Candidate Scorecard: Sanders Leads, Populism Drives Debate

Robert Borosage

When Hillary Clinton expressed doubts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and then issued a call for new Wall Street reforms, reporters suggested she was trying to mute her differences with Bernie Sanders in the run-up to the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday. A new Candidate Scorecard, released this week by the Campaign for America’s Future, tracks the scope and the limits of that effort.

The scorecard grades the Democratic candidates against a popular populist agenda of economic and political reforms.

Not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders gains the highest scores of the field, with Martin O’Malley second and Hillary Clinton third. Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb lag far behind, largely because their campaigns have not begun to fill out their platforms.

Sanders lead is built on his forceful commitment to major structural reforms – on breaking up the big banks, Medicare for All, enhancing Social Security benefits, taking on climate change, curbing big money in politics, cutting military spending and opposing costly interventions abroad.

Clinton scored well on many issues, particularly on election reform, immigration and criminal justice reform. Her recent opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and support for new Wall Street reforms bolster her score. On housing and nutrition programs, her scores will rise when she elaborates her platform.

That Sanders leads the others is no surprise, but most striking is the extent to which all of the major Democratic candidates have endorsed populist economic and political reforms. All three leading candidates have plans to raise taxes on the rich, crack down on corporate tax havens and loopholes, and limit capital gains tax breaks for investors. All support raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid family leave and paid vacation days, and empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively. All call for curbing the role of big money in politics. All favor action on climate change and a larger public investment in infrastructure and R&D. On economic and political reform, as well as social issues, the contrast with the Republican field is stark and clear.

The growing populist movement in this country is driving this debate. The Sanders surge reflects that. But so does the decision of mainstream politicians – Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley – to embrace bolder populist political and economic reforms. All of these candidates accept the reality that this economy is working only for the few. And that isn’t an accident or an act of nature. It is because the rules have been rigged and the deck is stacked against most Americans. And that has to change.

Our Candidate Scorecard reveals both the scope and the limits of Clinton’s effort to appeal to the activist base of the party. On every economic issue where she has broken from President Obama, she has adopted a more progressive position – opposing the Keystone pipeline, opposing the TPP, promising to repeal higher taxes on good health care plans, limiting deportations. She has broken with her husband’s legacy on mass incarceration and on trade. She has forged new ground on corporate incentives and regulation of Wall Street’s casino.

On the other hand, she has not yet chosen to challenge many of the ways this economy is rigged against working people. She opposes breaking up the big banks, a new Glass-Steagall Act that would separate Wall Street’s casino from federally guaranteed deposits, and a true financial transactions tax. She has not embraced expanded Social Security benefits or Medicare for All, the necessary next battle in health care reform. She doesn’t call for taxing investment income at same rates as the income from work, or for taxing multinationals at same rates as domestic small businesses by repealing the deferral of taxes on income earned abroad which gives multinationals incentives to shift jobs or report profits abroad (with an estimated $2 trillion now nominally stashed abroad to evade taxes). She’s not advocated new higher tax rates on millionaires and billionaires, and thus is vague about the scale of her public investment agenda.

And she has chosen repeatedly to present herself as more hawkish and interventionist than Obama on foreign policy – urging greater involvement in Syria, including a bizarre call for enforcing a no-fly zone (against Russian planes invited in by the Syrian and Iraqi governments?), greater involvement in the Ukraine, moving more forces into the Persian Gulf, and so on. As the scorecard reveals, there are still defining differences among the leading Democratic contenders.

The scorecard provides a unique, user-friendly resource. It measures candidates against the Populism 2015 platform released earlier this year by the Campaign for America’s Future, National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society, Working America and the Working Families Party. Together, these organizations represent more than 2 million members, and nearly 1,000 organizers, with chapters in 20 states.

Candidates gain points only for concrete, current policy proposals that address the nation’s most urgent problems. In each area, we describe the criteria and then provide links to each candidate’s appropriate speech or platform item, providing a handy resource for reporters, bloggers, activists and interested citizens. We have sought and received feedback from each of the leading candidates’ campaigns.

The scorecard, of course, cannot measure the credibility of the candidates. It does not report on the tension between their policy positions and their sources of financial support. We track their word, with the intent of holding them to it.

The scorecard, available here, will be distributed by email and in a national online advertising effort ahead of the first presidential debate. It will be updated frequently thereafter. Activists will be pressing candidates on their positions in the lead-up to the early primaries. And scores will change as candidates continue to elaborate their platforms. We invite all to join us in this effort. Read the platform. Challenge candidates in town hall meetings and candidate forums. Push reporters and moderators to push them beyond their talking points.

Among Democrats, progressives are driving the debate. Every candidate knows they must inspire the activist base of the party – and the Obama coalition – not only to win the nomination but to be victorious in the general election. This is the time to keep the pressure on about what that will take. More and more Americans understand that the rules are rigged against them. Now it is time to demand that candidates champion the alternative.

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