There are many issues on the minds of Americans just ahead of the first caucuses and primaries in the 2020 presidential election.
According to Gallup polling, the top five “extremely important” issues for voters are health care, national security, gun policy, education and the economy. The next highest issues are immigration, climate change and abortion.
But for Catholics, according to analysts who spoke with the Register, overarching all of these individual issues will be the competing, and very different, positions that the Republican and Democratic Parties are taking on them collectively.
The 2020 Democratic front-runners favor either government-run, single-payer “Medicare for All” or a public option with a potential transition to single payer. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been leading in national polling, described his health-care plan on his campaign website as “a public health-insurance option like Medicare,” building on “Obamacare” (Affordable Care Act) and expanding its subsidies.
Biden initially claimed that his plan would allow people to keep their private insurance, but in a recent interview with The New York Times clarified that “if you like your private insurance and your employer keeps it with you, you can keep it.”
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who trail Biden in national polling, are proponents of single-payer Medicare for All, which would eliminate private insurance in favor of a government-run plan. They have been repeatedly challenged on how they’re going to pay for their Medicare for All plans, which are estimated to cost as much as $34 trillion over the first decade of implementation.
After refusing to say how much it might cost, Sanders asserted recently that his Medicare for All plan would cost “substantially less” than the current system, a claim that was called into question by The New York Times. Warren released a $26-trillion spending proposal for Medicare for All and a transition plan, both of which were met with criticism.
President Donald Trump has repealed portions of Obamacare, including eliminating the individual mandate which penalized those not enrolled in health insurance and exempting religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor from complying with the contraceptive mandate. However, he has faced criticism for not fully repealing and replacing Obamacare. While signing an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to improve portions of Medicare by increasing plan options for seniors, Trump criticized Democratic policy proposals like Medicare for All, arguing that they “want to raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism.”
The majority of Americans, 54%, still support a health-care system based on private insurance, according to the latest Gallup polling, although support for government-run health care rose to 42% in 2019.
Trump has taken an aggressive stance against global terrorism, touting the recent killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, in a U.S.-led airstrike. Another U.S. raid in October killed Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The killing of Soleimani has escalated tensions with Iran, something the Democratic candidates emphasized. As The New York Times noted, the airstrike has brought national security and foreign policy to the forefront of the issues discussed on the campaign trail. Sanders and Warren support a complete removal of U.S. troops from the Middle East. Biden said on the debate stage recently that he would “leave troops in the Middle East in terms of patrolling the Gulf,” calling it “a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS.”
The Democratic candidates have been calling for tighter gun-control laws in light of mass shootings in recent years and have all taken an adversarial stance on the National Rifle Association (NRA), while some have conceded the importance of the Second Amendment rights of citizens to own guns.
All the Democratic front-runners plan to increase background checks and ban the sale of assault weapons. Biden’s plan includes a voluntary buyback program and a ban on online gun sales. Warren’s plan would create a federal licensing system that would require people to obtain a license to buy and own firearms or ammunition.
Trump supports expanding concealed-carry laws and opposes bans on automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. The Trump administration did issue a federal rule banning the use and sale of “bump stocks,” which can help fire semi-automatic weapons at faster rates and were used by the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooter. That shooting resulted in 59 fatalities.
With the rising costs of education, Sanders and Warren are both in favor of government-subsidized, free, public four-year college. Sanders backs canceling all existing student loan debt, Warren would do so based on income, and Biden has called for adjusting debt based on s. The total amount of outstanding student loan debt reached an all-time high of $1.41 trillion in 2019. Biden, Sanders and Warren are in favor of government-run and subsidized universal pre-K and subsidizing teacher’s salaries.
The Trump administration has pushed increases to federal charter school grant aid. In addition to supporting charter schools, the Trump administration has supported vouchers or tax credits for private or religious schools to expand school choice. The administration’s proposed Education Freedom Scholarships would provide federal tax credits that could be used to pay for private schooling, home schooling, tutoring and more.
The economy is one area where Trump is in a popular position with Americans. A recent CNN poll found that 76% of Americans think the economy is “good” or “very good.” The unemployment rate hit a historic low of 3.5% in December, and the stock market is at an all-time high.
The Democrats’ strategy on the debate stage thus far has been to downplay the economic growth that the Trump administration has overseen and focus on wealth inequality, which has earned the party criticism and concern over messaging. The issue will be a recurring one as Americans signal satisfaction with the economy and seek reassurance that Democratic candidates would not stall economic growth.
All the 2020 Democratic candidates back a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. Sanders and Warren have advocated for decriminalizing illegal border crossings. Biden is not in favor of this but would ensure that the law was enforced “humanely.” Sanders has pledged to pause deportations and abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Warren would restructure ICE but not abolish it, and Biden has advocated for reforming policies, not abolishing ICE. Biden, Sanders and Warren all back covering illegal immigrants under a government-run health-care plan.
President Trump’s push to build a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is opposed by all of the Democratic front-runners, as are his efforts to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which deferred deportation for those who were brought to the country as children. The Trump administration reached an agreement with Guatemala to send asylum-seekers at the U.S. border there and is planning to enter similar agreements with El Salvador and Honduras.
The Democratic candidates have rolled out costly plans for tackling climate change. Sanders released a $16-trillion Green New Deal plan to fight climate change that includes building new solar, wind and geothermal power sources and committing $200 billion to help poorer nations fight climate change. He claimed the plan would “pay for itself” and create 20 million new jobs.
Warren’s plan includes investing $3 trillion to transition to renewable energy and implementing a corporations tax to help pay for her climate-change proposals. Biden’s plan includes pressuring China to “stop subsidizing coal exports,” a $1.7-trillion federal investment over 10 years to address climate change, and using Trump-era corporation tax cuts to help pay for it. Biden recently received criticism for saying that coal miners who will lose their jobs as the U.S. transitions to fossil fuels should “learn to program.”
The Democratic front-runners do not back any restrictions on abortion, even after viability. The candidates are also united in their support for overturning the Hyde Amendment and fully funding abortions with taxpayer dollars.
In contrast, Trump has earned the praise of pro-lifers by reinstating and expanding the Mexico City Policy ban on funding abortion overseas in 2017, revoked by his predecessor eight years earlier. He has honored his pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges supportive of pro-life perspectives. The administration defunded $60 million from Planned Parenthood in August 2019, through an HHS rule barring Title X funding recipients from referring for abortion.
On Jan. 22, Trump announced he would address the attendees at the 47th March for Life in Washington. As the first president to attend in person, at the Jan. 24 march he spoke of the dignity of human life: “Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God.”
The 2020 Democrats have pushed “LGBT” accommodations — sometimes utterly dispensing with religious-freedom concerns. All of the Democratic front-runners have backed the Equality Act, proposed federal legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act without religious-freedom exemptions. Biden declared the Equality Act his No. 1 legislative priority as president. Warren and Sanders have also named the legislation a “top priority.”
Trump is opposed to the Equality Act, stating that while he opposes discrimination, the “bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.” The Trump administration’s Department of Education also rescinded 2016 Obama-era guidance requiring that “when a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
Leading Moral Issues
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow for The Catholic Association, told the Register that the “two biggest moral issues” for voters in the 2020 election are abortion and religious liberty. She argued that judicial appointments were an important aspect of that, as well.
“One in five voters said that the biggest issue in determining their vote was the Supreme Court,” McGuire noted of the 2016 election. “A lot of voters feel like the issues that they care most about wind up being determined by nine judges at the Supreme Court, and I think that that is still going to be pretty much true.”
McGuire said that abortion debate is becoming more “nuanced” as “pro-lifers have done a very good job of moving the conversation and the debate to be much more about details like abortion when a baby can feel pain and states’ rights when it comes to determining abortion legislation.”
“I think that Democrats are going to be forced to take positions on a lot more detailed aspects on the issue of abortion than maybe we’ve seen in the past,” she emphasized.
Charles Camosy, associate professor of theology at Fordham University and board member for Democrats for Life of America, told the Register that increased tribalism will impact this election cycle.
“There is now a question of political tribalism that has formed around Donald Trump and those who are running against him,” Camosy said. “Unlike last presidential election cycle, when things were much more fluid, the battle lines are more clear. Sadly, dozens of millions have defined one or another side as ‘the enemy’ which is to be defeated — based more on tribal loyalties than anything to do with issues.”
Camosy said that, for many, the issues are still important and that Trump has a concerning record on certain moral issues, including separating “families at the border in an attempt to use the pain and suffering of children and their parents as a means of deterring immigration,” and limiting “the numbers of refugees which we’ve taken from areas of desperate need — including areas where the need was created by U.S. actions.”
“On abortion, which drove so many swing voters in 2016, Donald Trump has proved surprisingly good — especially given that quite recently he was strongly pro-choice,” he noted. “The judges he has nominated and the executive actions he has taken have all been in support of prenatal life.”
“He has been good at protecting the religious freedom of Christians — especially those with pro-life views,” he added. “Many pro-lifers will vote for Donald Trump — on the basis of these achievements and/or because the nominee facing him will be so bad on abortion. In 2016, he was a wild card on this issue, but in 2020 he is now a known commodity and swing voters will feel more confident in their voting on this issue.”
Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, told the Register that for Catholic voters “the issue of abortion will be preeminent,” and “there will be a stark contrast between the two candidates, given what we know of all of the Democratic candidates currently and the considerable pro-life record that President Trump has created in the last three years.”
Burch emphasized that the election will be between “two competing visions for what the future of America should look like, and this implicates the centrality of the family and even the idea of a nation itself: whether a nation’s identity and its values ought to be defended or whether they are a source of division when viewed through the lens of identity politics.”
“Increasingly, we’re being told that to defend the idea of a border, of particular values that we cherish, that the idea of the family and even of gender itself, that these are forms of oppression,” Burch said in reference to the Democratic Party’s rhetoric. “This is fundamentally in conflict with the idea that the Church has proposed about the dignity of the human person and our social nature.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.