“What type of world do we want to live in?” is the question at the center of any political debate as potential voters evaluate the victories and shortcomings of those aspiring for the honor to govern. Rather than turning 2020 into a referendum on defeating President Donald Trump, each Democratic candidate has embraced an array of policies they believe will drive their worldview forward.
Some—like frontrunner Joe Biden—believe Trump is an aberration to the political process that can be corrected with moderate reform, while others—such as progressive darling Bernie Sanders—view his presidency as the inevitable outcome to the type of Darwinian capitalism practiced in the United States, which only an overhaul of the system can solve. While many candidates fought for their policy preferences on a local level, out of either political expediency or idealism, they have had to reverse course given the changing direction of the party—as has been the case with Kirsten Gillibrand’s past predilection toward firearms, and Kamala Harris’ record as California’s Attorney General. Others like Elizabeth Warren don’t have enough of a proof of concept for bold ideas, or lack bold ideas altogether—looking at you, Beto O’Rourke.
Here is a rundown of some of the leading candidates’ policy weaknesses before they step on the debate stage Wednesday and Thursday night.
With the longest political career out of any of the Democratic candidates, Biden is particularly vulnerable. Earlier this month, the frontrunner drew condemnation from many within his own party after recommitting himself to the Hyde Amendment—a measure preventing the government from funding abortions. Biden’s campaign later reversed its position, saying “circumstances have changed” and that it was time to repeal Hyde given conservatives’ attempts to ban abortion in Alabama and other states. The message was not exactly reassuring to reproductive health advocates, and the candidate will likely face further questions on his past support for legislation which would have outlawed late-term abortions and allowed states a legal avenue to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Biden’s support for the 1994 crime bill has also been rebuked by many progressives for the legislation’s role in worsening mass incarceration in the United States, and that segregationist lawmakers played a hand in shaping its policies. At a time when Democrats are pushing for further criminal justice reform and studies on reparations, Biden’s role in overhauling crime laws during the ’80s and ’90s seems more to the right of the Trump administration, with the current president signing into law a significant criminal justice reform bills last year.
Like Biden, Bernie Sanders also backed the 1994 crime bill. Though he has since cited policies in the legislation favorable to Democrats, like the federal ban on assault rifles and Violence Against Women Act, he has largely gone unchecked. Although many of Sanders’ supporters, including activist Shaun King, have laid the blame on Biden for shepherding the bill, Democratic candidates could point to the Vermont senator’s past support of the bill as evidence that his voting record is not as progressive as he claims.
Sanders also told Vox during the 2016 election that open borders were a “Koch Brothers proposal.” As Trump continually equates open borders with all types of immigration (legal or otherwise), the remark seems out-of-touch with a party fiercely opposing the White House’s policies on the issue.
From private prisons to student loan debt, Elizabeth Warren seems to have a policy proposal for everything. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the Massachusetts senator lacks serious credentials. Although she published an op-ed for Foreign Affairs in January assessing the diseases of the liberal international order, her remedies are not consistent. Just a month after telling Huffington Post earlier this year that she was opposed to sanctions on Venezuela, Warren told the Pod Save America podcast that she supported the preventive measure and that it was time “to turn the dial” up on President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
Many of Warren’s economic policies are also seen as overwhelmingly favoring wealthy families. After the candidate released her plan for universal college, The Washington Post published an editorial calling the initiative “a sweeping bailout for the middle-class and above.” The Brookings Institution, meanwhile, found that almost half of the estimated $640 billion of student debt she has promised to forgive would benefit the top 40 percent of earners, or households making at least $67,847 a year.
As San Fransisco’s district attorney, Kamala Harris opposed legalizing marijuana and establishing independent investigations for instances of police misconduct. Although she reversed her stances on both these issues, the latter as of just last month, her record as a “tough on crime” prosecutor has been attacked by many civil rights activists.
“Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” wrote law professor Lara Bazelon earlier this year in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
As is the case with Harris, Amy Klobuchar’s track record as a prosecutor has been scrutinized by progressives, given the Minnesota senator’s push for harsher penalties against drug dealers. However, Klobuchar has not made criminal justice reform a priority for her campaign, opting instead to tackle issues like climate change and the opioid epidemic.
While South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has struggled throughout the 2020 campaign to make inroads with the African American community, a police shooting in his city of South Bend this month—wherein a white police officer shot and killed a 54-year-old black man—might have rendered this impossible. Faced with protests from his own constituents last Friday, Buttigieg took responsibility for his administration’s failure to protect against the shootings with effective policies (despite a $1.5 million investment initiative from South Bend into police body cameras, the officer involved in the shooting did not have his activated).
The killing has also highlighted other racial problems within South Bend’s police department under Buttigieg’s tenure, which include a reduction of black officers and the resignation of the city’s first black chief—who Buttigieg encouraged to step down after learning the chief illegally recorded other police officers.
As a former congresswoman representing a Republican-leaning district near Albany, New York, Kirsten Gillibrand pushed anti-immigration policies which do not align with her current platform. Before being a presidential candidate promising not to detain immigrants, the Democrat called border security “a national security priority,” opposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants and voted to increase funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She has since said she is “ashamed” of these positions and that she “would change entirely what we do at the border” if elected president.
Gillibrand has also admitted she “didn’t do the right thing” regarding her gun control record. The lawmaker was given an A rating by the National Rifle Association (NRA) for fighting for gun rights in Washington, D.C. and New York.
As a former rising Democratic star when it came to education reform, Cory Booker worked alongside now Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote school choice initiatives. On the campaign trail, however, he has portrayed himself as a defender of public schools, avoiding any mention of his policies as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, which include closing underperforming schools, expanding charter schools and compensating teachers based on their classroom results. His past record in Newark has created enemies out of teachers’ unions at at time when other Democratic candidates, like Sanders and Warren, have offered solidarity.
In the aftermath of last fall’s Betomania, the candidate’s star has since been eclipsed by Buttigieg. Having failed to offer any bold policy prescriptions like Warren, his biggest challenge on the debate stage will be articulating a worldview that inspires.
Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed the city’s crumbling subway infrastructure on Governor Andrew Cuomo, promoted boats as “a new form of mass transit” and skirted Long Island City community organizers to land the since-defunct Amazon contract. Although his immigration policies (which include plans to give all undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses and health care) largely line up with the Democratic Party’s current platform, it is hard to see how many of the mayor’s questionable Manhattan initiatives will translate for a national audience.
Gabbard has stumbled in articulating the single issue she has built her entire campaign around: ending U.S. interventionism. In a video uploaded to Twitter in May, the Hawaii representative said Trump wants a war with Iran “because that’s exactly what Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu, al-Qaeda, Bolton, Haley and other NeoCons/NeoLibs want.” If this is the kind of rhetoric she pushes on the debate stage, rather than a thoughtful solution on how to best withdraw from Syria without creating another geopolitical vacuum to be filled by a group like ISIS, she loses the authority over the one topic she is qualified to speak on as a veteran.
During the 2016 campaign, progressive groups accused former President Barack Obama’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary of selling mortgages it acquired to Wall Street banks and of enabling gentrification.