The opening weeks of the Democrats’ 2020 nomination campaign reflect the party’s continuing leftward movement. Presidential candidates have sketched out an agenda of big social welfare ambitions and a bigger federal government. What the party needs is a rigorous debate about those programs and the details behind them.
The planks of a progressive platform roll off the lips of the presidential candidates to enthusiastic applause from party activists, who are turning out in big numbers to get a look at the field. Many of the planks were promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his 2016 campaign. He lost the battle against Hillary Clinton but succeeded in making his ideas mainstream in the party. Other proposals the candidates have adopted reflect the priorities of some newly elected progressive members of the House, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The package includes Medicare-for-all, tuition-free or debt-free college, higher taxes on the wealthy, and a Green New Deal. In their most expansive form, these proposals would cost trillions of dollars in government spending or require potentially wrenching economic changes, all in pursuit of affordable, universal health care, more equality of opportunity for higher education, a lessening of the income and wealth gap, and a decidedly more aggressive effort to combat climate change.
Republicans have been quick to pounce, seeking to paint the Democrats as a party that has moved from center-left to radical-left, asserting that this adds up to socialism-in-the-making that would threaten to bankrupt the country.
Critics also include Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of Starbucks who is contemplating an independent candidacy and was all over television last week promoting his centrist stances and bashing what Democrats are talking about. Schultz has branded the Democrats’ ideas as impractical and unrealistic. Democrats have turned on him as someone whose candidacy could help reelect President Trump. This will get nastier.
GOP strategists, who do not believe the country has moved along with the Democrats on many of these issues, say voters will recoil at this agenda in the general election. They see Democratic candidates as too narrowly focused on the party’s progressive base, rather than worrying about a message and ideas that would appeal to a broader general election electorate. Candidates, however, know they can’t beat Trump without winning the nomination, and that includes catering to the liberal wing of the party. So first things first — but at some potential cost.
You might think that Democrats with experience in presidential campaigns would be nervous about the potential bidding war that’s unfolding. Surprisingly, many are relatively sanguine, despite what they are hearing and seeing from some of the candidates. It’s too early to draw too many conclusions, they say.
“The things that Democrats are addressing are things that are genuine concerns to people,” said David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama’s chief strategist in 2008 and 2012. “I suspect the full complement of candidates will have a range of approaches to that. I wouldn’t make judgments in the moment about whether the debate is heading in the wrong direction.”
As Axelrod noted, the field of candidates if far from complete. The early entrants include some of the party’s most progressive politicians, among them Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). If Sanders decides to try again, he would add his voice in service to that liberal platform.
But there are any number of Democrats who are now seriously considering whether to run who would not fall as far to the left as a Sanders or a Warren. That group starts with former vice president Joe Biden, but also includes former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose message in his unsuccessful Senate campaign was hardly an echo of the Sanders message.
Others who would be more centrist include former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Others such as former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg offer appeals to key constituencies — Hispanics for Castro, young voters for Buttigieg.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) is testing his appeal this weekend in Iowa. His progressive credentials are unquestioned and yet he has been cautious in embracing some of the planks that other progressives have adopted. Brown is a labor Democrat, attuned to the sensibilities of working-class voters in the industrial and upper Midwest. His is a reminder all progressives are not the same.
The debate over health care is one example of a slogan in search of a policy, and within the party there are a variety of views about how to improve the system, many of which fall short of a government takeover of the insurance industry.
When Harris was asked at a CNN town hall in Iowa last week whether Medicare-for-all meant an end to private insurance, she said it would, and the ease with which she answered in the affirmative caught many Democrats short. When he joined the race on Friday, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) said he would not be calling for an end to private insurance. Harris has since said she is open to other ways of achieving the same goal but stands by her main proposal.
So there is a debate brewing on health care, and what sounds good in stump speeches will not be adequate when candidates are closely questioned on their ideas. Is the party’s consensus one that calls for a government takeover of health care or one that calls for strengthening the Affordable Care Act by adding a public option? That’s the debate that’s coming.
The Green New Deal is another example. In one of its most expansive forms, it would call for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Some labor Democrats fear the impact of such a dramatic change in just a decade would hurt union workers in the energy industry. The Green New Deal is a compelling slogan in a campaign stump speech, but as one Democratic policy analyst said, few people really know what it means. Presidential candidates will need concrete answers in the months ahead.
The 2018 elections provide some answer to where the party’s voters stand, and that is in favor of candidates who can win. In urban districts like Ocasio-Cortez’s, the party’s progressive wing triumphed. In other, more competitive districts, more mainstream Democrats were prized by primary voters. Electability as much or more than positions on issues helped determine who the Democrats would nominate for competitive Republican-held seats.
Will that be the case when it comes to picking a nominee to take on Trump? Issues weren’t unimportant in 2018; many Democratic candidates successfully attacked incumbent Republicans on the issue of preexisting conditions. But the real motivating force among many Democratic voters was the desire to clip the wings of the president by driving out the Republican majority in the House.
The backlash against Schultz’s potential independent candidacy is evidence that defeating Trump is the main goal of many Democrats. Still, Republicans could be correct that the Democratic nomination contest will turn into an expensive bidding war that will make the eventual nominee’s task of winning more difficult.
Right now, things might seem easy. There are plenty of applause lines to be had with broad statements that touch the concerns of the voters. In the coming months, the candidates will be asked to go beneath those top-line appeals, at which point the debate about the future of the Democrats will be joined. That is something the party should welcome, but it will surely test the candidates and the voters as well.