A flurry of proposals to slap new taxes on the ultra-wealthy, extend Medicare to all Americans and make college debt-free reflect a rapidly changing Democratic Party that sees a sharp left turn as the path to defeating President Donald Trump.
Some of the party’s top 2020 presidential hopefuls are wading into uncharted political waters in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to mitigating income inequality.
But where party activists see an opportunity to excite voters, some veterans of past campaigns and moderate Democrats warn that the party wins elections not by indulging its most liberal impulses but by hewing to the political center. And Trump has made clear he’s ready to use the leftward tilt by Democrats as a wedge issue in 2020.
Five U.S. senators with eyes on the Democratic nomination have endorsed single-payer health insurance, a government-guaranteed job, and subsidies to ensure Americans can graduate from college free of debt. Kamala Harris also wants a $3 trillion tax cut for families under $100,000. Elizabeth Warren wants a yearly wealth tax on assets above $50 million. Cory Booker wants “baby bonds” for poorer kids to bridge racial inequities. Bernie Sanders wants a massive expansion in the estate tax.
“The Democrats are swinging for the fences this time,” said Stephanie Kelton, an economist who advised Sanders in his bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination. “You’re seeing kind of a return to the roots of the Democratic Party in the FDR era.”
Much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the 1930s, Democratic contenders are pushing tax hikes on the wealthy to finance an expansion of government security programs. They’re also seeking to make good on Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” that he proposed in the 1944 State of the Union, one year before he died and the goal fizzled.
“The things that FDR enumerated in that speech — the right to a living wage and job and education and housing and secure retirement — that’s big stuff, and you have someone on the Democratic side with legislation for almost everything on that agenda,” Kelton said.
The Democratic hunger for more liberal policy prescriptions — as well as leaders who reflect the demographics of a party reliant on young people, minorities and women — was evident in the 2018 elections as upstarts like Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Boston and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York ousted longtime Democratic incumbents.
“People are sick of half-measures,” said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “Americans are struggling mightily to get into the middle class, or stay in the middle class, and the job of the Democratic Party is to come up with a real program to solve those problems.”
The issue that has most energized the progressive base is a “Medicare for all” system that would establish a federal insurance program and scrap most private insurance. Legislation called the Medicare For All Act, unveiled in 2017 by Sanders, of Vermont, has been cosponsored by 2020 hopefuls in the Senate like Harris of California, Warren of Massachusetts, Booker of New Jersey, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Sanders plans to reintroduce the Medicare For All Act in the new Congress.
Medicare for All
At a CNN town hall last week in Iowa, Harris offered a ringing endorsement of Medicare for all and said she’d do away with private insurance. “Let’s eliminate all of that,” she said, after describing its hassles. Warren took a more cautious approach, declining twice on Bloomberg TV to say if she’s scrap private insurers as part of her plan, saying that she sees “lots of paths” to universal coverage.
“We know where we’re aiming, and that is every American has health care at a price they can afford,” Warren said.
The eagerness among Democratic hopefuls to reverse the party’s centrist turn in the 1990s is drawing pushback from some of its architects, who credit the shift for Bill Clinton’s success in breaking years of Republican dominance in presidential elections.
“Our view is that Medicare for all would be a catastrophic idea for the Democratic nominee to run on in 2020,” said Matt Bennett, a spokesman for the centrist Democratic group Third Way.
‘Dangerous’ Litmus Tests
Bennett said progressive litmus tests like single payer are “dangerous” if the party wants to unseat Trump. “Medicare for all does well on Twitter and in riling up base voters, but in the end is not going to be politically resonant in the places where Democrats simply must win, which is the former blue wall states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” he said.
But Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin won re-election in November by more than 10 points in Wisconsin on an unabashedly progressive platform that included Medicare for all. In an interview, she rejected the idea that running to the left would hurt her party’s prospects in the state, which Trump won in 2016. Democratic candidates are “all pushing in the direction that anyone from Wisconsin would want,” she said.