Voters watching Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate got a pretty good glimpse into the differences between the two most progressive candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
All voters had to do was listen closely to the way the two talked about trade and health care.
The Divide On Trade
The trade discussion came first, and its focus was the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA), which the Trump administration has negotiated, the House passed last month and the Senate is set to consider next week.
The USMCA is a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which first took effect in the 1990s and has been a source of discontent for labor unions and environmentalists ever since. Sanders has said he would vote against the new agreement, Warren has said she would vote for it, and on Tuesday they reiterated those positions.
But what has made their argument especially interesting is that they actually agree, for the most part, about the merits of the new pact.
Both Sanders and Warren think the USMCA would help American industries and workers at the margins ― by, for example, requiring that cars have more parts from North America in order to be exempt from tariffs. At the same time, both think that the USMCA doesn’t go nearly far enough to rectify the problems in NAFTA.
The difference is over how to react. Sanders is voting no mainly because, as he put it in Tuesday’s debate, “we could do much better than a Trump-led trade deal .... This deal ― and I think the proponents of it acknowledge ― will result in the continuation of the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing.”
Sanders also cited the objections of environmental organizations, which noted that the agreement never mentions the phrase “climate change.”
“Given the fact that climate change is right now the greatest threat facing this planet, I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world,” Sanders said.
When moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register turned to Warren, asking her about Sanders’s position and hers, she made it clear she understood the USMCA’s deficiencies and that, as president, she would try to negotiate a better agreement.
But then she talked about the people who would benefit if the USMCA is passed now.
“This new trade deal is a modest improvement ― Sen. Sanders himself has said so,” Warren said. “It will give some relief to our farmers. It will give some relief to our workers. I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal.”
“We need a policy that actually helps our workers, our farmers,” Warren added. “I’m ready to have that fight, but let’s help the people who need help right now.
The Divide On Health Care
That line of thinking should have sounded familiar because it’s the same way Warren has justified her position on health care.
Warren says that, like Sanders, she hopes to create a “Medicare for All” system that would replace existing insurance arrangements, public and private, with a single, government-run plan.
But given the political and practical obstacles to creating such a system right away, Warren has said she would focus first on doing what she could right away ― by signing executive orders designed to bring down drug prices and, then, pushing for legislation that would bolster the financial assistance in the Affordable Care Act while creating a government-run plan for people who want to enroll in it.
“My approach to this is we’ve got to get as much help to as many people as quickly as possible,” Warren said. “What I can do are the things I can do as president on the first day. We can cut the cost of prescription drugs. I’ll use the power that’s already given to the president to reduce the cost of insulin and EpiPens and HIV-AIDS drugs. Let’s get some relief to those families. And I will defend the Affordable Care Act.”
Sanders didn’t answer Warren’s argument directly. (Other candidates spoke in between.) But in the past, when asked about what he’d do if enacting Medicare for All wasn’t possible right away, he’s brushed off the question and simply restated his case for the program ― something he did again Tuesday night.
“Now is the time to take on the greed and corruption of the health care industry, of the drug companies, and finally provide health care to all through a Medicare for All single-payer program,” Sanders said. “It won’t be easy, but that is what we have to do.”
It’s easy to make too much of the differences on display Tuesday night ― or in the Sanders and Warren candidacies more generally.
The two still agree far more than they disagree on policy. Warren has never shied away from establishing lofty goals, as her strongly progressive voting record indicates, just as Sanders has proved himself capable of compromise when it mattered.
In 2009, after all, he voted for the Affordable Care Act even though it was far, far short of what he thought necessary to make health care a right. Many of his supporters argue that, by staking out his ideal position, he is moving the conversation to the left ― and, ultimately, setting up a more progressive final compromise.
But rhetorical differences matter, and Tuesday night’s exchange suggests that, at some level, Warren is more sympathetic to incremental change than is Sanders. Which position makes more sense ― and how much, ultimately, the distinction matters ― is something Democratic voters will have to contemplate, starting in Iowa early next month.