Thursday’s debate, like the collisions that preceded it, pitted a “leftist” lane led by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren against a “moderate” lane led by former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The former believe in “big, structural change,” going to battle with billionaires, and eliminating private insurance; the latter believe in incremental progress, courting the wealthy, and building on Obamacare. The seemingly massive differences between these two factions represent a fierce ideological fight for the future of the Democratic Party.
The rhetoric of this clash is obscuring a deeper truth: All the lead contenders are running on the most progressive agendas to ever dominate a Democratic primary. Indeed, by the standards of the Democratic Party in 2008, the moderates look like leftists. As a result, if Biden or Buttigieg actually win the nomination, they will be running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in history.
We reviewed the details of the policy positions held by the four top 2020 Democratic contenders (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren) across a handful of key issue areas. When you compare the ideas of the leftists and the moderates against Obama’s 2008 campaign positions, the overall shift toward the left is undeniable. The point here isn’t to offer a comprehensive rundown of where each candidate stands on every issue, but to illustrate the way the center of gravity in the party has moved.
Health care: a consensus around insurance expansion built atop public coverage
Warren/Sanders: Implement a single-payer health care system with universal coverage, zero copays or deductibles, and government-directed pricing.
Biden/Buttigieg: Achieve at least 97 percent health care coverage via a public option open to everyone, including those with employer-sponsored insurance. Increase subsidies by tying them to Obamacare’s more comprehensive “gold” level plans and capping premiums at a maximum of 8.5 percent of income, no matter your income.
Obama 2008: Expand Medicaid to 133 percent of the poverty line, offer subsidies for private insurance up to 400 percent of the poverty line, and offer a public plan to those ineligible for employer coverage, Medicaid, or Medicare. Notably, while the 2020 candidates focus rhetorically on expanding Medicare, Obama focused rhetorically on access to private insurance.
Climate change: significant spending increases and a goal of net-zero emissions — or full decarbonization — by 2050
Sanders/Warren: Sanders plans to invest $16.3 trillion in federal funding over the next decade to reach 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030, and complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050. Warren plans to invest $3 trillion to reach 100 percent clean energy electricity by 2035, and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Biden/Buttigieg: Invest between $1.5 and $2 trillion in federal funding over the next decade to push the US toward a 100 percent clean energy economy and hit net-zero emissions by 2050.
Obama 2008: Invest $150 billion (funded by passing the cap-and-trade bill) in clean energy research over the next decade to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050. Notably, Obama’s plan called for increasing domestic production of oil and gas in the short-term.
Immigration: a liberalization in both laws and rhetoric
Sanders/Warren: Decriminalize crossing the border, expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, reshape ICE and CBP, increase the number of refugees the US admits to 175,000 annually (Warren), repeal 1996 immigration laws (Sanders), and support all Biden policies below.
Biden: Reverse Trump administration’s toughest anti-immigrant policies, increase the number of refugees the US admits to 125,000 annually, reinstate DACA, and provide a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants currently living in the US.
Obama 2008: Fund additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology to “secure our borders,” increase penalties on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, create a “responsible” path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants who learn English and pay fines. Even this summary, though, doesn’t quite do justice to the difference in rhetoric: Obama’s plan is framed in terms of an enforcement-first approach, noting that the “undocumented population is exploding” and “immigration raids only netted 4,600 arrests in 2007.”
Note: Buttigieg hasn’t yet released a full immigration plan, though his campaign plans to release one shortly.
Criminal justice: against the death penalty, private prisons, marijuana criminalization, and cash bail
Sanders/Warren: Both support all Buttigieg/Biden policies below (including marijuana legalization) as well as decriminalization of homelessness. Sanders also wants to give all incarcerated prisoners the right to vote as part of a “Prisoners Bill of Rights.”
Biden/Buttigieg: Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, end the federal death penalty, abolish federal private prisons, get rid of cash bail, and either decriminalize (Biden) or legalize (Buttigieg) marijuana.
Obama 2008: While the Obama platform didn’t even have a specific “criminal justice” platform, it did offer to expand the use of drug courts, work to ban racial profiling, and reduce racial sentencing disparities. When asked about the issue during a 2008 debate, Obama raised his hand to declare that he opposed decriminalizing marijuana. He also supported the death penalty for “some crimes.”
Higher education: some form of public higher ed should be free for almost everyone
Sanders/Warren: Make public colleges, universities, and trade-schools tuition and debt-free for all students.
Biden/Buttigieg: Make four-year public university tuition free for at least 80% of American families (Buttigieg) or make community colleges completely tuition free (Biden).
Obama 2008: Create a new American Opportunity Tax Credit to ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans (in exchange for 100 hours of public service per year).
Student debt: recognizing student debt as a problem, and cancellation or repayment limits as an answer
Sanders/Warren: Sanders would cancel all student loan debt. Warren would cancel $50,000 of student loan debt for those making less than $100,000, and phases the benefit out at $250,000.
Biden/Buttigieg: Biden would reduce the student debt burden by implementing income-based payment programs that cap payments at 5 percent of discretionary income (Buttigieg’s plan looks similar, but is vaguer on numbers). Buttigieg would cancel debt from predatory for-profit institutions. Both would automatically forgive all remaining debt after 20 years.
2008 Obama: No plan available.
While it is far from single-payer, universal student debt forgiveness, and a $16 trillion climate plan, the 2020 Democratic “moderate” agenda is anything but moderate by historical standards.
The Democratic Party’s shift to the left is multicausal. Some of it reflects Obama’s accomplishments: his achievements are a foundation the 2020 candidates are building on. Some of it reflects the changed realities the candidates are responding to — climate change has accelerated since 2008, the student debt crisis has worsened, and Donald Trump’s presidency has transformed the domestic political context, particularly on immigration. And some of it reflects the influence Sanders and a resurgent left have had on the entire Democratic Party.
Still, while the 2020 primary is being touted as an ideological battle for the future of the Democratic Party, in many ways, the future of the Democratic Party is already here.