The Top Five Democratic Nominees – Liberal or Progressive?

With the first round of Democratic debates over, it has become clear that the party has begun to slide to the left. Whether that’s been by design or by force is up for debate. There is even talk that, for the first time, the Democrats may find themselves with a true “progressive” leading the party, as opposed to a classical liberal Democrat.

But first, let’s differentiate between a liberal and progressive. While subtle, the difference exists. A liberal may believe that the government should collect taxes and use the money for the betterment of communities and society as a whole. A progressive believes that too, but has a keen interest in addressing the systemic rules that allow such societal discrepancies to happen in the first place.

Put another way, liberals believe that the capitalism-based status quo is important but it could use some work around the edges. Progressives believe that the status quo is the problem and the only solution is to eliminate the system perpetuating it. Take for example, body cameras on police. Liberals will want to pay for body cameras on police. Progressives won’t be opposed to that, but they’ll want to address the training the police get that necessitate the cameras in the first place.

The talk of the Democrats becoming more progressive isn’t false. The party is certainly more left than it was in 2015. One candidate, Bernie Sanders, even considers himself to be “Democratic Socialist”. While the word “socialist” is polarizing, the less alienating “progressive” does beg the question of exactly how progressive are the five leading Democratic presidential candidates?

As the dust continues to settle from the debates, expect the field of 24 Democratic candidates to shrink before the next round of debates scheduled for July 30 and 31. But, as of this writing, the current front runners are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Are these five front runners really that progressive?


Joe Biden

Make no mistake, he’s a classic liberal. Biden’s also a career politician, which means he’ll do what he needs to do to get a deal done. If that means working with men who built their career or racism and segregation, so be it. If that means standing in front of a room full of wealthy people and assuring them  “Elect me and nothing will change”, so be it. If it means having your first fund raising dinner populated with some of the largest Washington D.C. lobbyists, so be it.

But what does Joe Biden stand for? If you listen to his stump speech or look at his website, Joe Biden is a classic liberal. In fact, his views are so typically liberal, all you really need to know is that he favors helping the middle class, and peppers that with rhetoric about taxes and health care. It could be the same stump speech from either of the two other times he’s run for president.

Unlike his competitors, his website is short on specifics. Exactly how he’s going to accomplish this is a little nebulous.

Now Biden has taken some heat about race. When Kamala Harris called him out during the debate about his position on bussing and integration that he took early in his career, it was unfair and misleading to imply he didn’t support it. He did – what he didn’t support was federally mandated bussing. Harris came out supporting something almost identical to this a few days later.

Joe Biden has been in politics for so long that it would only make sense for his beliefs to have changed. For example, he co-sponsored legislation in 1986 that was designed to treat, and punish, crack cocaine differently than powder cocaine. At the time, crack was decimating black communities so, accordingly, black communities felt the wrath of this legislation.

Biden would eventually help engineer this legislation’s reversal in 2010.

As a classic liberal, the one thing Joe Biden is not is an apologist. Whether it was the odd “apology” about his odd tendency for touching people, which he would then go on to joke about, or Anita Hill, who immediately denounced his apology, or his defensive stance on the 1994 crime bill, his apologies have been met with much skepticism.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg sounds like a rock-solid centrist liberal. He’s for a single payer health care system and is not against “Medicare for all”, but leans more towards a “Medicare for all who want it… on the road to Medicare for all”. This seems a tepid response to a signature hot button issue – the rapidly rising healthcare costs in the US. But he’s not alone – this is the approach Biden has, too.

As a native of Indiana, and mid-western values, he stands behind unions, and would pass a new Wagner Act which would support organized labor. The problem is, there are no jobs to organize labor behind. It’s no secret that manufacturing jobs have left the US… and organized labor was one of the reasons. Nowhere does he list a way that he would bring the jobs back to the US that would necessitate organized labor. The manufacturing jobs are not coming back, so while it’s a great talking point and simple to rally behind, without the jobs, it’s unclear why it’s needed.

Buttigieg is supportive of the Green New Deal, and has called for a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. He has also defended Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent effective marginal tax rate. However, he stopped just short of openly committing himself to a particular rate. Here again is a tepid response paired with a refusal to commit to a tax rate for another hot button issue – income inequality.

Buttigieg is light on context when considering his college plan. His goal is to make public tuition “affordable” and completely free to lower-income families. Judging from his stance during the debate, he’s opposed to free college for all. After acknowledging he and his husbands own student loan debt he said, “Why should a working class family pay for a rich family’s kid to go to college?” That’s a little reductive.

It would seem unlikely that a billionaire’s child would attend a free institution. The private colleges can still charge. Everyone has a strong desire to pitch free college education as a zero sum game. It doesn’t need to be. There is no reason a free public education can’t peacefully co-exist with a paid private one.

While Buttigieg has some interesting, and borderline progressive, ideas about both the Supreme Court and the elimination of the electoral college, as you scroll through his stance on other issues, you’re left with the belief that he stands right in the middle. Which seems almost counter-intuitive given that he is the youngest candidate and has grown up in a world of profound change. His views, like his supporters, are rather traditional.


Kamala Harris

Harris is an interesting contradiction. During the debate, Kamala Harris stepped up and hit a grand slam. While she may appear to have progressive ideas, put into practice, not so much. But that may be out of necessity. In the US, 90% of elected prosecutors are white and 80% are male; as a black woman, Harris, as the Attorney General of California, was somewhat of an anomaly. Whatever her inclinations may have been then, or are now as a presidential candidate, she inherently invites scrutiny because of her race and gender.

As the AG, she was forced to walk a fine line. For example, she refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but defended California’s death penalty system in court. She also implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.

Despite her confrontation with Biden during the debate about bussing integration, she publicly seemed to agree with him just a few days later. Like Biden, Harris doesn’t think bussing should be federally mandated. While this confrontation was certainly a dramatic highlight in the debate, it seems to be at odds with what she actually believes. It makes you wonder what its purpose was.

In short, Kamala Harris is similar to Joe Biden. She seems malleable and can turn into what she needs to be at any particular moment. While that is a key characteristic for a career politician, it’s not one for a progressive.


Bernie Sanders

As a self proclaimed “Democratic socialist”, Sanders has been the driving force behind the party’s shift to the left since 2016. And it’s struck a chord with an unlikely group – millennials. It’s strange to think that a 77 year old man could have so much appeal to the younger demographic, but such is the case. The reasons are many, but two of them include student loan debt and the fact that salaries are not keeping up with day-to-day cost increases. These issues are important to the younger generation, and because salaries won’t keep up, it often means that two jobs are a reality for many millennials.

While healthcare is a primary focus of the Sanders stump speech and was his initial debate rallying cry, his platform is far more comprehensive. It addresses many of the issues, on a systemic level, that will help eliminate some of the concerns Americans are facing. For example, his “For the 99.8 Percent Act” establishes a progressive estate tax on multi-millionaire and billionaire inheritances. This alone would raise $315 billion dollars over a decade.

Another focus of the Sanders campaign is the issue of credit card interest rates. With the median credit card interest rate at 21.36%, the Sanders plan calls for a capped interest rate of 15%.

Along with healthcare for all, the other Sanders tentpole issue is free college and the elimination of student loan debt. The US carries about 1.6 trillion dollars in student debt (two-thirds of that held by women). Sanders’ plan of wiping out all student loan debt for the bottom 80% of Americans would not only free people from the shackles of student loan debt but create 1.5 million jobs a year. His plan also calls for investments in Historically Black Colleges and Minority-Serving Institutions and an end to the Equity Gap in higher education.

Sanders was very clear in his plan on how to pay for this: “If Wall Street can be bailed out for several trillion dollars, 45 million Americans can and will be bailed out of the $1.6 trillion burden of student loan debt and we can provide free college for all.”

Elizabeth Warren

For as long as she has been actively involved in politics, Warren has been calling for change. This happened first in 2008, when she was appointed chair of the five-member Congressional Oversight Panel that was created to oversee the implementation of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (which helped correct the 2008 financial crisis). Then, she was special advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In those two roles, she defined herself as the principal nemesis to big banks and Wall Street just prior to running for the US Senate in 2012.

Over the past couple years, she has been calling for the break up of big tech companies like Google and Facebook whose profits, she feels, are too large. Warren also calls for a taxing of the ultrarich as a class.

Her plan also includes a radical change in the way lobbying is handled in Washington D.C. by enacting the strongest corruption reforms in decades. Warren’s plan calls for an end to loopholes and bans foreign governments from hiring Washington lobbyists, and banning Senators and Congressman from becoming lobbyists for life (as well as from trading stocks in office).

Warren also has a free college plan and college debt elimination plan that is similar to Sanders’.

But don’t confuse Warren and Sanders. There are differences. Aside from their supporter demographics (Sanders- young, multi-racial; Warren – older, white), their approach to capitalism and Wall Street is different. According to Naomi Klein, “Warren is calling for New Deal levels of market intervention, and Sanders is leading a revival of democratic socialism at a time when the economic fundamentals are strong.” For big corporate Democrats, this makes Warren the more palatable candidate of the two.


While there are other candidates of varying beliefs, it seems most likely one of these five will secure the Democratic nomination for president and face President Donald Trump in 2020. If one is looking for the mirror inverse to what Donald Trump represents, it would be Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. If one is looking for a more restorative candidate, it would be either Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg. The one wild card is Kamala Harris, although many suspect that she would lean more towards Biden and Buttigieg than Sanders and Warren.

Pundits across the spectrum will have an opinion about who would do best against an incumbent president… and one like Trump. However, that isn’t the only difficulty the Democrats face. They will need to select, and unify behind, a candidate that best represents what their constituents want, not just one who is electable or that the Democratic machine wants. And if they learned anything from 2016, those two things are not always in synch.

It’s anybody’s guess who the Democrats will select and how they will handle it. One thing is certain, with the current top five front runners, the landscape goes from classic liberal to Democratic Socialist.