It's more than seven months until the first votes will be cast in the Democratic presidential primaries, but much of the media has already written off Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont.
"He Won't Win, So Why Is Bernie Sanders Running?" asked Newsweek. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer went so far as to say that "Kim Kardashian has a better shot at winning the presidency than Bernie Sanders."
Inside the East Coast political media bubble, outsiders running for president are often met with a special kind of disdain. Candidates who buck the status quo and show no interest in playing by the typical rules of Washington are effectively written out of the race before it even begins.
This tendency to dismiss candidates like Sanders is a good example of pundits equating unusual ideas with bad ones. It's particularly unfortunate given that Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist," has been exceptionally substantive early on in his campaign about what kind of policies he would pursue if elected. And there's good bit of evidence that these policies appeal to many Americans, as exotic as some of them may seem to the beltway commentariat.
Rather than compulsively denounce Sanders' proposals based on the fact that they sound foreign, the media should instead focus on whether or not these strange ideas like free health care are actually good for the country — or better yet, educate the public about them and allow people to decide for themselves.
With that in mind, here's a breakdown of what Sanders has been focusing on so far in his campaign:
1. Fighting economic inequality
Addressing soaring inequality in America is the lynchpin of Sanders' campaign. "The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time and it is the great political issue of our time," he said during his kickoff speech in Burlington, Vermont, last week. He proposes to address inequality in three ways.
Higher taxes on the wealthy: Sanders has called for much higher taxes on the wealthy to transfer wealth back to ordinary Americans. In May, he floated the possibility of taxing top earners at a rate of 90% on the highest portion of their income.
Raising the minimum wage: Sanders supports the idea of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour over the course of a multi-year process, a policy that's being implemented in San Francisco and Seattle.
"The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised," he said last week. "The minimum wage must become a living wage – which means raising it to $15 an hour over the next few years."
Breaking up the big banks: Sanders is committed to the idea of restoring balance to the economy by downsizing and regulating Wall Street. In May, he introduced a bill called the "Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act," which would direct the Treasury Department to break up the behemoth banks that threaten the stability of the economy. The bill also proposes banning these banks from using taxpayer-insured deposits for speculative activity.
2. Worker rights
Guaranteed sick leave and vacation: The U.S. stands alone among its peer nations in its refusal to require employers to offer their employees vacation time or sick leave. Sanders would change that, pushing for guaranteed leave and vacation time for all employees.
"We should begin to look at other countries in Europe where people get, by law, five or six weeks' vacation," Sanders told Bill Maher in a recent interview.
Reducing unemployment: Sanders has called for a massive federal jobs program devoted to modernizing the country's infrastructure. In January, he authored a bill that would invest $1 trillion in renovating infrastructure over the course of five years that he estimates would create 13 million jobs.
Expanding Social Security: If elected to the White House, Sanders would strive to expand Social Security benefits. In March, he introduced a bill that would boost Social Security by eliminating the cap on the payroll tax that funds it. (At the moment, income above $118,500 is not subject to the payroll tax.)
3. Transforming education
Free public college: In May, Sanders introduced legislation that would boost investment in public colleges and universities and eliminate tuition for students. He proposes to pay for this plan by increasing taxes on Wall Street. The federal government would cover two-thirds of the cost, while states would be left to pick up the rest.
Relief for struggling borrowers: Sanders' bill also calls for drastically reducing interest rates on student loans, and allowing student loan borrowers to refinance their outstanding student loans at these lower interest rates.
Universal pre-K: Sanders believes that instituting universal pre-K will eliminate the need for costly child care or underfunded programs for low-income households and in the process create a more level playing field for educational performance nationwide.
4. Getting money out of politics
Campaign finance reform: Sanders has made it clear that as president he would target court decisions that have allowed wealthy individuals and corporations to flood politics with money. He declared that overturning the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United would be a litmus test for appointing Supreme Court nominees if he were president.
5. Revolutionizing health care
Single-payer health care: Sanders thinks that Obama's Affordable Care Act ultimately leaves too many Americans vulnerable and wants to expand America's most successful experiment with government-run health care — Medicare — to include the entire population. During the passage of the ACA, Sanders won provisions that allowed Vermont to experiment with single-payer healthcare. That plan has since failed, but he cites its success in many affluent democracies as testament to its feasibility.
6. Climate change
Carbon tax: During his kickoff speech, Sanders demanded that the energy system move toward sustainable energy and that throughout the process "millions of homes and buildings need to be weatherized, our transportation system needs to be energy efficient and we need a tax on carbon to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel."
The major policy realms that Sanders hasn't been especially vocal about recently are criminal justice reform, immigration and foreign policy, which are all going to be critical issues in the run-up to 2016. Considering Sanders isn't bashful about expressing his opinions or concerned with testing their popularity, it's likely that he's been quieter on those fronts so as to focus attention on his main campaign themes. It will be interesting to see how he positions himself relative to his competitors in the coming months.