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Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP) Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 12, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the last two major Democratic presidential candidates standing, have leveled a variety of policy attacks against each other, including health care policy, Social Security, and guns.
  • As long-serving members of Congress, both Biden and Sanders have stances from their past that deviate from today’s Democratic Party orthodoxy. 

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the last two candidates standing in a months-long Democratic presidential primary race. And they have found plenty to argue about.

Part of that is because they have about 77 years of legislative history and votes to mine between the two of them. Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, while Sanders won his first race for Congress in 1990. Old stances that made sense at the time have been overtaken by new political realities within the Democratic Party.

Other contrasts have come over policy prescriptions, notably the candidates’ divergent approaches to health care. Sanders favors a single-payer, government-run health insurance system for all Americans. Biden would build on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act by allowing Americans under 65 to buy into the Medicare system, while allowing those who like their existing coverage to keep it.

Here’s a selection of some of their hardest-hitting attacks on each other from the 2020 presidential campaign.

The fight over health insurance

One of the key divides is the future of health insurance.

For instance, Biden said Sanders "opposed Obamacare (and) didn't like the fact we didn't push a single-payer option."

This is Mostly False. Sanders supported Obamacare, even though his first choice was still a single-payer system. Before the Affordable Care Act passed the Senate, Sanders submitted an amendment to promote a single-payer health care system as an alternative. The amendment failed, and Sanders ultimately voted for the Obamacare bill.

"The bill is not as strong as I wanted and I will work to improve it, but it begins to move this country toward the long-time goal of providing comprehensive, affordable health care for all Americans," Sanders said after the Senate passed the bill. "We can do better, but this is an important step forward."

Another False statement by Biden: Sanders’ single-payer Medicare for All plan "would cost more than the entire federal budget that we spend now."

While Medicare for All would certainly cost a lot, Biden’s claim relies on faulty math. 

Sanders has cited estimates of Medicare for All between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over 10 years. Research by the nonpartisan Urban Institute puts the figure in the $32 trillion to $34 trillion range.

But Marc Goldwein, the senior vice president and senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has calculated that the federal budget, including interest, would consume about $55 trillion between now and 2030. That’s more than what Medicare for All would cost during the same period.

Meanwhile, Biden oversimplified the relative popularity of Sanders’ plan and his own when he said, "The fact is that right now the vast majority of Democrats do not support Medicare for All."

Here’s where Biden is wrong: Among Democrats, a single-payer health care plan like what Sanders supports has upwards of 58% support.

Where Biden has a point is that his own alternative — the public option — is even more popular than single-payer is among Democrats. Given a choice between single-payer and a public option, 51% of Democrats polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation expressed a preference for the public option, compared to 39% who favored single-payer.

That divergence also holds for Americans more generally. The public option wins majority support among Americans overall, which is significantly stronger than the 30% to 40% national approval rates for a Sanders-style single-payer system.

Sanders vs. Biden on Social Security

Sanders has been mining the archives for materials that paint Biden as willing to cut Social Security — a stance that is so unpopular that it has long been known as the third-rail of American politics. In reality, both Biden and Sanders are cherry-picking the parts of Biden’s record that are favorable to their own argument.

Sanders has been emphasizing Biden’s statements from decades ago that show a willingness to slow spending in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. For instance, Sanders said that "Biden has been on the floor of the Senate talking about the need to cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid." 

This is accurate: During the 1980s and 1990s, Biden spoke in favor of freezes to Social Security as part of an effort to reign in all spending to reduce the deficit.

But this gives an incomplete picture of Biden’s full record on Social Security. Particularly after he became vice president in 2009, Biden changed his focus to protecting Social Security from cuts.

In an ad, for instance, Biden highlighted this statement during the 2012 vice presidential debate with then-Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: "We will be no part of a voucher program or the privatization of Social Security." Indeed, the Obama-Biden administration staved off efforts by some conservatives to add privatized elements to Social Security. 

Biden’s message in the current campaign is that he is firmly against cuts to the program. For instance, he said at an AARP Iowa forum that "we should be increasing, not decreasing, Social Security." Sanders joins him in this stance: The Vermont senator has also called for expanding Social Security.

Biden attacks Sanders on gun-policy votes

Biden uses a similar technique of spotlighting positions from years ago to attack Sanders over gun policy.

For instance, Biden said Sanders "voted against the Brady Bill five times for background checks on people."

Biden is correct about the number of times Sanders voted against the landmark gun law, which among other things tightened background check requirements. However, Biden’s assertion glosses over the fact that Sanders now supports tighter background checks.

Sanders’ early votes against the Brady Bill reflected his constituents’ views on guns in the rural state of Vermont. Sanders has also voted to allow firearms on Amtrak trains and in National Parks.

In recent years, however, Sanders has moved closer to an anti-gun position in line with Democratic Party norms.

Sanders has voted in favor of banning assault weapons, closing the gun show loophole, regulating high capacity magazines, and expanding background checks, and over the past 15 years, he has received mixed marks from the National Rifle Association, ranging from a C-minus to F. His most recent pro-gun vote came in 2009.

And in the current presidential campaign, Sanders has made clear his support for tighter gun restrictions. On the issues page of his campaign website, Sanders promises to expand background checks, ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons, and prohibit high-capacity ammunition magazines, among other policies.

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