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Armed With New Policies, Democratic Presidential Candidates Look To Debates


The next Democratic presidential debate is this week. Once again, 20 candidates will take the stage over two nights. Last time, there were big arguments over immigration policy and racial equality. Ahead of this round in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday, many candidates have been rolling out new policy proposals. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been taking a look at what they're offering and how it could shape the debate.

Hi, Danielle.


MCCAMMON: So as the debate approaches, candidates have been releasing a bunch of new proposals, so they may have some new material to talk about at the debates this week. Give us a rundown of what some of their newest stuff is.

KURTZLEBEN: So a non-exhaustive list of some of the stuff that's come out in the past week - you have, first of all, former vice president Joe Biden - he put out a criminal justice overhaul plan. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar put out a plan to increase access to affordable housing. John Delaney put out what he called a Cities Fair Deal, which is a sort of package of a lot of policies like investing in urban infrastructure, increasing entrepreneurship. Kirsten Gillibrand put out a sweeping climate change plan, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a plan she had already talked about before. She introduced a bill on Capitol Hill to cancel student debt - upwards of $600 billion worth of it.

MCCAMMON: And you mentioned Joe Biden's criminal justice plan. He's been under some criticism for his record on race and criminal justice from his opponents. That issue came up in the first debate a few weeks ago. What's he proposing?

KURTZLEBEN: So his plan is pretty sweeping and includes gun control measures, and he calls for the end to the federal death penalty. But there's one big, overarching aspect of it - this grant program intended to incentivize states to incarcerate people less and rehabilitate people more. Broad strokes, he says he's looking to shrink the incarcerated population.

Now, his plan has drawn some criticism, maybe most loudly from New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who is himself running for president. He called Biden's plan, quote, "inadequate." And he also said that it doesn't go far enough - that, for example, it should make more use of the president's clemency powers, that it should legalize marijuana instead of simply decriminalizing it. But also, very pointedly, Booker called Biden, quote, "an architect of mass incarceration" - this really big insult that he lobbed at him.

MCCAMMON: Now, that strong words there.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Yes. And it's a reference to the 1994 crime bill, which critics and some experts say contributed to mass incarceration of African American men in America. So one thing that we are seeing here - it's an ongoing dynamic in this race - is that, on the one hand, Joe Biden uses his long resume, his long political career to his benefit on the trail. He uses it as a way of saying, look - I'm qualified to do this. But on the other hand, that long career means that his opponents have found a lot of past Biden positions and actions that they are weaponizing against him.

MCCAMMON: Right. So is it an asset, or is it a vulnerability?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Or both. On the first night, on Tuesday night, we will see Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren together on stage next to each other. They've been compared a lot. They share some of the same progressive...


MCCAMMON: ...Positions. What will you be looking for, Danielle?

KURTZLEBEN: You're right. They back a lot of the same policies - like "Medicare for All," a $15 minimum wage, that sort of thing. And so they have some basic, similar ideas on economics. They both talk about inequality a lot, for example. So one big thing I'm going to look for is just what, if any, daylight emerges between them on some of these really big issues. But aside from that, I'm going to be watching their rhetoric because they do talk about their ideas in different ways.

Elizabeth Warren, for example, tends to talk about how she likes capitalism, but she thinks it needs some major, major fixing. Bernie Sanders, of course, considers himself a democratic socialist, so that's one way they might clash. But aside from that, they tend to frame their ideas in different ways. Bernie Sanders frames his stump speech as being about big, overarching goals about revolution. He brings in these big national inequality statistics over time and says these things need to change. And his supporters love that. Now, Warren, on the other hand, has branded herself in a different way. You may have heard her slogan by now, the...

MCCAMMON: She has a plan.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, she has a plan for all sorts of things. And so she tends to ground her speech in these specific plans and step-by-step, well, this is what I'm going to do. So this is going to be the first time we get to see these two political styles right next to each other contrasting with each other.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter. She will be watching the Democratic debates Tuesday and Wednesday, and you can follow along at npr.org with all of our analysis.

Thanks so much, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.