Europe needs swagger

Clinton and Sanders: Why the big deal about Denmark?

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hands with rival candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and thanks him for saying that he and the American people are sick of hearing about her State Department email controversy and want to hear about issues that effect their lives as they participate in the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 13, 2015.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

You might have expected Russia or Syria to loom large in Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate, but a small Nordic country, which could fit inside West Virginia with room to spare, sparked outsized interest.

Denmark — and whether the U.S. should be more like it — proved to be a big bone of contention between the two main contenders, favorite Hillary Clinton and left-wing rival Bernie Sanders.

Democratic presidential candidates Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee take the stage for a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Accordingto Sanders: "We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people."

Yet, as Clinton said: "We are not Denmark … I love Denmark. We are the United States of America and it's our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so it doesn't run amok."

What’s so great about Denmark?

Denmark, along with other Nordics — Sweden, Norway and Finland — runs a current account surplus, and its public finances are in good shape. It is often cited as a good example of democratic socialism, a combination of socialism with a multiparty democracy. In practice, this often means a fundamentally capitalist society with a reinforced safety net for citizens on services like health care, unemployment benefits and education.

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Compared to the U.S., it has higher employment, a much lower crime rate and prison population, cheaper health care and shorter working hours. Compared to its European neighbors, Denmark has a more flexible labor market and greater ease of setting up business — part of the reason it is ranked as the best country for business by Forbes. This appeals to Sanders, who is pressing to boost small to medium-sized businesses.

…and not so great?

It also has lower average earnings and higher taxes on personal income than the U.S. Denmark's relatively small, highly educated population may make direct translation of its policies untenable. The Nordic country is also notoriously tough on immigration, although 2014 saw a record number of foreigners move there.

A Danish-style isolationism in foreign policy would also be contentious, even if the U.S. has become less interventionist in recent years.

Where do Clinton and Sanders disagree?

While Clinton may not be quite as big a fan as Sanders is, she does actually want to bring some Danish-style policies to the U.S., such as more generous parental leave and a stronger social safety net.

However, the question of redistribution of income is where they really differ. Clinton seems much more comfortable with Wall Street and wealth, while Sanders said: "You can have all of the growth that you want and it doesn't mean anything if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent."