The first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle will be held tonight. Since the start of the campaign season in April, when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the top two polling Democratic candidates right now, first declared their intentions to run, the Democratic race has been defined largely by how much free stuff the candidates can promise.
On May 1, Sanders was polling at 5.6 percent compared to Clinton's 62.2 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Six months and $18 trillion of policy proposals later, Sanders was at 26.8 to Clinton's 40.8. Clinton's parade of e-mail-related scandals certainly helped her numbers deflate, but there were other candidates for Democrats to organize around. In May, Jim Webb and Martin O'Malley were polling in the single digits along with Sanders. But it was only Sanders who was able to light up the Democratic base, largely with his decades-old anti-rich people rhetoric (today it's the Koch brothers, in the 70s it was the Rockefellers), and the offers of free stuff.
The 18 Trillion Dollar Man
The Wall Street Journal tallied up Sanders' policy proposals and estimated the cost at $18 trillion over 10 years, a sum not officially disputed by the Sanders campaign. The bulk of that, $15 trillion, is the estimated cost of expanding Medicare to cover all Americans—Sanders' preferred vehicle for universal government healthcare.
Sanders also wants to increase benefits and spending on America's other massive entitlement program, Social Security. The estimated cost there is $1.2 trillion, and he proposes raising the cap on taxable income about $250,000 to offset a portion of those costs. Sanders has also promised to spend big ($1 trillion over five years, according to the Sanders campaign) on infrastructure programs, tuition-free public schools and debt refinancing ($750 billion), and a paid family and medical leave fund ($319 billion). Rounding out Sanders' $18 trillion spending regiment is $29 billion to spend on protecting private pension funds and $5.5 billion for a youth jobs program.
Income Inequality Crusade
The $18 trillion worth of spending hardly represents the totality of Sanders' policy proposals. Sanders' campaign has been hooked largely on the problem of "income inequality," the idea that even though all Americans are getting richer, there's something wrong about some Americans getting richer faster than others.
To that end, the Sanders campaign has proposed a slew of policies. His campaign says he will "stop corporations from shifting their proftis and jobs overseas to avoid paying U.S. income taxes," but doesn't offer a mechanism for how to do that. Sanders does propose a "progressive estate tax" on the Americans who inherit more than $3.5 million and a new tax on Wall Street to raise some of the revenue needed for Sanders' promises of "free stuff." He also wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2020, because "no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty," and says he will champion a bill he's introduced to Congress mandating the break up of "too big to fail" Wall Street banks. As part of his income inequality crusade, Sanders also promised to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Employee Free Choice Act.
Because Bernie Sanders has been saying the same thing for years, first as a perennial third party candidate, then as mayor of Burlington, a U.S. Congressman, and a Senator, he doesn't have many policy addresses. Sticking to the same decades old message means his sentiments eventually go back into fashion, but also means he's ignored entire policy domains. On at least two occasions earlier this year, activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter protested events Bernie Sanders attended.
On August 9, Bernie Sanders released a "racial justice" platform. Notably, he equated police violence with incidents like the Charleston church shooting to paint both systematic state-sponsored violence and individual acts of private violence as "acts of terrors" perpetrated by "extremists."
Sanders' platform includes some substantive criminal justice reform policy proposals, even if he doesn't identify them as such, including demilitarizing local police departments, requiring body cameras, more federal investigations of cops who "break the law," public reports on police shootings, and reforms to the rules on the use of force. He suggests using federal grant money to incentivize local police departments to adopt better practices, not a new idea, but, worryingly, also advocates for a "model police training program" at the federal level and calls for more community policing and putting more cops on the street, an integral part of the 1994 Crime bill now being pilloried by Democrats who say they've found religion on the excesses of the criminal justice system.
Those suggestions by Sanders betray a lack of awareness of how the centralization of power increases the tendency toward state violence. While Bernie Sanders envisions activists from movements like Black Lives Matters providing input for the training program, such processes tend to be captured by the interests most vested in maintaining the status quo. Depsite Sanders' lip service to Black Lives Matter in his racial justice platform, and Black Lives Matter's Campaign Zero proposal to re-examine privileges offered in police union contracts, Sanders makes no mention of the corrosive effects police, corrections officer, and other law enforcement unions have on policing and the criminal justice and penal system in this country.
While Republican candidate Donald Trump might get the most press as a China critic (and really gets the most press on anything), Bernie Sanders, unsurprisingly, has struck a decidedly anti-free trade tone as well. As president, he promises to reverse the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), the Central American Free Trade Association as well as Permanent Normal Trade Relations status for China. He accuses free trade regimes of having "driven down wages and caused the loss of millions of jobs," and on his website singles out China specifically. "If corporate America wants us to buy their products," BernieSanders.com explains, "they need to manufacture those products in this country, not in China or other low-wage countries."
While Bernie Sanders called the idea of open borders, or that peaceable people should be able to cross U.S. borders without government interference, he does promise as president to "sign comprehensive immigration reform into law to bring over 11 million undocumented workers out of the shadows." He opposes the guest worker program, but doesn't define what "out of the shadows" means to him. Providing legal status to those immigrants, of course, would amount to an ex post facto open border policy.
Sanders doesn't offer any proposal to make immigration into this country easier, or to provide a legal way for those immigrants crossing the border illegally every day. Instead he blames NAFTA on increasing poverty in Mexico, promises to pass laws to increase the wages of guest workers, and while he talks about the "importance of dealing not just with the issue of immigration but with the very real refugee crisis we face," he blames that crisis entirely on free trade and not policies like the drug war, and offers no solution about how to offer those refugees a legal path into the country either.
Campaign Finance Reform
Bernie Sanders does not like billionaires spending money on political expression, especially the Koch brothers (The Charles G. Koch Foundation is a donor to the Reason Foundation, which operates Reason.com). He has been one of the leading voices against Citizens United, where the Supreme Court ruled laws prohibiting corporate entities from spending on political speech violated the First Amendment, which prohibits the Congress from passing laws that abridge the freedom of speech.
To his credit, at least Sanders doesn't exactly argue Citizens United was a bad ruling—he actually wants a constitutional amendment to give the government the power to shut up corporate entities, even newspapers and other media organizations, ahead of elections, although he doesn't shy away from promising on his campaign website to use Citizens United as a litmus test for potential Supreme Court nominees.
Eventually he wants election campaigns to be funded by the government. It's not a surprising stance given that Bernie Sanders is a life-long office-seeker and –holder, even once running for U.S. Senate while collecting unemployment, and that his entire platform centers on government redistributing wealth.
BernieSanders.com has an entire issue page devoted to why Sanders supports the Iran deal (short answer: war should be a last resort). He promises as president to "move away from a policy of unilateral military action, and toward a policy of emphasizing diplomacy" but doesn't write off military action in general, so long as it "has clear goals, is limited in scope, and provides support to our allies in the region," opening the door to justify pretty much any military action the United States has taken in the last fifty years, at least according to the policy makers selling those military actions.
Like President Obama, Sanders also promises to close Guantanamo Bay and abolish the use of torture. Sanders wants to see an America with an expanded global influence, and sees "fair trade," more climate change engagement, more humanitarian relief and economic assistance as well as defending the rule of law and promoting human rights (often code words for military action).