Joe Biden
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Joe Biden enters the final two months of the 2020 campaign about as well positioned ideologically as any Democratic presidential nominee in decades. Over the summer he and Bernie Sanders negotiated a set of policy positions in which the former vice president moved to the left on everything from climate change to immigration. But he conspicuously stopped short of signing on to the most controversial “big ideas” of his socialist rival, such as Medicare for All and decriminalizing illegal border crossings. 

This new agenda, because it’s been blessed by Sanders and other progressives, gives left-leaning Democrats reason to hold their noses and vote for Biden. It also makes it harder for Donald Trump to persuade wavering Republicans and Independents that Biden is a tool of the extreme left. That—plus the smoldering ruin Trump has made of the country—should, with luck, be enough to secure the White House and a Senate majority for the Democrats.

But even Biden’s Pretty Darned Progressive agenda will be no match for the catastrophic situation he and the Democrats will inherit should they win back power. The young voters who rallied around Sanders during the primaries weren’t wrong that America needs root-to-branch change, not marginal reform. And that was before the killing of George Floyd focused the nation’s attention on its deep and abiding racial injustices in ways not seen since the civil rights era. It was also before Trump’s bungled management of the pandemic created 1930s-level mass unemployment. 

These huge, intertwined crises will present Biden, if he wins, with the responsibility, and possibly the opportunity, to enact much bolder changes than he has dared contemplate. The question is, what are the big ideas he should pursue? 

Certainly not the ones Sanders himself couldn’t sell. Remember how, during the debates, the more Sanders argued for Medicare for All, the more its political flaws became obvious—that it would require huge new taxes on the middle class and take away private health insurance for 150 million Americans, all on the promise that most people would come out ahead? 

Instead, on health care, Biden should champion a smarter big idea, one this magazine has dubbed “Medicare Prices for All”: In a nutshell, the federal government would set uniform (and generally lower) prices for all medical procedures. Doing so is the single best way to discipline our increasingly costly, monopolized, predatory, and discriminatory health care system. It could also deliver lower out-of-pocket health care costs to voters, with no tax increases, before the 2024 elections. 

On higher education, Biden needs a similarly smarter big idea than the one Sanders has been peddling, universal free public college. The Sanders plan would essentially pump enough federal money into states to allow their public universities to charge zero tuition, regardless of the different amounts those states currently spend on higher education. But that would unjustly reward states (mostly red ones) that currently underinvest in their public college systems, while penalizing other states (mostly blue ones) that provide more generous subsidies to keep tuition low. It would also direct comparatively more funds to elite flagship universities that disproportionately serve upper-middle-class whites, while shortchanging under-resourced open-access colleges that cater to lower-income and minority students. 

In this issue, Kevin Carey lays out a better big idea to transform higher education while avoiding these flaws (“How to Save Higher Education,” page 30). Under Carey’s plan, individual colleges (not states) would be offered a direct annual federal subsidy of $10,000 per full-time student. In exchange, they’d have to offer free college tuition to students with an annual household income below $75,000, meet minimum standards for graduation rates and post-graduation earning, and accept credits from every other college that takes this deal, including from online classes. 

While not every college would take the deal, hundreds around the country probably would, since most Americans attend colleges where the revenue per full-time student is less than $10,000.  Participating schools would have plenty of extra money to invest in better outcomes. (As Jamaal Abdul-Alim reports in “Higher Ed’s Most Successful Failure,” page 36, there are already proven ways of achieving those outcomes.) And the requirement to share credits would create strong incentives for colleges to cooperate with each other to improve student success rates. 

The end result, Carey writes,

would be a new network of affordable, well-resourced, deeply interconnected colleges and universities that combine the virtues of traditional higher education diversity and autonomy with consumer protection, information technology, and cutting-edge education practice. Instead of letting some colleges collapse into bankruptcy while the rest struggle and claw in a failed system of free market chaos and declining public support, some of the most vital and distinctly American institutions in our nation’s history would be repositioned for even greater success.

If he is going to meet the demands of this moment in history, Biden will (like FDR) have to govern more ambitiously as president than he is running as a candidate. This magazine will continue to try to fashion the big-but-smart ideas he’ll need. 

But first, of course, he has to win.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.