PROGRESSIVE PERSPECTIVE: Bernie v. Biden on the issues


Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden looks on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Democratic nominee for president almost certainly will be former Vice President Joe Biden or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the two candidates’ visions could hardly be more different, allowing voters a glimpse at the clearest distinctions between two opposing ideologies and potential pathways for the party moving forward.

To highlight the stark differences between Biden’s vision of a return to Clinton and Obama-era neoliberalism and pre-Trump normalcy and Sanders’ vision of a populist political revolution in the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, let us consider the two candidates’ policy positions on a range of prominent issues:

Health care

Biden’s health care plan would continue the current system’s prioritization of industry profits over universal coverage. The defining feature of Biden’s plan is a buy-in public option similar to the extant Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The plan would aim to make Obamacare coverage less expensive while leaving tens of millions of Americans uninsured or underinsured.

Sanders, meanwhile, has been for years the staunchest advocate in American politics for a single-payer universal health care system that prioritizes coverage over profits and mirrors systems in most European and Scandinavian countries. Independent and conservative studies show Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would save the American people millions of taxpayer dollars by eliminating private taxes such as premiums, co-pays and deductibles while leaving no one uninsured or underinsured. The Sanders’ campaign says its plan would be funded by repealing the 2017 Republican tax cuts in addition to other wealth taxes.


Biden’s plan for education details increases in funding for schools with low income. Per a recent CNN article, Biden plans to “prioritize competitive pay for teachers,” expand access to preschool and double the number of health professionals in schools.

Sanders’ education plan would guarantee higher education for all who wish to attend and wipe out student loan debt for millions of Americans. The plan also requires a minimum $60,000 annual salary, tied to cost of living, for all teachers and calls for ending for-profit charter schools, eliminating school lunch debt and expanding after school and summer school programs. Sanders aims to pay for his education plan via taxing Wall Street.


Biden’s climate crisis plan would aim to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The plan would aim to end fossil fuel subsidies and ban new oil and gas permits on public land. It leaves enforcement of initiatives to Congress and recommends penalties for corporations that do not follow the plan. Biden also would reenter the Paris climate accord. Greenpeace USA’s climate policy scorecard for 2020 candidates gives Biden’s plan a grade of D-, with only John Hickenlooper (D-), Bill Weld (F) and Donald Trump (F) receiving worse ratings.

Climate is another issue on which Sanders has proven to have been ahead of his Democratic colleagues. During a 2016 debate, Sanders was the only candidate to state that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity; in 2020, practically all Democratic candidates have acknowledged as much. Sanders supports a Green New Deal and reentering the Paris agreement. Sanders’ campaign claims a Green New Deal would, by 2030, meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s goal of 100% renewable energy for electricity and transportation and create 20 million new jobs while prioritizing a “just transition” for affected fossil fuel workers.


Biden’s tax plan would raise the top individual rate to 39.6%, cap the value of deductions at 28% and notably not include a wealth tax. Biden would tax capital gains as ordinary income and eliminate the stepped-up basis for inherited assets. Biden would also expand earned income tax credits for workers over the age of 65. Notably, Biden’s campaign has received support from more than 60 billionaires.

Sanders is the country’s leading voice for increasing taxes on extreme wealth to fund social safety net improvements and other public projects. Sanders’ tax plan would raise the top individual rate and eliminate the payroll exemption for annual incomes over $250,000. His wealth tax would include thresholds of 1% for annual incomes over $32 million, 3% over $250 million, 5% over $1 billion and 8% over $10 billion. Sanders also would lower the estate tax exemption to $3.5 million and raise rates for wealth above $10 million.


Biden plans to invest $4 billion into efforts of reducing violence in Central America and slowing migration to the U.S. His plan would raise the refugee admission cap from 18,000 to 125,000, but Biden has said he opposes decriminalizing border crossings for individuals without proper documentation.

Sanders plans to end family separations, deportations and raids conducted by ICE, halt construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and close for-profit detention centers. Sanders supports measures to ensure immigrants are not discriminated against for having low incomes and disabilities and further expanding protections for immigrants. A Sanders administration also would fold ICE into the Justice Department and Customs and Border Protection into the Treasury Department. Sanders plans to unveil a program supporting people displaced by climate change and to accept at least 50,000 people in the first year of his administration.

Foreign Policy

Biden has not spoken much about his plans in foreign policy, but his campaign’s rhetoric indicates a Biden administration would mostly continue the policies and traditions of pre-Trump American foreign policy. Biden has said he would re-enter the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran is willing and that he plans to “demonstrate commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons.” Recent Biden ads have criticized Trump for being laughed at by various world leaders including American allies and members of the United Nations.

Per Vice News, “Sanders, on the other hand, is seeking a break from the foreign policy establishment as a whole.” Sanders has helped lead the bi-partisan Congressional effort to end U.S. funding of Saudi Arabian war crimes in Yemen, indicated support for Palestinian rights and called for adjustments to the U.S.’s one-way relationship with Israel and vowed to remove American troops from Afghanistan. Sanders has repeatedly criticized Biden’s 2003 vote in support of the Iraq War.


In the past, Biden has said he does not “view abortion as a choice and a right” and that he does not “think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” For decades, Biden also was a staunch supporter of the Hyde Amendment and did not support the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The Hyde Amendment prevents the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except for in instances of rape or incest. In recent months, Biden has begun saying his administration would be committed to “expanding access to contraception and (protecting) the constitutional right to an abortion.”

Sanders has said repealing the Hyde Amendment would be a top priority for his administration and that he would “defend a woman’s right to control her own body here at home and around the world.” A prospective Sanders administration also would seek to codify Roe v. Wade into legislation while significantly expanding Planned Parenthood funding.

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].