Democrats Are Betting Big On Big Plans for 2020

CNN/ Newswire | 6/14/2019, 2:43 p.m.

Go big or go home might be the new motto for the Democrats' sprawling cast of 2020 presidential contenders.

At a moment when the country remains closely divided between the two major political parties, the 2020 Democrats are rushing to propose expansive and expensive proposals that envision massive change in public policy across a wide array of issues.

The scale and sweep of these ideas -- on issues from health care, climate change and college affordability to voting rights and tax policy -- represent one of the defining choices for the party heading into the 2020 contest with President Donald Trump.

Given the tumultuous nature of Trump's presidency, Democrats could have concluded that the way to victory in 2020 is to promise voters a "return to normalcy" and a lessening of political conflict. Instead, even the most centrist contenders -- including front-runner Joe Biden -- are betting that Trump's norm-shattering presidency has demonstrated that voters are receptive to big change, even if that means pitched political battles in Washington.

"The truth of it is Trump has shown ... that there's a strong appetite for bold solutions to significant problems," says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank. "Trump's disruption, and many of his lunatic ideas, have widened the aperture of what's acceptable in the policy debates."

In just the past week, Biden put out a $1.7 trillion plan to combat climate change, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts issued a $2 trillion proposal to promote a green economy, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey issued an affordable housing plan that could cost over $130 billion annually and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke released a blueprint to overhaul the political system that included a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress and the Supreme Court.

At various points earlier in the race, candidates have proposed a massive federal investment in raising teacher salaries, mandatory federal approval of state abortion laws, allowing felons to vote while still incarcerated, ending the Electoral College, big tax cuts for middle- and lower-middle-income families, forgiving virtually all student debt, federally funded "baby bonds" targeted especially at low-income children, establishing universal pre-K and tuition-free public college, creating a statutory federal right to abortion, legalizing 11 million undocumented immigrants, renewing the ban on assault weapons and, of course, replacing private health insurance with a government-funded single-payer health care system. Even the more centrist alternative on health care -- allowing all Americans to buy into Medicare -- would constitute a huge expansion in government's involvement in the medical system.

The eventual nominee isn't likely to endorse all of these ideas. But that list testifies to the rise in Democratic ambitions -- and expectations. Cumulatively, the 2020 agenda rivals or even exceeds the magnitude of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society during the 1960s. It far exceeds the legislative ambitions of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the last two Democratic presidents.

In many ways, the scale of the 2020 Democratic proposals reflects a consensus across ideological lines in the party about one reason for Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016. Though Clinton also offered a wide array of plans to address many issues, hardly any were large or compelling enough to capture the public's imagination.

That led many Democratic strategists to conclude that she failed to provide voters a pithy answer to what is sometimes called the Ted Kennedy question: Why are you running for president? (Kennedy memorably flunked that question with a stumbling answer in an interview with CBS' Roger Mudd when he announced his primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter in 1980.)

This time, Democrats have almost universally concluded that big ideas signal to voters a big commitment to improve their lives.

"Incremental solutions communicate that the problem is not so large," Tanden says. "That is what Trump championed. If you think the problem is big you have a bold solution to it. I think that makes sense to people."