A crew works in Washington. (Allyson Chiu/The Washington Post)

There was a time when the GOP liked to consider itself The Party of Ideas, a party of courage and vision. That time is long past; to show how innovative and forward-looking they are these days, their strategy to convince voters to keep them in power this November is to run against Hillary Clinton.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are getting bigger and bolder with their proposals all the time.

The latest is the idea of a federal job guarantee, under which the government would provide a job at a decent wage to anyone who couldn’t find work. It would certainly be a dramatic step to take, but it comes with economic, practical and political complications. If politicians are going to propose it seriously — and they are — then we need to take it seriously.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has announced that he will be proposing a plan under which anyone who needed it would get either a job or job training, in areas like infrastructure, education and health care. Workers would be paid $15 an hour and get benefits comparable to what federal employees receive today.

Sanders hasn’t released a full plan and he’s still working out the details like how much it would cost. But he’s not the first prominent senator, and potential 2020 presidential candidate, to signal some sort of support for a federal job guarantee. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently asked:

And Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has introduced a plan for a three-year pilot program testing out a job guarantee in 15 communities around the country.

Policy development goes through stages, and right now the idea of a federal job guarantee (or at least a federal jobs program) is at a transition point. At first, ideas like this are discussed and debated by policy wonks talking mostly to each other. Then at some point — where we’re at now — politicians get into the act, with a few proposing some version of what the wonks have been working on. That then leads to a greater degree of attention, as journalists begin to examine the ideas, which puts them in front of a wider public. Before long, more and more officeholders have to state a position on the idea, which can sometimes push them to take bolder stances than they otherwise would have.

Proponents of a federal job guarantee argue that it would essentially eliminate unemployment and severe poverty while utilizing currently idle resources to address economic needs that are going unmet. It would also help boost wages in the private sector, as companies would be forced to compete with the better-compensated jobs in the federal program. Here’s one example of a plan for a federal job guarantee, and here’s a more accessible case for the idea.

But there are liberal skeptics, too. For example, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research warns that the size of the program — potentially employing at least 10 million people — would create an enormous bureaucratic challenge, noting that the federal government would have to oversee employment of a workforce that is more than five times its current level. If the jobs are genuinely guaranteed, what do you do with people who don’t show up, or are incompetent? Can they be fired? The proposals suggest that the cost of a truly full job guarantee would be at least half a trillion dollars a year. What sort of tax increase would be necessary to pay for it?

Those are complicated questions, but the economic debate is now being joined by a political debate. And this comes when the GOP is getting more punitive against those who need public assistance. Republicans want to impose work requirements that amount to a mountain of bureaucracy you’d have to scale to be eligible for programs like Medicaid. In Wisconsin, an incubator of the cruelest ideas the GOP can devise, you’re now barred from getting food stamps if you own a car worth more than $20,000. So if you lose your job and become homeless as a consequence but you’ve still got a car — like this family — you can’t get help to feed your kids.

Coming from where they do, Republicans may make the mistake of treating a federal job guarantee as self-evident lunacy, when in fact it sounds like a pretty good idea to lots of Americans, including many of those vaunted working-class white voters the GOP has come to depend on. It isn’t a giveaway, it’s the promise of a job, which means it can have an appeal that crosses party lines. If we get a serious debate about this topic, Republicans will find themselves arguing against jobs, and saying it’s important that private-sector employers don’t feel pressure to increase wages. That may not be such a great place to be.

We should also note that there are policy compromises that could address some practical objections. The liberal Center for American Progress has proposed “A Marshall Plan for America,” which would create an estimated 4.4 million jobs at a cost of $158 billion a year. It would still be a large public investment in employment, but would be more manageable than some other proposals.

We could end up debating something people refer to as a “job guarantee” that is actually something short of a guarantee, in much the same way as many use the term “single payer” to describe proposals that aren’t actually single payer. Even so, all this shows that the Democratic Party is now home to some extremely ambitious proposals, not only from people like Sanders but also from what you might consider more mainstream figures like Booker and Gillibrand. Which means that as much as the 2020 election will focus on Trump, the policy debate could take place on ground currently being sown by Democrats.

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