Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have competed for months to position themselves as the top progressive in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. They will have the chance to make their case to voters Tuesday night during CNN’s primary debate.
The two senators share similar campaign messages, lamenting the rise of income inequality and vowing to fight corporate interests. Many of their campaign proposals overlap — Medicare for all, tax hikes on wealthy Americans and stricter regulations on the financial industry — as Sanders acknowledged at a town hall in April, saying, “Elizabeth and I end up agreeing on a lot of issues.”
They agreed in December 2018 not to attack each directly on the campaign trail, according to reporting from New York magazine. Warren has drawn closer to Sanders in some national polls since she joined the race in February. She dominated the June 26 primary debate, where she was the highest-polling candidate on the stage that night, but on Tuesday she’ll be standing next to Sanders, her closest rival.
Their solutions for certain issues aren’t always the same, but they share many of the same concerns about inequality and the economy. On student loan debt, for example, Warren proposes wiping out $640 billion of outstanding debt on the basis of need. Sanders wants to cancel all $1.6 trillion of student debt, regardless of the borrower’s income.
Beneath their agreements on policy, the two senators clash in terms of ideology and their visions for the country. Sanders, repeating a theme from his 2016 presidential campaign, calls for a “political revolution” of millions of people to “reclaim our democracy.” He embraces socialist rhetoric rather than shying away from it.
Socialism has become an all-purpose label among some Republicans for any idea they don’t like, such as Puerto Rican statehood, which Mitch McConnell called “full-bore socialism.” Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of modern conservatism, got his start in politics in 1961 by warning Americans against socialism — in the guise of a Democratic proposal for government-subsidized health care, the program now known as Medicare, which Republicans routinely vow to defend.
But strictly speaking, socialism refers to a state-controlled economy where the government owns the means of production, including factories, farms, offices and resources. Democratic socialists, including Sanders, support the expansion of government social programs, economic regulations and greater worker ownership of businesses, but they reject the totalitarian systems characteristic of Soviet or Cuban communism.
In a June speech at George Washington University, Sanders defined “democratic socialism” as an ideology that challenges income inequality, special interests and powerful corporations. He argued that democratic socialism was the only path to defeating authoritarianism — and that he can defeat President Trump in 2020.
“When Trump screams ‘socialism,’ all of his hypocrisy will not be lost on the American people,” Sanders said in his speech. “Americans will know that he is attacking all that we take for granted: from Social Security to Medicare to veterans’ health care to roads and bridges to public schools to national parks to clean water and clean air.”
Several of Sanders’s rivals in the Democratic primary support some form of universal health care, his signature policy, as well as tax hikes on wealthy Americans and large corporations. But few label themselves or their issue positions as falling under the “socialist” umbrella.
Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., another 2020 contender, co-sponsored bills with Sanders in May that included measures to help create and expand worker-owned businesses. Workers owning the means of production — in this case, the company — fits the definition of socialism, but Warren forcefully rejects being called a socialist.
She described herself as “capitalist to my bones” in 2018. Since announcing her campaign in February, Warren has become known for her long list of proposals, many of which would add new regulations to the economy. For Warren, the system can work with enough regulation. For Sanders, the system itself is the problem.
“I believe in markets ... markets that have a cop on the beat and have real rules and everybody follows them. I believe in a level playing field,” Warren told CBS News.
The rival progressives also diverge in their views of the Democratic Party.
Sanders caucuses with Democrats but runs as an independent. Since being elected to Congress in 1990, he has been critical of the party, which he dubbed “Republican lite” in 2011. Sanders said in 2013 that he was disappointed with President Barack Obama’s “unwillingness” to challenge the right wing of the Republican Party. But Sanders votes overwhelmingly in support of Democrats’ legislation.
After he lost his bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, Sanders claimed that the race was “rigged” in favor of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His claim of wrongdoing was spurred by WikiLeaks’ dump of emails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016 that revealed bias among top officials in favor of Clinton.
Sanders has carried the perception of the odds being stacked against him into the 2020 race. Politico published an article in June that detailed how centrist Democrats were supporting Warren as an alternative to Sanders. The Vermont independent responded on Twitter, writing, “The cat is out of the bag. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie.’”
The cat is out of the bag. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly "anybody but Bernie." They know our progressive agenda of Medicare for All, breaking up big banks, taking on drug companies and raising wages is the real threat to the billionaire class. https://t.co/zimci7JRO6— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 19, 2019
A week later, Sanders made it clear that he still harbors resentment toward the DNC. In an interview with NBC News, Sanders was asked if he would support the Democratic nominee if he lost the primary. He responded with a non sequitur that was revealing nevertheless: “Some people say that maybe if the system wasn't rigged against me, I would've beat Trump,” Sanders said.
Warren agreed with Sanders’s assessment that the 2016 primary was “rigged” in favor of Clinton. While Warren supports many of the same progressive policies as Sanders, she rarely critiques the corporate influence he sees within the party. In March 2018, she issued a rare rebuke of Senate Democrats for supporting a bill that rolled back Wall Street regulations.
“Republicans and Democrats [have] locked arms to do the bidding of the big banks,” Warren said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Looking at endorsements in primaries, Sanders backed challengers who ran to the left of incumbent Democrats. The most notable example was his endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s long-shot bid to unseat incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, who was the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House. Warren, meanwhile, supported centrist candidates running for Republican-held seats.
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