The Next Step Forward: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?
This upcoming election may well be the most important one of this generation. While progress has lurched and sputtered forward over the last eight years, it has been made. We have affordable health care for all, marriage equality, better diplomatic relations with longtime adversaries Cuba and Iran, drawdown of military activity abroad, and so on. However, there are still segments of this country that would like nothing better than to erase the progress we have made as a society and take America backwards rather than forwards. Not even a third Bush would be good enough for these groups – instead they seem ready to elect a radical right-winger like Ted Cruz or a xenophobic demagogue like Donald Trump. Fortunately, the primarily liberal Democratic Party has two very qualified candidates as an alternative.
However, neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders should simply be thought of as interchangeable anti-Trump or anti-Cruz candidates. Both are unique in their own right, and while both are at least mostly progressive, they are remarkably different on many issues. Clearing up misconceptions about both and drawing lines between them on various issues as well as practical matters, such as experience and electability, is the best way to go about distinguishing between the two and understanding which candidate is best suited to carry the torch of progress forward for the next four or eight years.
What Differences Are There Between Clinton and Sanders on the Following Issues?
Issue #1: Civil Rights
It is fair to say that in recent years both candidates have by and large stood on the side of progress in this area. However, their overall track record is different. Whereas Sanders marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested for protesting segregation, Clinton worked as part of the Young Republican movement to elect Barry Goldwater – who voted against the Civil Rights Act. In all fairness, Goldwater voted against the Act for what he claimed were constitutional grounds and, despite his vote, was active in the civil rights movement himself. Since then, both candidates have grown and evolved. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign score both candidates relatively well – Sanders has a 97% from the ACLU compared to Clinton’s 60%, and Sanders has a 100% from the HRC compared to Clinton’s 89%. Both score 100% from NARAL. Sanders has taken a stronger stance for racial equality, particularly in regards to police violence and prison reform, than Clinton and, also unlike Clinton, opposed the Patriot Act at every opportunity.
Issue #2: Foreign Policy
In the field of foreign policy clearer distinctions emerge between Sanders and Clinton. On current issues, Sanders is somewhat of an isolationist. For instance, he is an advocate of avoiding American involvement in the conflict with ISIS, saying that ISIS is the responsibility of countries in the region to deal with. He also opposed training and arming Syrian rebels, opposed a no-fly zone over Syria, and calls for a full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Clinton supported arming and training foreign troops, calls for strong U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS, and has not committed to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Going back further, Sanders was strongly against the Iraq war, whereas Clinton voted to authorize the war. In fairness to her and her current position, she has since acknowledged that it was a mistake. Sanders is not a complete isolationist or pacifist however – he is just far more loath to support intervention and claims that it should be used only in very specific circumstances. He voted to authorize military action against terrorists after 9/11 and, in 1999, he voted to support NATO bombings in Yugoslavia. In foreign policy, Clinton is decidedly more hawkish than Sanders,
Issue #3: Gun Control
Gun control is an area in which Sanders is historically less liberal than Clinton – and the Clinton campaign has focused on this fact in recent weeks. Due to this, there is more confusion over the position of Sanders on the issue. At the last Democratic debate, Clinton was quick to point out that he voted in favor of the PLCAA, which protects gun manufacturers from liability when their guns are used criminally. Clinton voted against it. Sanders claims that he supported the PLCAA in order to protect small businesses. However, in doing so he voted in favor of a bill that was a top NRA priority. Sanders also voted against the Brady Act, which mandated federal background checks. In contrast, at nearly every other opportunity he has supported background checks and he claims that his vote on Brady was such because he believes it to be a state rather than a federal issue. Regardless, neither is favored by the gun lobby – Clinton has an “F” rating from the NRA and Sanders has a “D-“. At the end of the day, Clinton is distinctly to the left of Sanders when it comes to gun control. At nearly every opportunity she has opposed gun manufacturers and supported gun control legislation. The position of Sanders is more nuanced and case-by-case. A senator from the rural state of Vermont in which state gun control laws are lax and his constituency is generally pro-gun, Sanders claims that he believes in “common sense” gun control.
Issue #4: Healthcare
Healthcare has become a particularly interesting issue in recent weeks, as Clinton surrogates have sought to cast Bernie Sanders as a candidate that would dismantle the ACA. Chelsea Clinton even went as far as saying that Sanders would do away with Medicare. At best, the comments are disingenuous and slightly disheartening in a primary race that has up until this point avoided going overtly negative. At worst, they are an outright lie.
While Clinton has long been a champion of expanding healthcare coverage herself – most famously when she was First Lady – Sanders has been an even stronger advocate of universal healthcare. Long before the ACA – Obamacare to most – was approved, Sanders was repeatedly introducing and reintroducing legislation that would lead towards universal government-provided healthcare. This single-payer model system is occasionally dubbed “Medicare for All”. Sanders supported and helped to draft the Affordable Care Act as he saw it as a step in the right direction, but not the final culmination of the fight for health insurance. For her part, Clinton has fully supported the ACA, but Sanders has consistently wanted to go even further in making sure that all citizens are protected with health insurance. All signs point to the fact that both will work to reinforce and strengthen the ACA. The difference is that Sanders wants to continue to make progress in this area. The efforts of the Clinton campaign to spread disinformation and paint the efforts of Sanders as an attempt to undermine the ACA blatantly and embarrassingly disregard the facts.
Issue #5: Immigration
Immigration is an area in which there is very little pragmatic daylight between Clinton and Sanders. Both support Obama’s executive actions on immigration and both support a path for citizenship for immigrants. Some minority activist groups have protested Clinton’s prior support of private prison corporations and the fact that she previously accepted political donations from private prison corporations, but the Clinton campaign has since announced that they will no longer accept those contributions. On another note, in 2014 Clinton advocated sending undocumented children back to their countries of origin – a position that she drew some fire from liberals for. As a blemish on his immigration record Sanders once opposed a guest worker program. For the most part both candidates are very progressive when it comes to immigration, a trait that is sure to help the party when it comes to the Hispanic/Latino vote in the general election.
Issue #6: Income Inequality
Clinton advocates are sure to deride the inclusion of this topic as a talking point for reasons that will shortly become obvious if they are not already. While both candidates advocate substantial increases to the minimum wage, most of the similarities end there. Sanders has long been an advocate of income inequality reform at all levels, while Clinton has repeatedly sided with Wall Street and big banks. Sanders has gone on the record to say that banks that are deemed “too big to fail” need to be broken up to reduce future systemic risk, while Clinton has advocated for the protection of big banks and Wall Street while soliciting enormous campaign contributions from them. Sanders accepts no such contributions. When it comes to this issue, Sanders is far more populist and progressive than Clinton. More importantly, he has his hands clean and his pockets empty of Wall Street money.
Issue #7: Education
Both Sanders and Clinton have proposed highly progressive education plans, particularly when it comes to higher education. While they both have slightly different approaches, both would result in a comprehensive overhaul of higher education that would make it more or less free. Sanders advocated for fully subsidized tuition at in-state public colleges and universities, while Clinton’s plan requires ten hours of work a week to receive a benefit that would cover tuition, books, and fees at in-state four-year colleges. While both have reasons behind their specific plan, pragmatically the difference is negligible when compared to our current system of rising college costs and indebtedness.
Issue #8: The Environment
One of the consistent themes in the difference between Clinton and Sanders is that Clinton is very supportive of big business. In addition to her alliance with Wall Street, nowhere is this pro-business bias more evident than in Clinton’s stance on environmental issues. Clinton trumpets her environmental plan’s goals of a 700% increase in solar installations and the ability to power the residential grid with renewable energy in 10 years. Clinton plans to pay for this through eliminating some existing tax cuts to big energy companies. While these are certainly laudable compared to the relatively sad state of renewable energy today and the heavy favoring of big oil and coal in our tax code, Clinton’s self-described strong stance on energy and environmental issues doesn’t match her voting record – and pales in comparison to that of Sanders.
Whereas Clinton supported Keystone XL, supported offshore drilling, supported Arctic drilling, and supports tax breaks for fossil fuels, Sanders opposed and opposes them all and wishes to close all applicable fossil fuel tax loopholes. While the Sanders campaign has not yet released a full environmental plan like the Clinton campaign has, his track record on environmental issues, even politically unpopular ones, has been very positive.
Beyond the Issues, What Other Factors Are Worth Considering When Comparing Sanders and Clinton?
Factor #1: Experience
When it comes to political experience, Hillary Clinton is second to none among candidates in both parties. In an official capacity, she was First Lady for eight years, a U.S. Senator for eight years, and Secretary of State for four years. Unofficially, she is the consummate insider not only in Washington, but around the world. The influence of her political network is vast and powerful, as can even be seen even in the scheduling details of the Democratic nomination calendar. She also has experience running for the presidential nomination and has been highly vetted by her own party and opposition alike.
Sanders is no slouch when it comes to experience either, though his resume isn’t as impressive as Clinton’s. He served as mayor in Burlington, Vermont, prior to launching into a political career that took him to the U.S. House and eventually the Senate, where he has served since 2007. He is extremely highly regarded among his constituency and is known for the consistency of his views. While his supporters may make a case that it is a good thing, he cannot lay claim to the same credentials that Clinton has among both Washington insiders and the international community.
Factor #2: Trustworthiness
This factor is by nature subjective and slightly ambiguous, so it can be difficult to discuss. With this in mind, resources like the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact to measure honesty are useful. Both Sanders and Clinton do remarkably well on Politifact, with 3.32 and 3.37 ratings on a five point scale, respectively. For comparison, Republican frontrunners Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson rate a 2.1, 1.51, and 1.47, respectively.
When it comes to trustworthiness in regards to having a consistently progressive ideology, InsideGov rates Clinton as slightly more liberal than the average Democratic candidate – though a case can be made that with the country increasingly leaning right the average has been shifted. Sanders is consistently further to the left than Clinton is. This designation seems to match the impression that most people have when comparing the two candidates on the issues.
Additionally, it is also worth pointing out once again that Sanders has long stood for campaign finance reform and does not have a PAC raising money for him. He believes that corporate dollars are a corrupting influence on politics and instead boasts the largest individual small-donor network in history. Clinton relies extensively on PACs and large corporate donations to fund her campaign,
Factor #3: Electability
At first glance, Hillary Clinton seems to run away with this category. Not only does she have one of the largest pre-existing presidential campaign structures in history, but she also has name recognition and cache across the country and the globe. She was widely regarded as the presumptive nominee. This is not the first time that she has been in that position either, however. In 2008 it was widely assumed that she would triumph with ease over Barack Obama, but she struggled and ended up losing out to a more progressive, less compromised candidate despite a negative turn in her campaign that, at its lowest, featured questionably xenophobic attack ads. In similar fashion, her campaign has begun to flirt with going on the attack now that Sanders has narrowed her once-insurmountable lead.
Clinton still holds a huge lead among Democratic Party insiders and their endorsements. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Clinton has 458 official party endorsements, compared to 2 for Sanders.
However, there is more to the race than the endorsements of fellow politicians. Most polls show either Clinton or Sanders beating any of the Republican frontrunners in the general election, but Sanders usually triumphs by significantly more. FiveThirtyEight breaks down other statistics that serve to help explain the difference between the two. According to the data that FiveThirtyEight broke down from a Huffington Post pollster, Clinton has a 42% favorable rating. Sanders is at 38%. Clinton’s unfavorable rating is at 50%, while Sanders is at merely 35%. Broken down further, Sanders has a net favorable rating of +3, while Clinton has a net favorable rating of -8. While we can see that this also clearly indicates that Sanders is much less well known than Clinton, we shouldn’t ignore the warning signs for Clinton.
Despite Clinton’s vast political network and huge corporate donor base, she isn’t the most electable candidate of the two on the Democratic ticket. Not only is Sanders more electable (+3), but Clinton is even more unelectable (-8) than Sanders is electable.
While both candidates are have their merits and would be, for the most part, strong champions of progress in this country, Sanders has been the most consistently progressive, as indicated by his recent endorsement by the organization MoveOn. In addition, it seems that nothing stirs up the Republican base more than the prospect of Clinton winning the presidency. The potentially significant effects that putting another jolt of energy into the Republican voter base could have on down-ticket candidates in other elections should not be ignored either. While both candidates are highly qualified and are vastly better than the specter of any of the Republican alternatives, it looks like the best bearer of the torch of progress would be Bernie Sanders.