Editor's Note: Joe Sestak dropped out of the race on Dec. 1, 2019.
We asked presidential candidates questions about a variety of issues facing the country. This is what Democratic candidate Joe Sestak had to say about climate change, gun control, health care and other issues.
Do you believe the earth’s climate is changing? If yes, do you believe it is caused by humans?
Yes and yes.
If you could unilaterally make one change, or enact one policy, that would affect the climate, what would that be? And why?
I would immediately rejoin the Paris Accords and reassert U.S. leadership in the critical process of global diplomacy. We cannot beat climate change on our own (considering the rest of the world accounts for some 85% of greenhouse gas emissions).
How would you engage foreign leaders to work with the United States on issues related to climate?
I would engage foreign leaders on climate and all other issues with the respect and dignity they deserve — especially leaders of countries that are our traditional allies, and which have been treated so poorly by the current administration.
Should the U.S. explore additional use of nuclear power as an alternative energy source? Why or why not?
I believe we should be investing in the potential of nuclear technology based on thorium, to end the use of plutonium and lead to much safer nuclear power plants, less toxic nuclear waste, and less opportunities for nuclear weapons proliferation. I have long advocated thorium research, but we are far behind China on this front at the moment. In the Navy, I slept mere feet from a nuclear reactor, so I have no knee-jerk opposition to traditional reactors. Nuclear power can continue to help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but we must do everything we can to make it safer.
Should the U.S. government offer subsidies for renewable energy, such as wind energy or ethanol? Why or why not?
Yes, absolutely. We need renewable technologies to improve so they can compete with (and ultimately become cheaper than) fossil fuels. It's worth recognizing that we currently subsidize fossil fuels, which is simply preposterous, when we should be subsidizing renewable energy. Climate change is an existential threat, and we must do everything we can to fight it.
How would you address gun violence in America?
I believe in the right to bear arms, but I am also a strong proponent of common sense gun laws, such as instituting universal background checks (like closing the “gun show loophole”, and the “gun kit” loophole), and creating a better national background check system, including by enabling states to add felons, domestic abusers, and other violent criminals to the background check database. We must once again ban assault weapons — weapons of war — and high capacity magazines. And we need to dramatically improve access to mental health services for all Americans.
How do you propose making schools safer from acts of violence?
I believe my overall strategy for reducing gun violence (described above) will make our schools safer, too. Universal background checks will get guns out of the hands of gun-owners who shouldn't have them. Banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines will make the guns available to consumers less deadly. And increasing access to mental health care for all Americans will improve the lives of students and their families, making them less likely to lash out violently.
What role, if any, should the government have in regulating large technology companies?
Government should play a larger role in regulating large technology companies. Antitrust laws exist for a reason, and technology companies should not be immune to government oversight. I am very concerned about companies outsourcing our national security to China. With most supply chains of major tech products existing in China, microchips for spying already in some smartphones, and the threat of Chinese 5G technology allowing them to spy on everything we say — and, worse, to damage key infrastructure from dams to the electrical grid — we must make sure U.S. companies make key components here.
If you are elected, how would you interact with North Korea? What relationship would the U.S. and North Korea have?
North Korea is a threat to peace and security in the northern Pacific, especially to our allies South Korea and Japan, and to our own country. We must be very careful in dealing with them. Ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons must be our primary goal, but we must also use whatever leverage we have to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. President Trump has used personal meetings with Kim Jong-Un to little or no effect, other than increasing Kim's prestige among his people. I will have professional diplomats restart serious negotiations with the North.
Would you re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran? Why or why not?
Yes, I would re-enter the deal. We broke our word when we left the deal, while Iran was living up to their side of the bargain. It was not a perfect deal, but it was accomplishing what it set out to do, which is keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I understand the Iranian threat, having spent a great deal of time in the Persian Gulf itself, so I also understand that the nuclear deal was our best opportunity to keep Iran in check in decades. As president, I will re-join it and get us back to the negotiating table.
How do you plan to address the threat of extremism in the U.S.?
I would take the threat of extremist violence incredibly seriously, because it is incredibly serious. In addition to instructing the Justice Department to devote more resources to tackling the issue, I would restore the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force to how it functioned previously, so it gives due attention to white supremacist violence, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence, and right-wing anti-government violence. Recent history has proven that these threats are as dangerous or even more dangerous than radical Islamist terror, yet we do not devote nearly enough resources to them.
Do you believe there is equal access to voting in the U.S.? If not, how would you go about expanding access to voting?
No. Various state laws have the effect of disenfranchising poor and marginalized voters, especially people of color. We must pass legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, and no doubt take other action to restore and expand the right to vote. Additionally, 60% of polling places currently have some impediment to voting for people with disabilities — though this is illegal. We must ensure people with disabilities are able to access their polling place. Voting is a sacred right in our Republic, and we must do everything possible to ensure that all citizens are able to exercise that right.
Do you believe voter fraud is a problem in the U.S.? If yes, how do you plan to you address it?
Should it be a crime to enter the U.S. illegally?
I believe that this issue (Section 1325) should be dealt with as part of a comprehensive immigration reform negotiation. Currently crossing the border illegally is used as a pretext for separating families and holding people in inhumane conditions, both of which I very much oppose. If Congress is unable to hammer out a broader deal on comprehensive immigration reform, I will take action to repeal Section 1325.
Should the U.S. expand or limit legal immigration?
I believe we should expand legal immigration, which is good our country. Immigrants fill jobs Americans simply cannot, and in key sectors from farming to home health care. Most are hard-working people who simply want a better life for themselves & their families. We should increase the number of skilled immigrants — and immigrants who earn an advanced degree here, especially in a STEM field, should have a path to permanent status — but also guest worker visas for industries like manufacturing and food processing. Without immigration, we would be in a population death spiral like Japan.
In many areas of the country, there is a critical shortage of affordable housing. What would your administration do to address it?
First, I would create a new type of tax-free savings accounts for first-time homebuyers to use for a down-payment, the biggest hurdle to buying a home. Next, I would increase funding for affordable housing. I would also appoint a HUD Secretary with experience in the field, who believes in the mission of the department, unlike the current administration. Finally, as part of my proposed National Land Bank, we would subsidize the creation of at least 10,000 new sustainable farms, enabling people who cannot currently afford it to start their own farms.
What is your plan to address the growing national debt?
All of my proposals are paid for. I believe through smarter tax policy, smarter defense (and other) spending, and a more responsible president, we can once again balance the budget (as we did when I worked in President Clinton's White House as Director of Defense Policy) and start reducing the national debt.
Do you think our national debt is a national security issue? Why or why not?
Yes, it is a national security issue, but I believe it has to be handled in concert with other national security issues — nuclear proliferation, violent extremism, the rise of China and their monopoly on producing communications technology, etc.
Is capitalism the best economic structure for the United States? If yes, why? If no, what is better and how do you believe it will benefit Americans?
Yes, I believe in capitalism, but not a capitalism unrestrained by a government of, by, and for the people. We must reign in abusive corporate practices, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and make sure Americans who want to start a small business have to tools and support need to do so. When I was in Congress, I sought to join the Small Business Committee, and was happy to become its vice chair. Some 70% of new jobs are created by small businesses, so as Pr esident I will do everything in my power to support small business entrepreneurship.
In many parts of the country, there is a skilled worker gap. How would you close that gap to get more people employed in the industries that need them?
As president, I will lead our country to make a national commitment to “Training for a Lifetime.” In the military, we constantly re-train servicemembers — it's why the U.S. Air Force runs the largest community college system in the country — because technology changes so rapidly. Our spending on labor training is .001% of our GDP, the lowest of all developed countries. We need a nationwide transformation of our job training infrastructure, with more apprenticeships, significant public and private investment, more federal funding for state and local programs, and public/private partnerships.
Should the government forgive student loans? If yes, why and for whom? If no, why not?
We must deal with the onerous effects of student debt. We need to change the way interest rates are calculated on government loans, because the government is set to make $127 billion in profit from student loans this decade. We need profit-free student loans. We must improve an existing income-based repayment program known as REPAYE (Revised-Pay-As-You-Earn), in which borrowers pay 10% of discretionary income for 20 years, after which any remaining balance is forgiven. We should payments to 5%, and possibly reduce the years to 10 or 15, and make enrollment automatic and universal.
Should community college be free to anyone who wants to attend? Should other colleges and universities be free to attend?
I believe the time has come to take drastic action to make college more affordable: It’s time to make government loan money to colleges and universities contingent upon the institution’s keeping tuition cost increases at or below the level of inflation in the broader economy. We also need a national credit transfer system among accredited colleges. Currently, some 40% of students transfer colleges — in particular from junior or community colleges to 4-year colleges and universities — but nearly half of their courses are not accepted at their new school, wasting millions of dollars.
Is more funding needed for mental health care in America? If yes, what amount and how should it be allocated? Where should that money come from?
I have no figure in mind, but we absolutely must spend more on mental health, and as part of my plan to transition to universal health care, we certainly will. We also must enforce mental health parity laws (requiring insurers cover mental health and substance abuse issues as they do physical problems). We also need to provide incentives to psychiatrists to accept Medicare or Medicaid patients, and those with private health care (most prefer cash-payers). And we must increase the number of hospital beds available for inpatient psychiatric treatment, now at the same level as it was in the 1850s.
How would you address rising prescription drug costs, specifically for medications that are necessary for people to live, such as insulin and mental health medications?
We should allow the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada (Canadians pay just $29 per month for Nasonex, we pay $105); allow Medicare to bargain directly with drug makers — as Medicaid & the VA already do, saving over $15 billion every year; stop “pay-for-delay,” in which companies pay generic drug manufacturers not to go to market after their brand-name drug patent expires; and use so-called “march-in rights” granted to the federal government to seize patent licenses for prescription drugs developed with public funding when the patent-holder refuses to offer them under reasonable terms.
What do you believe is the biggest health care issue facing Americans? How would you solve it?
That not everyone has access to care. In the richest country in the world, every person deserves the peace of mind born of knowing that they and their family will be taken care of. This is why I support immediately shoring up the Affordable Care Act with a public option, and making a gradual but deliberate transition to universal health care. This transition of choice must take into account that 255 million Americans currently get their healthcare from private insurance. But in the long run I believe we do need to cut out the middlemen. Health care should be a right, not a privilege.
How would you address the opioid crisis?
I would improve access to addiction treatment; increase funding for training programs to help clinicians better understand the complexities of addiction care; get states to rework Medicaid programs to boost reimbursements to providers of addiction treatment services; allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain controlled drugs to assess their value for treating substance abuse; expand law enforcement access to the national database on opiate distribution; and, perhaps most critically, hold corporations accountable for their role in the epidemic
Should marijuana be legalized federally for medicinal use? Should it be legalized for recreational use?
Yes, for medicinal use. I believe it should be decriminalized and the issue of legalization for recreational use left up to the states.
Do you support a public health insurance option for all Americans? If yes, do you support the elimination of private health care in favor of a government-run plan, or do you support an option where Americans can choose a public or private plan? If no, why?
Yes, I support a public option. And I support Americans continuing to be able to choose a private plan if that's what they want.
Should the federal government re-institute the death penalty? If yes, for what crimes?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Sestak shares views on gun control, immigration and more