Sorting policy from platitudes among Democratic 2020 candidates

Sorting policy from platitudes among Democratic 2020 candidates
News & Politics

With some 18 Democratic presidential candidates and counting, it’s hard to keep track of who stands for what: which candidates have developed policy expertise and proposals on which issues, and which ones sound good but still keep talking in generalities.

For most candidates, there’s no shortage of policy positions. A Think Progress piece argues that the focus of this election (so far, at least) has been policy, policy, policy.

So just how do a swelling numbers of Democrats convince an inattentive citizenry to turn away from other distractions and pay attention to their political palaver?

Short answer: Nearly all of them are staking out early policy positions on a wide range of issues to burnish a self-flattering political image, before the full-scale campaign onslaught begins in earnest. …

These early-season policy ideas are the introductory gambits for candidates to test out on the hustings and in media interviews. Their early campaign messages are aimed to draw support from narrow, targeted slices of the Democratic electorate, in hopes of building a groundswell of broader, national support for their nascent campaigns.

Maybe in the long run, those policy details won’t matter. Maybe the majority of Democratic primary voters instead will turn toward a candidate who offers a feeling of comfort or “likeability.” Or the quickest candidate, or the sharpest, or the brightest, or the most honest. Or even the one who passes the proverbial test of “someone you could have a beer with.” And Democratic voters have been clear about one thing: They want to nominate the candidate who would best be able to beat Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that we can evaluate who that candidate is right now, despite early opinion polls or the amount of money raised. We can see who’s getting the most media attention, airtime, and Sunday morning talk show invitations. But the media can be fickle: Just ask former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Candidates’ positives and negatives right now are meaningless. Any candidate with high approval ratings will see those numbers take a nosedive when the right-wing attack machine—whether that’s charges about “socialism,” Donald Trump’s ridiculous tweets and demeaning nicknames, Fox News slander and innuendo, or outright lies spread by conspiracy theorists—starts peddling falsehoods and negative stories about Democratic candidates. Mainstream media will pick those up and repeat them verbatim with little context or explanation.

But here’s what the emphasis on policy does: It takes issues that are important to Democratic voters and forces them to the forefront. For the most part, candidates agree on these issues. All of the Democratic hopefuls are talking about health care. All are talking about climate change, whether they’re backing the Green New Deal, or other specific policies. All are talking about immigration, gun reform, and jobs. All are talking about evening the playing field for poor families and increasing taxes for the super-rich.

Here are some of the policies that candidates have espoused so far. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t include every candidate. But it offers a shorthand breakdown on what different Democrats would set as priorities in the White House.

Some of the most well-thought-out policies are coming from the women candidates. Even better, they’re endorsing each other’s proposals.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is quickly establishing herself (and has been described) as the queen of policy. When she speaks to voters, she offers a wide list of ideas, stressing government intervention into areas where private markets have failed. Those ideas include the federal government building affordable housingpaying for child care, enforcing antitrust laws, and breaking up big companies, including tech giants. The mainstream media might not be giving her much love, but she’s getting plenty of attention explaining those policies to Iowa voters.

One of her early proposals that remains popular with Democrats is to impose a wealth tax on those with fortunes worth more than $50 million. The tax on the “ultra-millionaires” is explained at Vox:

Warren’s proposal, of course, is for a progressive wealth tax in which the 2 percent rate does not apply to the first $50 million and the 3 percent rate only kicks in when you have more than $1 billion, so nobody would actually be taxed that much. The operation of the tax would, however, exert a dramatic gravitational pull on large fortunes and tend to pull them down to the tax thresholds.

That’s especially true because the mere existence of the wealth tax would, on the margin, encourage wealthy individuals to dissipate their fortunes on charitable giving and lavish consumption. If you try to horde wealth the government is going to tax it, so you might as well spend it.

California Sen. Kamala Harris wants to expand the earned income tax credit with her LIFT the Middle Class Act, and to give all American public school teachers a raise. She’s proposing that the federal government spend $315 billion to increase teacher salaries over 10 years. A story from Vox explains why it could be a popular winner:

Education is rarely a major issue during presidential campaigns. But Harris’s plan could tap into a wave of energy and enthusiasm from teachers strikes around the country in the past two years, most recently in Los Angeles and Denver but also in traditionally red states, such as West VirginiaOklahoma, and Arizona.

Those strikes have attracted public sympathy as well as solidarity from Harris and her fellow 2020 contenders. Two-thirds of Americans support teachers’ right to strike for better pay and benefits, according to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, and six in 10 believe teachers are not compensated fairly.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has a plan on an issue that Trump conveniently forgets about every time there’s an “infrastructure week.” Her $1 trillion proposalwould go way beyond the roads and bridges usually discussed when candidates discuss infrastructure. Here’s an explanation from Vox on how it would work:

The central element in Klobuchar’s proposal is a $650 billion increase in federal spending on infrastructure programs.

She specifies rural broadband, municipal waterworks, energy efficiency retrofits, school construction, airports, seaports, inland waterways, and mass transit as all worthy of increased funding, along with — of course — highways and bridges.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has successfully pushed his Medicare for All legislation into the Democratic mainstream, and it has some of his Democratic rivals as co-sponsors. His latest version spells out what would be covered in a generous benefit package, even as it offers few specifics on how to pay for it. According to an explanation from Vox:

The biggest difference between this plan and the version Sanders introduced in 2017 is the addition of a long-term care benefit that would cover care for Americans with disability at home or in community settings. This benefit was also added into the House version of the Medicare-for-all bill earlier this year.

The plan is significantly more generous than the single-payer plans run by America’s peer countries. The Canadian health care system, for example, does not cover vision or dental care, prescription drugs, rehabilitative services, or home health services. Instead, two-thirds of Canadians take out private insurance policies to cover these benefits. ...

What’s more, the Sanders plan does not subject consumers to any out-of-pocket spending on health aside from prescriptions drugs. This means there would be no charge when you go to the doctor, no copayments when you visit the emergency room. All those services would be covered fully by the universal Medicare plan.

There’s no question that the approach is growing in popularity, even earning some cheers from the audience at Sanders’ Fox News town hall. The immediate economic downside is for insurance companies; the more talk about a single-payer system, the worse the stock prices are for those insurers.

Beto O’Rourke is taking some heat for not having enough policy ideas. A Politico piece with the headline, “The big idea? Beto doesn’t have one,” explains that he’s still in listening mode.

It’s not that O’Rourke doesn’t have positions. He does, and in the month since announcing his presidential campaign, he has expressed many of them with specificity. He has robust ideas about immigration, including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He has lauded the "Green New Deal" and called for a new Voting Rights Act. He was an early champion of legalizing marijuana — and co-wrote a book about it. He wants universal pre-K education, and he has touted a bill by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to dramatically expand Medicare coverage while maintaining a role for private health insurance. …

But none of those positions is unique to O’Rourke. And with his relatively meager legislative record — and a belief that he can transcend ideological lanes within the Democratic Party — O'Rourke appears unclear about where he fits on the policy spectrum.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for “listening tours” to see what voters are saying. But if you’ve announced your candidacy for the most powerful office in the world, you should be a tad more sure of what you stand for.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is another candidate who is still finding his issue footing. He is beloved by the media and by the crowds that turn out to hear him, he’s got a killer biography and background, and he’s great on TV. He has, in the headline of a Los Angeles Times piece, “everything except policies on major issues.”

That’s not an accident. He says voters aren’t looking for policy papers. They care about values and character, and knowing that a candidate cares about their lives. ...

At a CNN town hall last month, voters asked his views on healthcare, unemployment, veterans’ benefits, climate change and whether technology companies like Facebook should be regulated.

His answers were a blend of generic Democratic positions and suggestions that more venturesome ideas should be considered.

Some candidates that might be considered long shots are carving out their own particular electoral niche, even if it depends mainly on “rebuilding the Blue Wall” with working-class voters in the Rust Belt, in the words of Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.

For instance, one of the most recent entrants in the race, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, is making gun violence—an issue he has long worked against—central to his campaign. He held an early campaign town hall in Broward County, Florida, not far from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 18 people died a year ago in a mass shooting. Besides passing common-sense gun legislation on universal background checks, a position held by a vast majority of Americans and backed by all candidates, Swalwell wants to ban assault-style weapons. He wants to make gun reform one of the “top-three issues” of the Democratic nominating contest.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, described by the League of Conservation Voters as the greenest governor in America, is making sure that candidates talk about climate change this presidential election, unlike in 2016, when the issue was all but ignored in every presidential debate. The need to address climate change has come up in audience questions in just about every town hall that CNN has sponsored for Democratic candidates. Inslee has gone so far as to call for a climate-change-only debate. His four-part plan, described on his campaign website, includes and builds on ideas from the Green New Deal, which he’s backing (as are other candidates).

Former Obama Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro has the most thorough plan on immigration policy. He basically offers the opposite of Trump’s policies and provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He also backs investigating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of Justice’s role in family separation policies. As CNN explained:

Castro, as president, would increase refugee admissions, reunify families that have been separated at the border and allow deported veterans who served in the US military to return to the United States. …

Castro’s plan also reimagines enforcement along the border, including the reconstitution of Immigration and Customs Enforcement by “splitting the agency in half and re-assigning enforcement functions” within the agency.

There’s more, of course. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to solidify a woman’s right to choose and to close the racial wealth gap. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wants to go further with an issue close to his heart, criminal justice reform, and issue “Baby Bonds” for newborns that will be worth thousands when those kids turn 18 to help pay for college.

How about this: Take the best ideas from the various candidates and put them into the Democratic platform—and then have that platform mean something for a change. I’ll take Jay Inslee on climate change, Eric Swalwell on gun violence, Julián Castro on decriminalizing immigration, Elizabeth Warren on going after the wealthy, Kamala Harris on paying teachers, Amy Klobuchar on infrastructure, Bernie Sanders on health care (Medicare for All, Medicare for America, improving the Affordable Care Act, or any combination thereof—it’s better to act than to fight about it). And let’s include Pete Buttigieg’s and Beto O’Rourke’s appeal to millennials. We’ll talk about Joe Biden if and when he gets into the race. And I’m sure you’ll forgive me for skipping over some other candidates, including former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

Is America ready for a president who carves out new territory? Who knows? Most likely, 99.9 percent of those reading this would have no problem with a president who is gay, Latinx, African American, a woman, an African-American woman, a democratic socialist, or one who follows any religion—or none at all. Is the rest of America?

Let the debates begin.

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