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Democrats’ presidential hopefuls jockey to outdo one another with pre-debate promises

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) appears at a forum Friday in Miami.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders burnished his socialist bona fides – and sought to one-up progressive rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — with a $1.6-trillion plan to pay off all the country’s college debt, an idea that could be more of a boon to the rich than the poor. Joe Biden, the former vice president and leader in current polls, rolled out an immigration plan.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee built out his framework for a future free of fossil fuels. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke set out a multipart plan to improve services, including healthcare, job training and mental health support, for veterans, financed with savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And several candidates took fresh aim at the criminal justice system.

The collective policy plans of the 2020 presidential hopefuls were already so voluminous, aggressive and, in many cases, expensive that it’s been tough for some candidates in this crowded field to muscle their vision into the spotlight.

But in these days leading up to the first Democratic debates in Miami, they’re trying extra hard.

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They’re following the pattern set by Warren, who has distinguished herself with her policy prowess and has been rewarded in recent weeks by a notable rise in polls. Warren has so many detailed plans for so many issues that the logo emblazoned on her campaign merch is “Warren Has a Plan for That.” As those plans gained traction with voters, pundits stopped mocking her professorial obsession with policy details, and other candidates began trying to emulate it.

The media have been put on notice that Warren will unveil yet another new plan on Tuesday.

In some cases — forgiving college debt being the clearest example — the flurry of policy proposals has taken on the feel of an arms race.

Warren offered the race’s first detailed proposal on college debt, saying she would forgive as much as $50,000 for up to 42 million Americans. Sanders loyalists were eager to remind voters that it was the Vermonter who first carried college affordability from a fringe issue to a central focus of American politics, when he began promoting the topic as a presidential candidate in 2016.

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On Monday, Sanders promised to go beyond Warren’s plan by canceling all $1.6 trillion in outstanding college debt held by Americans, regardless of income. He acknowledged the plan could benefit some people who do not need the help but said he and the lawmakers who co-sponsored the plan with him believed in “universality” — that higher education should be a guaranteed entitlement for all Americans, along with Social Security and Medicare.

“Our response to making sure this does not benefit the wealthy is in other areas,” Sanders said, “where we are going to demand the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.”

The debt forgiveness would be bankrolled by a transaction tax on Wall Street, under his proposal. That tax aims to discourage speculation by traders, and Sanders notes it has been endorsed by scores of economists, although some of them have proposed using the money for other purposes.

Many liberal economists had already critiqued Warren’s version of debt forgiveness on the grounds that it would make income inequality worse. Sanders’ plan, which would give even more of a benefit to upper-income families, would rank even more poorly on that scale.

Families with incomes under $68,000 would receive only a third of the subsidy under the Warren plan — despite the plan’s provisions that exclude people with top incomes — according to an analysis by Brookings Institution economist Adam Looney.

The Sanders plan would benefit the economically better-off even more, as it has no income caps. A 2015 study by the progressive think tank Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University concluded such an approach would widen the racial wealth gap by 9% because so much of the gain would go to wealthy white Americans.

Sanders’ proposal nonetheless drew applause from many on the party’s left. And the criticism that moderates in the party have directed his way — on college debt and other issues — has been good fodder for firing up Sanders’ supporters.

Being called an “existential threat” to Democrats by the leaders of Third Way, the center-left think tank — which has no such harsh words for Warren — has proved a potent talking point for Sanders. And also a fundraising pitch.

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“We’re surprised that a leading candidate for president has decided five times in the last week to come after us,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way.

Other candidates are finding national attention harder to come by. O’Rourke, for example, has struggled recently and clearly hopes his plan for veterans will bring the spotlight his way.

The plan, which he introduced Monday at a roundtable with veterans in Tampa, builds on one of his few areas of notable legislative accomplishments during his three terms in the House. A member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he sponsored new measures that expanded mental health and employment training services.

Also on Monday, Inslee, the candidate who vowed to make climate change the priority above all else, added another chapter to his plan. Speaking at Everglades Holiday Park in Florida, he unveiled his “Freedom From Fossil Fuels” proposal, which detailed how he would end subsidies to oil, gas and coal companies, and transition the economy entirely away from them.

“The gravy train is over,” he said in his speech.

Former Vice President Biden is the rare candidate in the current race who has avoided talking in detail about policy, aiming to project as an above-the-fray frontrunner.

But this week, he had some new details to offer. He published an op-ed in the Miami Herald on Monday outlining his immigration plan. The blueprint is similar to that proposed by his rivals: Offer citizenship to Dreamers, abandon President Trump’s plan for a southern border wall, shore up border security with advanced technologies, and invest in and form closer partnerships with the Latin American countries from which migrants are fleeing.

Other candidates have been girding for the debate by focusing on a favorite issue among the Democratic base — criminal justice reform. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker vowed last week to reduce mass incarceration by using the clemency powers of the White House to shorten federal prison sentences for as many as 20,000 nonviolent drug offenders.

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California Sen. Kamala Harris declared that “one of my first acts of business as president will be to begin phasing out detention centers and private prisons.” The announcement followed a similar announcement by Sanders, who first unveiled a proposed private-prison ban while a candidate in 2016.

The candidates were not alone in making the push. Last week another candidate railed against private prisons and detention centers and how to get rid of them. Warren, it turns out, has a plan for that.


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