The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The 2020 Democrats are caught in a policy arms race

(Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)
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No ordinary voter could possibly be expected to understand even the smallest portion of what the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed. We’ve gotten into a kind of policy arms race, in which the price of being considered serious is having a long list of proposals, even if few people end up reading them.

To be clear, there’s never anything wrong with a candidate being specific and detailed about what they want to do with the presidency. But all the candidates are feeling the pressure. Last week, Sen. Kamala D. Harris said, “I’m not churning out plans like a factory, because it’s really important to me that any plan that I am prepared to implement is actually doable." But Tuesday she put out a plan to reduce prescription drug prices. Sen. Amy Klobuchar released a list of more than 100 things she would do in her first 100 days, which might be some kind of record.

So what are the voters actually getting out of all this wonkery?

Part of the blame for that arms race can probably be laid at the feet of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has turned “I have a plan for that” into a brand in itself, where what’s supposed to be appealing about her is not just the substance of what she’s proposing, but also the fact that she has proposed many things. Other candidates have followed suit, with plans on health care and climate change and immigration and economic development and workers’ rights and just about anything else you can think of.

Republicans probably look at all this and scoff, because their presidential candidates tend to offer a few plans here and there, but nothing on this scale. Democrats produce plans that are both more numerous and more detailed, for two reasons.

First, the policies they prefer are almost always more popular. There’s political benefit in explaining how you want to raise the minimum wage or expand access to health care, while Republicans aren’t particularly eager to draw maximal attention to their goal of outlawing abortion or giving corporations big tax breaks.

Second, as the party that believes in government, Democrats are usually just more ambitious and more interested in the details. And, critically, it’s what their voters expect from them.

But the truth is that you could come into the White House with only a set of goals but not detailed blueprints for how to achieve them and still be successful. That’s because there’s an entire party apparatus behind you — members of Congress and their staffs, think tanks, advocacy groups — who have been thinking about these issues and will be ready to hit the ground running as soon as you take office. Trump didn’t have carefully thought-out ideas about how exactly he wanted to gut the United States’ environmental regulations, but he didn’t have to, because the people he hired sure did.

And when candidates are formulating plans, what they often do is look around at what that party apparatus has produced, then pick what sounds good to them. For instance, Joe Biden’s new health-care plan looks a lot like the Medicare For America Act introduced by several House Democrats. My guess is that his policy team sat down with that proposal and the others that have been circulating around, took what they liked and got Biden’s sign-off.

Which — and this is important — is completely fine. We shouldn’t expect a presidential candidate to have a bunch of policy ideas that are so mind-blowingly innovative that no one has ever thought of them before.

In fact, the best thing from the voter’s perspective may be a plan that establishes clear, broad goals, but not too much detail. With legislation, there will be lengthy negotiation in which many details will be subject to change. In 2008, Barack Obama criticized the individual mandate in Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan, but Obama later became convinced that one was necessary, and it became a pillar of the Affordable Care Act.

The wonkier among us tend to express pleasure or displeasure at the level of detail and the minor distinctions between what the candidates are suggesting. But for voters, the best thing is probably to decide whether a candidate’s basic approach is something you like and leave it at that. If two candidates both say they want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it really doesn’t matter whether one candidate’s plan phases in over six years and the other’s phases in over seven.

There’s one last thing Democratic voters should be asking. If a Democrat is elected president and they’re lucky enough to get a Democratic Senate, they’ll probably have just two years to get anything through Congress before the nearly inevitable midterm backlash puts Republicans back in control of one or both chambers. So you want a president with a packed list of priorities, ideas about how to pass as much legislation as possible and a sense of profound urgency.

In short, you should want a candidate with a meta-plan, a plan for how they’re going to bring all their plans to fruition. Because without that, none of it will matter.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The wonk primary means Democratic candidates are rolling out new policies

Brian Klaas: America’s ambassadorships are sold to the highest bidder. Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.

Jennifer Rubin: Harris goes wonky, embraces black women

Charles Lane: Democrats must figure out how to address Blue America’s housing crisis