Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren: A short guide to big differences

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren bring contrasting approaches to the Democratic primary. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty, Matt York)
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren bring contrasting approaches to the Democratic primary. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty, Matt York)

The third Democratic presidential debate puts former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the same stage for the first time since these debates began. Based on what we’ve seen so far, if the candidates don’t mix it up, the panelists will do their best to draw out the sharpest contrasts.

Biden and Warren capture a fundamental choice facing Democratic primary voters. 

Biden offers "steady, stable leadership," while Warren promises "big, structural change." Biden tells voters he has the best chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. Warren tells them, "When we dream big and fight hard, we win!"

We don’t know how Biden and Warren will debate each other Thursday night. But there are at least three areas where we know they have clear-cut disagreements. That’s health care, campaign finance and bankruptcy law.

Health care

Biden says he will "build on Obamacare, not scrap it." The centerpiece of his health care plan is to provide a public option for people to buy into a government insurance program "like Medicare." That goes well beyond what the Obama administration was prepared to do as the Affordable Care Act took shape.

Biden would deepen subsidies to make insurance more affordable, and empower Medicare to negotiate prices with drug makers.

Warren backs Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. In a recent interview with Ady Barkan, a dying health care activist, Warren set aside any doubts about her stance on this single-payer approach.

"What we’re trying to do is to make sure everyone’s covered at the lowest possible cost, and that’s Medicare for All," Warren said Sept. 9. "The idea that we’d get a couple of regulations in place, and then it’ll all sort itself out — it’s just not true with health care."

Medicare for All goes far beyond the current program for seniors. After four years, not only would it insure people of all ages, it would cover virtually every health need, including medical, drug, dental, eye and hearing care. It would ban competing private insurance.

Polling shows a public interested in the benefits of this sweeping overhaul of the $3.5 trillion health care industry, but wary of the price tag and the impact on the insurance coverage they have today.

Campaign finance

Both Biden and Warren have sworn off taking money from lobbyists and corporate PACs, but after that, their approaches to fueling their campaigns differ.

Biden runs his own PAC called American Possibilities and has raised over $400,000 through it. Firms that lobby have contributed to Biden’s PAC. 

Biden has a deep bench of well-to-do supporters; the balance of small ($200 or less) and large donors reflects that. Federal data crunched by the Center for Responsive Politics show him with about 40% of his money from small donors and 60% from large ones.

He took the additional step to swear off donations from fossil fuel executives, which created an issue when he held a fundraiser co-hosted by the founder of liquefied natural gas company.

For the primary, Warren promised to raise money without calling wealthy donors to ask for their support. 

"That means no fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write the big checks," Warren wrote at the start of her campaign.

Warren has raised twice as much money from small donors as large ones — $16 million compared to $8 million.

However, Warren also got a $10 million boost from her Senate campaign fund, which until 2018 did accept PAC money. In her case, that was almost entirely from labor and women’s issue groups.

Bankruptcy law

Warren and Biden have very different histories with bankruptcy law, and the financial industry in general.

Warren made her mark in 1989 with a book that called out credit card companies for luring consumers into taking on more debt than they could handle. She was a prime architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an Obama-era agency that investigated complaints against banks, payday lenders, credit card companies, and other financial services firms. Since 2012, it has collected over half a billion dollars in penalties.

As a U.S. senator for Delaware, Biden represented a state that was home to MBNA, one of the country’s largest issuers of credit cards. For a time, Biden’s son worked for the firm. Over the past two decades, MBNA employees have been the second-largest donors to Biden. 

Starting in the early 2000s, Biden championed a bill that made it harder for people to claim the most common form of bankruptcy protection. The credit card industry was squarely behind the legislation.

The measure put Biden and Warren, then a law school teacher, in direct conflict.

In a  2002 New York Times op-ed, Warren chastised Biden, saying his bill would have "devastating" impacts on the 1.2 million women who seek bankruptcy protection each year. 

The bill passed in 2005.