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How Similar Are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Really?


Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who will face off on the presidential debate stage for the first time on Tuesday, are often viewed as two sides of the same progressive coin: They are, after all, both liberal populists who want to fundamentally upend the current economic system to help working- and middle-class Americans.

But the candidates, who are friends, also have some key differences — in policy, in the strategies and rhetoric they use and even in the kinds of voters who support them.

The biggest difference involves their political philosophies. Whereas Mr. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist, advocating wholesale revolution, Ms. Warren has called herself a “capitalist to my bones,” presenting herself as the candidate with detailed plans for concrete actions that will help working people.

In the Senate, their voting records have generally been in sync, with a few notable differences during the Trump administration. Ms. Warren voted against the nominations of John F. Kelly for homeland security secretary, Rod J. Rosenstein for deputy attorney general and Christopher A. Wray for F.B.I. director, all of whom Mr. Sanders supported. Mr. Sanders voted against the nomination of Nikki Haley for United Nations ambassador, while Ms. Warren supported her.

Here are some other key ways the two candidates align and diverge.

Mr. Sanders has long called for government-run, universal health care, arguing that the only way to fix what he says is a broken health care system is to replace it with his signature policy plan, known as “Medicare for all.”

The proposal, which would all but eliminate private insurance, became one of his most recognizable rallying cries when he ran for president in 2016. And though it was then considered “radical,” as he likes to say, its popularity among Democrats — at least in name — has grown.

Ms. Warren became a co-sponsor of Mr. Sanders’s bill in 2017 and again when he reintroduced a similar bill in April. While she has issued policy plans on a variety of subjects, she has appeared content, at least so far, to follow Mr. Sanders’s lead on health care.

For much of this year, Ms. Warren had been far less clear than Mr. Sanders about the role she envisioned for private insurance under Medicare for all. More recently, however, she has endorsed Mr. Sanders more unequivocally. In the first round of presidential debates, she was among those who raised their hands in support of eliminating private insurance. And, she said bluntly, “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for all.”

Ms. Warren has focused this year on imposing a tax on the wealth of the superrich, a concept Mr. Sanders has also supported. Mr. Sanders has focused on expanding the estate tax, an idea Ms. Warren has also proposed.

Ms. Warren’s marquee tax proposal is to create a tax on wealth — an “Ultramillionaire Tax,” as she calls it. She would impose a 2 percent annual tax on household assets over $50 million and an additional 1 percent annual tax on assets over $1 billion. (Mr. Sanders included a wealth tax in a list of financing options for Medicare for all in 2017.)

Mr. Sanders in January proposed a major expansion of the estate tax that would include a top rate of 77 percent on estates above $1 billion. (The current estate tax rate is 40 percent.) He would make the tax kick in at a lower threshold, so it applied to estates worth over $3.5 million instead of those worth over $11.4 million. Ms. Warren proposed a similar expansion of the estate tax in a bill, first introduced last year, that is intended to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Though Mr. Sanders has helped focus attention on the price of higher education — calling in recent years to make tuition free at public colleges and universities, something Ms. Warren also supports — it was Ms. Warren who initially gained attention in the 2020 race for her call to eliminate student loan debt for tens of millions of people.

Her plan, unveiled in April, proposed eliminating up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every person with a household income of less than $100,000, and canceling a smaller amount for borrowers with a household income between $100,000 and $250,000.

Two months later — in what some Democrats saw as an effort to one-up Ms. Warren — Mr. Sanders came out with his own plan to eliminate all student loan debt.

On K-12 education, Mr. Sanders proposed a detailed plan focused in part on racially integrating schools through measures like busing and increasing funding for magnet schools. He also wants to freeze federal funding for all new charter schools and ban for-profit charter schools. And he proposed big increases in teacher pay and in funding for students with disabilities and schools that serve poor children.

Ms. Warren has not offered a K-12 plan, but she has said that her education secretary would be someone who has been a public-school teacher.

In their eagerness to appeal to the activist left, both candidates have taken turns staking out bold positions on once-fringe issues, some of which have become pseudo-litmus tests for the crowded Democratic field.

Ms. Warren, for instance, has called for eliminating the Senate filibuster; Mr. Sanders has expressed reservations about getting rid of it. And Ms. Warren has said she is open to expanding the size of the Supreme Court; Mr. Sanders is not.

Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, has said incarcerated people should be allowed to vote; Ms. Warren supports restoring the right to vote to people after they are released from prison, but she has not backed allowing people in prison to vote.

Both candidates want to eliminate the Electoral College, and both have endorsed the sweeping Democratic proposal to address climate change known as the Green New Deal.

Woven throughout Ms. Warren’s policy plans are measures that focus on intersectionality and emphasize racial justice.

Her housing plan includes down payment assistance for first-time home buyers who live in formerly redlined neighborhoods where incomes are still low. She has a proposal to reduce maternal mortality for black women, who die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate about three times higher than white women. She has a plan to provide grants to minority entrepreneurs, and a universal child-care plan that would raise wages for more than one million child-care workers, who are disproportionately women of color. And her campaign has made a point of highlighting that her student debt cancellation plan would reduce the racial wealth gap.

Mr. Sanders’s message remains focused on economic equality and systemic change. But he has sought to elevate matters of racial justice more in this campaign than he did in 2016, and he has made a concerted effort to hire a more diverse campaign staff.

He speaks often about the need to reform the criminal justice system and to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, have the right to vote. He recently introduced a plan to address racial disparities in the health care system by increasing the number of doctors and nurses of color. And his aforementioned education plan, the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, seeks to address segregation in schools.

In the early months of the 2020 campaign, Ms. Warren held town hall after town hall, answering questions from audience members. Mr. Sanders stuck to big rallies that doubled as shows of force (and opportunities to sign up volunteers).

Ms. Warren became famous for her selfie lines. Mr. Sanders, often in a hurry, could appear more gruff — though he, too, has recently begun taking selfies with supporters.

Yet while Mr. Sanders has started interacting with voters more directly and holding more intimate events, including ice cream socials with Vermont’s own Ben & Jerry, the candidates’ approaches still differ.

Ms. Warren often talks about her upbringing in Oklahoma, peppering her addresses with stories about her mother and her Aunt Bee. Mr. Sanders, despite urging from aides and advisers, largely avoids talking about himself or his biography. And no matter the setting — be it a town hall, a round table or an interview on TV — he largely sticks to his familiar stump speech, or recites snippets from it.

Annie Daniel contributed reporting.


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