The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The wonk primary means Democratic candidates are rolling out new policies

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

If you’ve been paying even the remotest attention to the Democratic presidential nomination campaign, you know that Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is the candidate with lots of plans. You know that because Warren has successfully turned having lots of plans into a political brand in and of itself. That brand exists almost exclusive of the plans themselves; there’s even a slogan (“I have a plan for that”).

But her opponents, most of whom are serious people who have spent time contemplating what they would like to do if they became president, are not taking this lying down. Here’s what has happened just today:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released legislation that would eliminate $1.6 trillion in college and graduate school debt held by 45 million Americans. Paid for with a tax on Wall Street transactions, the legislation would also make public colleges, community colleges, and trade schools tuition-free.
  • Beto O’Rourke released a plan to help veterans by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; creating a new trust fund for veterans’ health care; revamping the Department of Veterans Affairs; ensuring equal treatment for vets who are women, LGBTQ or immigrants; and providing new services for the transition to civilian life. It would be funded by a “war tax” paid by families who do not have any members in the service.
  • Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) released a “Freedom from Fossil Fuels” plan, the latest in a series of proposals he has put out to attack climate change. This plan includes ending government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, banning fossil fuel extraction on public land, moving toward an end to all fossil fuel production, and cracking down on polluters.
  • Joe Biden called for legalizing the “dreamers,” shoring up border security with technology and helping to improve the economies of Mexico and Central American countries so fewer people desperately flee north.

Even with 25 announced candidates (in case you were wondering about the tingling feeling you got over the weekend, it was Sestak Fever), that’s a lot of policy being rolled out for a single day.

And just like everything else about this race, it seems like it’s going to be difficult for the voters to sort out. But it’s possible to navigate your way through that thicket if you aren’t too caught up in learning every last distinction between the candidates.

And it’s okay if you aren’t. There are only so many hours in the day, and most of the differences between the candidates are minor, particularly compared to their disagreements with President Trump.

It’s true that every once in a while we get a plan on a topic that hasn’t been much addressed before, like O’Rourke’s on veterans. But most of the time, the question you have to ask in distinguishing between the Democrats is this: How far do they want to go on this issue?

For instance, Sanders wants to go the farthest on health care, to a full single-payer program. Others have advocated some form of public option that allows people to join Medicare if they want but doesn’t put everyone in it. Inslee would probably go the farthest on climate change. O’Rourke may be willing to go the farthest (or at least the fastest) on immigration. Warren would go the farthest on corporate reform. If you’re feeling a general aversion to going too far on anything, Biden is probably your guy.

Even if Democratic voters don’t know all the details on any of this, there’s still something important that will come out of these plans. One of these people is going to win the nomination, and then perhaps the presidency. If they do, they’ll arrive in the White House with a fairly comprehensive agenda and a set of commitments they made. We’ll know what they intend to do, and we’ll be able to judge if they’ve done it.

They know this, which is why — one hopes — they’re putting some degree of thought and care into writing these plans. That isn’t to say they won’t be able to change anything about them; for instance, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign health-care plan didn’t include an individual mandate, but he eventually agreed it was necessary. But this is probably the most wonkish primary campaign we’ve ever seen.

The results, so far, are pretty impressive. There are certainly things you can disagree with here and there, and there might even be entire plans you object to, but on the whole, Democrats have created a norm of policy seriousness that all of them are expected to meet.

Just imagine if both parties did that!

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Democrats are developing their own answers to Trump’s border cruelties

Jennifer Rubin: Who’s rising, who’s falling and who’s invisible

Eugene Robinson: We don’t need 23 presidential candidates. There’s another important role to fill.

Robert J. Samuelson: Americans want more from the government, so Democrats are peddling fairy tales

Ed Rogers: The Democratic debates can offer clarity