Tear down the border wall. Pay slavery reparations. Upgrade every building in America. Tax the assets of rich people, and pack the Supreme Court with four new liberal judges.
The newest class of Democratic presidential candidates has been swinging for the fences in recent weeks by embracing or entertaining a head-snapping list of policy ideas that were either rejected or ignored by the party’s previous standard-bearers.
In the first months of the nomination race, big plans and audacious ideas have so far proved more attractive than pragmatism and caution, even as candidates have carefully avoided committing themselves to all the legislative details of the Green New Deal climate change proposal or upending the 150-year-old structure of the nation’s highest court.
What matters, candidates increasingly say, is demonstrating ambitious goals and political courage. And they are doing what they can every day on the trail to show their credentials as visionaries.
“Oh, it’s impractical. Oh, it’s too expensive. Oh, it’s all this,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told voters on his maiden trip to Iowa this month when asked about the plans promoted by House liberals to fight climate change. “If we used to govern our dreams that way, we would have never have gone to the moon.”
The ambitious policy talk is giving Democrats a do-over on the 2016 election, in which the aggressive and sometimes patently unworkable policy approach of Donald Trump proved more appealing to key voting groups than the incremental but more realistic agenda of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
A recent poll of New Hampshire Democratic voters by St. Anselm College found that more than 8 in 10 supported unspecific notions such as a “Green New Deal,” “Medicare-for-all” and reestablishing regulations on Wall Street.
“I think this is much more a reaction to Trump than anything else. The Trump campaign and the Trump presidency have widened the aperture of acceptable policy debates,” said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress. “So I think the progressive response to that is to break through.”
It also reflects a historical pattern that has played out for decades in the party: Early in the primary process, when grass-roots energy is paramount, candidates with ambitious ideas that challenge the status quo can rise in the polls and rake in campaign contributions.
Then-Sen. Alan Cranston of California briefly made waves in the 1984 presidential primary by embracing the “nuclear freeze” movement. Then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seized the lead in the 2004 primary with his opposition to the Iraq War and support of domestic-partner benefits for same-sex couples. Neither won the nomination.
This time, candidates are competing to show their willingness to embrace such proposals, even if they sometimes are hesitant to give details or endorse particulars. Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California entered the race by inviting a discussion of transformative ideas, such as a 70 percent marginal income tax on the wealthiest Americans and a Green New Deal that would call for retrofitting every building in the country and establishing a zero-emissions goal for the nation, though, like Booker, she has stopped short of endorsing every detail of the draft legislation.
“Let’s look at the bold ideas,” Harris said in an appearance on ABC’s “The View.” “And I am eager that we have those discussions.”
She later endorsed some type of reparations for descendants of slaves, taking a position President Barack Obama had previously rejected as politically unrealistic.
“Centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, legal discrimination and segregation, and discrimination that exists today have led to a systemic wealth gap between black and white Americans that demands attention,” she said in a statement. She said she supports an unspecified change in “policies and structures” and making “real investments in black communities.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has tried to distinguish herself early with ambitious policy ideas, including an annual tax on the assets of the wealthiest Americans and a plan for the government to produce its own generic prescription drugs. She said last week that she also supports race-based economic incentives to address “the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination.”
At an event last week in Philadelphia, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., said he was open to discussing a plan pushed by some liberal groups for the next Democratic president to appoint four new justices to the Supreme Court, bringing the total to 13.
“We need to set that as the level of intellectual and policy ambition that we have, which does not come naturally to our party lately,” Buttigieg said. “So I haven’t reached a considered opinion on that one yet, but I do think very bold, very ambitious ideas deserve a hearing right now.”
Potential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, went big in a Feb. 14 interview on MSNBC when he declared, “Absolutely, I would take the wall down,” when asked whether existing border barriers in places like El Paso should be removed. He later walked back those comments, telling reporters, “I think there are in some places a need for a physical barrier.”
But his initial comment allowed reporters and Republican researchers to try to tag other candidates with support for a barrier-free border. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York did not reject the idea of removing a border fence on a recent swing through New Hampshire when presented with O’Rourke’s initial comments. “If it makes sense, I could support it,” she said.
That clip, and the notion that some Democrats may oppose border security measures, was seized upon and distributed by researchers at the Republican National Committee, who are focused on using the early months of the primary to paint Democrats as extremists with socialist ambitions.
“We’re seeing it time and time again,” said Michael Ahrens, a GOP spokesman. “Whenever one Democrat proposes a radical idea, the rest of them rush to embrace it.”
Democratic leaders agree that candidates need to be careful not to say anything now that could haunt them in the general election, if they become the nominee.
“There’s an old sports term, ‘leading with your chin’ — which is not a good idea,” said James Carville, a Democratic strategist who helped run Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, which was decidedly centrist. “You need to be cognizant that whatever you do leading up to the general will follow you.”
But it is still too soon to know which ideas could carry through to the general election as an asset or a liability, or whether voters will judge a candidate by the specific policy or the aggressive approach.
Some presidential aspirants have sought to distinguish themselves as more pragmatic in the early weeks.
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who are exploring potential candidacies, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have declined to embrace liberal calls for a single-payer government health-care plan, dubbed Medicare-for-all, which would replace the private insurance system.
Ultimately, the primary process, which could last 16 months or more, will sort out which ideas move from the fringes into the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
“Some of these ideas get knocked down. Some of them need to get meat on the bones, and some of them will blow you up,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who worked for Dean’s 2004 presidential effort. “We don’t know which one of these they are yet.”
Annie Linskey contributed to this report.