When Bernie Sanders went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert a week ago, he took a victory lap for his agenda.
“A few years ago when we said that health care is a right, not a privilege, and that we should create a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system, I was told I’m crazy, it’s extreme, I’m a fringe guy,” Sanders said. “Seventy percent of the American people, in the last polls I’ve seen, now support Medicare for all.”
He went on to list other issues where he believes he has led the Democratic Party left: advocating a $15 per hour minimum wage, spending on infrastructure, abortion rights.
Sanders may not be solely responsible for these policies taking hold — Democrats have been moving left for years — but he hit on a clear trend that’s emerging among Democrats’ top presumptive 2020 contenders: They’ve been putting forward a steady stream of uber-progressive economic policies — some of which would have been unthinkable for mainstream candidates a few presidential cycles ago.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Democrats are swinging for the fences right now,” said Stephanie Kelton, an economist who served as an economic adviser to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
Consider, for example, that when Sanders introduced a single-payer bill in 2013, he had zero co-sponsors. When he introduced it in 2017, there were 16, as NPR’s Scott Detrow has noted.
“There’s a kind of a nuance or a specificity to the signaling in this round that looks kind of different to me,” said Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. “I think there’s more kind of checking a box by progressive candidates that they’re willing to get outside the box.”
A few of those outside-the-box ideas:
And that’s just a partial list of the ambitious ideas that potential 2020 contenders are floating. There’s also Booker’s baby bonds idea, Sanders’ Stop BEZOS Act and Gillibrand’s proposal to bring banking to post offices, to name a few.
Popular? Maybe. Doable? … maybe?
Thinking about the logistics of any of these programs may be putting the cart before the horse, because even passing these sorts of policies would likely require a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. Even then, moderate Democrats could easily be hesitant.
So let’s be hypothetical and leave aside political possibilities. Given how sweeping any of these proposals are, there are legitimate economic criticisms of many of them. Even left-leaning economists have criticized a $15 minimum wage as too high, for example. A Medicare for all proposal could cost tens of trillions of dollars and would mean overhauling an industry that makes up one-sixth of the U.S. economy. A job guarantee could cripple private-sector businesses.
Bernstein knows many of these criticisms exist, but he isn’t worried just yet.
“I would actually caution many of my fellow progressive wonks out there not to immediately reject these ideas because of their technocratic limitations,” he said.
What he means by “technocratic limitations” is that in some cases, these policy proposals do not, technically, exist yet. But in his view, that’s not necessarily bad.
“It may well be the case — in fact, I’d say it is — that they don’t have a clear path from where we are to Medicare for all, or an ambitious guaranteed jobs program,” Bernstein said. “But what’s important right now is the aspiration that those programs represent in terms of finally trying to really do something about the profound gap between the haves and have-nots in this country.”
For her part, Kelton is more bullish on how well some of these policies could work. Unlike many Washington policy wonks, for example, she’s not worried about the cost of Medicare for all.
But aside from that, she thinks that putting these policies out there will make them — or even ideas like them — more politically palatable.
“The first step is of course getting them in front of the American people, finding out whether these are things that they actually support,” she said. “It’s important to put these things on the table and to begin that conversation because, as support builds around them, it can become increasingly difficult for lawmakers to resist acting.”
All that said, there’s plenty of reason to expect push back from Republicans and moderates, not to mention some economists in either camp.
“All of them strike me as a really bad idea, and I don’t like any of them,” said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “And I can’t even think of any where I’m kind of shrugging my shoulders.”
Emerging fault lines
So with a massive field of candidates taking shape, are all likely 2020 Democrats on board with these proposals?
Pshhh. No. Come on.
After all, one of the biggest storylines going into 2020 is a disagreement within the Democratic Party over strategy.
It can be easy to get hyperbolic about it (is there a “Democratic civil war“? Are Dems in disarray?), but there is definitely a question about the best way to win in 2020: aim for the middle and try to pick up disaffected Trump voters and moderates, or energize the left to turn out? (And, importantly, can anyone do both?)
Big-name progressives like Warren and Sanders seem to be bets on the left. And the people we’ve mentioned here are just a handful of the highest-profile Democrats for 2020, but certainly not all of them.
One thing that connects most of them, pointedly, is that they’re sitting senators, so they have the opportunity to introduce high-profile bills right now to position themselves on the left for a 2020 presidential primary.
But potential candidates outside the Senate have been positioning themselves in other ways, some of them seemingly toward the middle. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has been touting his regulatory cuts — something that might endear him to centrists and even some conservatives.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been out pitching his economic ideas. But at a spring think tank event, he “stopped short of pitching some of the more sweeping proposals emanating from the party’s left flank,” as CNN’s Lydia DePillis noted. “Instead, he offered up more mainstream ideas, like providing more federal funding for infrastructure projects and making the tax code less friendly to investors while expanding tax credits for low-income families.”
Indeed, Biden hammered that idea home: “I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie Sanders,” he said at the time.
Fortunately for Biden, he (and any other 2020 candidates) have a little over a year to show voters who they are … if they decide to run.