It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is, in fact, vibrant, nuanced debate within the Democratic Party over policy approaches that could improve the lives of regular Americans.
There are rival proposals for how to revamp our health-care system, including through Medicare expansion, Medicaid buy-in or single-payer. Same with tax policy: Democratic presidential hopefuls have proposed expansions of the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit, a new wealth tax, tax-advantaged savings accounts for educational expenses, and so on.
Likewise with climate policy (including a carbon tax), universal prekindergarten and other safety-net expansions.
What’s sucking up all the attention, however, is often lazy sloganeering — lately exemplified by Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.
I’ve written about the problematic (or perhaps convenient?) ambiguity of Medicare-for-all, which is in danger of becoming a purity test for 2020 candidates. For a time, the Green New Deal was also a popular slogan in search of a policy, inspired by the very real need for immediate, large-scale action on climate change.
Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) explained the catchphrase. They did so in a resolution that promised the moon to save the Earth.
The resolution calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 — though the International Panel on Climate Change proposes getting there by 2050, itself a herculean task. The resolution offers little guidance about how to achieve this — carbon tax? cap and trade? what of nuclear energy? — perhaps because the authors knew such choices would divide progressive constituencies.
In this desire to be all things to all people, it also makes huge promises unrelated to climate change.
These include: government guarantees for jobs, higher education, housing and “high-quality health care”; expansion of family farming; stronger union rights; trade deals that will grow domestic manufacturing; and ending “unfair competition.”
Some of these are Big, Worthy Goals. Some are also, however, Expensive Goals.
But rather than acknowledging that these objectives might require trade-offs, and higher taxes (and not only on millionaires), or really any form of public sacrifice, this manifesto instead promises the free lunch that we’ve come to expect of policies from the other side of the aisle.
The Green New Deal will “absolutely” pay for itself through greater economic growth, Ocasio-Cortez said, “because we’re creating jobs.”
At other times, she and left-wing allies have suggested pay-fors are unnecessary because of a once-obscure idea called Modern Monetary Theory. This theory, about the relative roles of fiscal and monetary policy, is most frequently associated with a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a politician who often attacks “establishment economics.”
It’s a massive understatement to say that MMT is heterodox; the idea finds greater adherence on Twitter than among economists. But even MMT doesn’t make the pay-for problem disappear. While MMT is sometimes (mis)characterized as proving deficits don’t matter if you can print your own money, that’s not actually what MMT says.
Ocasio-Cortez is a freshman representative, not a presidential candidate. She doesn’t hold a senior Democratic leadership position. So who cares about her fuzzy math or other rollout blunders? That’d be a reasonable response, if so many of the actual 2020 Democratic contenders hadn’t already endorsed her Green New Deal — presumably because, as with Medicare-for-all, the slogan sounds nice, and they’re terrified of crossing their base.
Plus, they may have concluded that shallow thinking will be rewarded.
In 2016, after all, Donald Trump won by offering up a series of empty slogans: Build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. Let’s win again against China. Replace Obamacare with Something Terrific.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was the thoughtful, technocratic candidate. She had white papers galore. What’s more, her proposals had pay-fors, making her the most fiscally responsible candidate in either party’s primary.
Democrats may think: Why should they be held hostage to the laws of arithmetic if the other side gets to use magic math? What is needed is boldness and vision, not pragmatism and responsibility!
But Clinton lost because voters distrusted and disliked her, not her white papers. What’s more, proposals can be “bold” and “visionary” and still be thoughtful and honest about trade-offs. Lots of things cost money that are still worth doing. And indeed, many of the 2020 candidates’ policy proposals prove this.
Right now, Democrats still retain a monopoly on expertise and evidence-based policy. They should not relinquish it easily.