trump’s brand of America First has too often left America alone,” he said. “We only have one opportunity to reset our democracy. After Trump, we have to be prepared to make the most of it.”
Last summer, Biden unveiled a plan aimed at revitalizing rural America. The plan features a bevy of economic initiatives, investment in clean energy solutions, tripling funding to expand rural broadband access, measure to improve access to health care in rural areas, and more. “A healthy, vibrant rural America is essential to the success of our country,” he wrote in introducing the plan. “Yet in small town after small town, parents watch their kids and grandkids leave rural communities because there just is not enough opportunity for them at home. For too many rural Americans, a pathway to the middle class is out of reach if they stay in their rural communities.”
As vice president, in 2015, Biden called for four years of free public college, going further than Obama’s proposal for free two-year community college. Biden’s campaign website pays lip service to the need for all Americans to “obtain the skills and education to realize their full potential” from pre-K to college, but he has not explicitly endorsed four years of free public college since joining the 2020 primary (only free community college), and has been facing criticism for votes he made as a senator that made it harder for borrowers to discharge student debt through bankruptcy.
A longtime gun control advocate, Biden responded to a school shooting last year by listing various policies that could prevent future tragedies. “The idea we don’t have universal background checks,” he told reporters, “the idea that we don’t outlaw a number of the weapons I was able to get outlawed in the crime bill, from large magazines and assault weapons and all that, this is crazy.” In the past, he pushed for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as implementing universal background checks.
We will be rolling out policies to reduce gun violence in the coming months, but it’s clear we need to:
– Close the loophole that allows individuals to buy guns online or at gun shows without a background check.
– Ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 7, 2019
As president, Biden’s website says, he would “pursue a humane immigration policy that upholds our values, strengthens our economy, and secures our border.” He recently pledged not to deport veterans who aren’t U.S. citizens. As a senator, he voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act to pay for 700 miles of wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border. He played a key role in the Obama administration championing the cause of Dreamers, or undocumented residents who were brought to the country when they were young.
Legalization advocates slammed Biden when he entered the race, telling Rolling Stone that he had “an abysmal record when it came to marijuana law reform.” As a senator, he helped lead the charge in the ’80s to ramp up the federal government’s War on Drugs, introducing the Comprehensive Narcotics Control Act of 1986 and calling for the creation of a “drug czar.” He has not made many public statements on the subject in recent years, but in 2014 told Time magazine that he still didn’t support legalization. Last summer, Biden released a plan for criminal justice reform that calls for the decriminalization of marijuana, for states to be allowed to legalize it as they see fit, and for it to be downgraded to a Schedule II substance at the federal level.
Abolishing the Electoral College
Biden told the New York Times editorial board that he does not support eliminating the Electoral College.
Packing the Supreme Court
In 1983, during a hearing on President Reagan’s plans to replace members of a national civil rights commission, Biden said FDR’s court-packing was “totally within his right” but, in his view, was “a bonehead idea” that “put in question, for an entire decade, the independence of the most significant body” in the United States.
He told the New York Times editorial board earlier this year that he does not support term limits for Supreme Court justices.
Criminal Justice Reform
Since launching his campaign, Biden’s had to answer for his criminal justice stance in the ’80s and ’90s, including support for the 1994 Crime Bill and co-sponsoring the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created mandatory minimum sentences that treated crack cocaine more harshly than cocaine and contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. “It was a big mistake…” he told a crowd in early 2019. “We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack — you never go back; it was somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
Last summer, Biden unveiled a comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform. It calls for abolishing the death penalty, private prisons, cash bail, and mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes; investing in reforming law enforcement and encouraging the Justice Department to hold police departments accountable for misconduct; a $20 grant program to encourage states to reduce crime and incarceration; and more. “Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States — and too many of them are black and brown,” Biden wrote. “To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we’re sending to jail, how we treat those in jail, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time.”
Biden, a Roman Catholic, has said that he personally opposes abortion but because this conviction is based on his faith, he has no right to impose those views on other people. Accordingly, he said in 2012 that the government doesn’t have a right to tell women what to do with their bodies. And a Biden spokesman told the New York Times last year that Biden supports the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. But as a senator in the early ’80s, Biden voted in favor of an amendment to allow states to overturn Roe, a vote he described then as “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.”
Last June, Biden’s campaign confirmed that he still supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from being used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and if the life of the mother is at risk. This put him in stark contrast to other Democratic candidates on this issue. Days later, he reversed course and said he no longer supports the measure.
Biden website includes a call to protect “every American’s vote” — to make it easier for people of all races and classes to vote and protect our elections from foreign interference. On the campaign trail, he’s said that Republicans want to scale back voting rights and make it harder for people of color to exercise their right to vote. “You’ve got Jim Crow sneaking back in,” he said. “You know what happens when you have an equal right to vote? They lose.”
Biden does not support reparations. He dismissed the idea in a 1975 interview that resurfaced in news reports before he entered the presidential race. “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” Biden told a local newspaper. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
When asked in an interview with the New York Times editorial board earlier this year why he doesn’t support reparations, he said he does before elaborating that they would come through “end[ing]systemic segregation, and it’s real, and it’s genuine,” and that “there’s a whole range of things we can do legislatively now to deal with this systemic racism that still exists.”
Medicare for All
Sanders is the author of Medicare for All legislation in the Senate. His bill would transform Medicare into cradle-to-grave insurance coverage for all American residents, financed by taxes, so there would be no fees at doctors offices, emergency rooms, or hospitals. Over a decade, the government would need to fund and administer a $32 trillion program, but studies have suggested overall U.S. spending on health care could drop, even as tens of millions gain coverage. “Here is the truth that the drug and insurance companies do not want you to know,” Sanders tweeted last May. “Expanding Medicare to everyone will save the American people money.”
Closing the Wealth Gap
When Sanders, the democratic socialist, preaches “revolution,” he is talking about wresting power and wealth from the billionaire class to create security and opportunity for working people and “an economy that works for all.” Sanders is targeting the wealth of America’s oligarchs, and has proposed hiking the estate tax to 77 percent on the fortunes of the very wealthiest, aiming to raise “$2.2 trillion from the nation’s 588 billionaires,” including $74 billion from the Koch brothers alone. “If the Koch brothers and the billionaire class hate my guts, I welcome their hatred,” Sanders has long said. It’s a line he cribbed from FDR, from whom he has also taken the idea of an Economic Bill of Rights, calling for, among other things, the government to guarantee a “decent-paying job” to everyone who can work. “A job guarantee will lower the crime rate, improve mental health, and create a stronger sense of community,” Sanders has said. “It will create a much healthier and happier America.” He’s also been a longtime proponent of raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour (a “starvation wage”) to $15 per hour, insisting: “It is not a radical idea to say a job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”
The Climate Crisis
A co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution released by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, Sanders has released his own $16.3 trillion plan to combat the climate crisis. Regarded as the most ambitious plan of anyone remaining the field, Sanders’ proposal calls for declaring the climate crisis a national emergency, investment in clean energy sources, and setting aside $200 billion to help other nations cope with the effects of climate change. Sanders says his plan would pay for itself in 15 years while creating 20 million new jobs. In January, Sanders was endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led coalition of progressive climate activists.
Sanders’ rhetoric on foreign policy has often mirrored his domestic priorities, condemning the power of corporate multinationals and oligarchic concentrations of wealth. His record leans toward an anti-interventionist stance — he voted against the Iraq war and more recently did not support ousting Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, citing the U.S’s “long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin-American countries,” adding, “we must not go down that road again.” Sanders has called for Congress to reclaim its power to declare war and in April invoked the War Powers Resolution to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. “We’re not going to invest in never-ending wars,” he has said.
To my mind, there is no idea bigger, more critical, or more urgent than ending our endless wars. pic.twitter.com/iUZRDh7WLb
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 5, 2019
During an interview last July with Pod Save America, Sanders offered sharp criticisms of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu, and said that he would “absolutely” considering cutting American aid to Israel in order to force the nation to behave differently. “You have an extreme right-wing government with many racist tendencies,” he said of the nation under Netanyahu, adding that “our policy cannot just be pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel; it has got to be pro-region working with all of the people, all of the countries in that area.”
Sanders has been slow to evolve on gun control. He voted for the NRA-backed 2005 bill that made most gun makers immune from accountability for misuse of their weapons, sparking the reckless marketing of military-style weapons. During his 2016 campaign, Sanders cited his concern for mom-and-pop gun shops to justify his vote. In his announcement speech for his 2020 run, Sanders sounded more like a conventional progressive: “I’m running for president because we must end the epidemic of gun violence in this country,” he said. “We need to take on the NRA, expand background checks, end the gun-show loophole, and ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons.”
Sanders pushed the call for free college to the fore in his 2016 campaign, and continues to champion the policy in 2020. He has called for free public college tuition, with the federal government covering 67 percent of this cost and states the remaining 33 percent. His plan seeks to “fully fund” historically black colleges and universities — financed by a transaction fee for Wall Street trades on stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Sanders is proposing to use the same Wall Street tax to fund a debt jubilee, wiping out all $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans. “If we could bail out Wall Street, we sure as hell can #CancelStudentDebt,” he tweeted after announcing his new debt relief legislation last June.
Sanders supports the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it would no longer be federally prohibited and legality would be left up to the states. The act would also invest at least $500 million a year in communities hardest hit by the Drug War and withhold federal Department of Justice funding from states that enforce their own pot laws unequally.
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans—and a majority of both Republicans and Democrats—support marijuana legalization.
The American people agree. It is time our federal government listens. We must end the criminalization of marijuana in this country.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 19, 2019
He ratcheted up his rhetoric on the issue during an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience last August, saying that, if elected, he would use an executive order to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I narcotics, which also includes heroin. “That is insane,” he told Rogan. “Heroin is a killer drug. You can argue the plusses and minuses of marijuana, but marijuana ain’t heroin. So we have to end that and that’s what I will do as president of the United States. I believe we can do that through executive order and I will do that.”
Abolishing the Electoral College
Sanders wants to “reexamine” the Electoral College. “It is hard to defend the current system in which one candidate receives 3 million votes less than his opponent, but still becomes president,” he said.
Packing the Supreme Court
Sanders has voiced support for reforming the Supreme Court — perhaps by rotating on new justices from the appellate courts — but he’s concerned that conservatives could retaliate if progressives pack the court. “My worry is that the next time the Republicans are in power they will do the same thing. So I think that is not the ultimate solution,” he said at the 2019 We The People summit.
Criminal Justice Reform
Sanders voted for the 1994 Crime Bill, placing him in company with Joe Biden. Today he wants to end the drug war, including by legalizing marijuana. Sanders also seeks to end cash bail, mandatory minimums, private prisons, and the death penalty.
Sanders, who is not given to fiscal conservatism, has balked at reparations for slavery, telling The View last year: “I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities. And I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”
He elaborated on his position during an appearance on “Black Coffee” with Marc Lamont Hill. “My preferred solution,” Sanders said, “is … focusing a very substantial amount of federal money on distressed communities in America, which in most cases, not all, will be African-American communities. That means paying attention and rebuilding schools; making sure the young people who are graduating high school are not falling through the cracks — that they have the job training or the ability to go to college; making sure there is decent housing and that the environment in those communities is adequate; and making sure everybody has health care.”
Bernie Sanders expressed support for economic policies that would disproportionately benefit vulnerable communities. This seems to be how he understands and supports reparations: pic.twitter.com/7h0FEe69tx
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) July 11, 2019
In addition to calling for universal pre-K, Sanders wants universal child care. “In a society with our resources, it is unconscionable that we do not properly invest in our children from the very first stages of their lives,” he tweeted last February. “We need universal, publicly funded childcare.”
Sanders has been on the record as staunchly pro-choice since 1972, when he was quoted in a Vermont newspaper saying: “It strikes me as incredible that politicians think that they have the right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body.” He opposes the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal spending on most abortions, limiting access for women on Medicaid, in particular.
Sanders seeks to re-enfranchise people with felony records, including those currently behind bars. He’d abolish Voter ID laws, “restore” the Voting Rights Act, create automatic voter registration at the federal level for all Americans over 18, and make Election Day a national holiday. “The great political crisis we face is not voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent,” he tweeted last April. “The crisis we face is voter suppression. Our movement is about ending voter suppression, restoring the Voting Rights Act and implementing automatic voter registration.”
Taking on Wall Street
Sanders uses a Wall Street transaction tax to fund free college. With Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders also has a proposal to cap all interest rates for credit cards and other consumer lenders at 15 percent.
55 signatories just came out in favor of @BernieSanders’ & my joint call to cap ALL interest at 15%.
Supporters include the fmr Chief Economist of the World Bank, private equity CEOs, leading economists, fmr members of Congress, and more. https://t.co/FU28XYA4Ah
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 5, 2019
Sanders speaks about immigration in more conservative terms than some 2020 competitors. “What we need is comprehensive immigration reform,” he said while stumping in Iowa last year. “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.”
Sanders has long blasted free trade deals — “unfair trade agreements written by multi-national corporations” — as harmful to the American working class, and he calls for “a trade policy that benefits American workers and creates living-wage jobs. He hits Trump as being feckless in slowing offshoring of jobs and closing the trade deficit. He wants to close the tax breaks that provide incentives to ship jobs overseas. Sanders also wants to expand “buy American” policies to increase job growth at home. He would also make sure “binding labor, environmental, and human rights standards are written into the core text of all trade agreements.”