Kamala Harris wants to increase teacher pay by $13,500. Cory Booker is proposing “baby bonds” to close the racial wealth gap. Amy Klobuchar has a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Kirsten Gillibrand wants universal paid family leave; Julian Castro wants universal pre-Kindergarten. And then there’s Elizabeth Warren, who has released ambitious plans to break up Big Tech, break up Big Ag, and reform American capitalism itself.
If the Democratic primary were a contest to crown the biggest policy wonk, the Massachusetts senator would be the presumptive nominee already. Instead, as The New York Times reported on Sunday, Warren “finds herself in a political vise. Her rivals on either ideological flank will raise substantially more money in the first quarter than she does, and her focus on policy has not yet translated in the polls.” The other aforementioned candidates aren’t faring any better in the polls.
Instead, two old men are handily leading the field: a former vice president, as yet an undeclared candidate, who is precisely the opposite of a wonk and is facing increasing scrutiny for his “creepy uncle” behavior; and an also-ran whose platform appears unchanged since 2016, with the exception of a more rigorous policy on sexual harassment by campaign staff. Meanwhile, the two younger men who are generating the most excitement among Democrats right now—or at least the most coverage in the mainstream media—are apparently allergic to policy details.
Sexism is surely playing a role in the disproportionate attention to the four Bs: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg. But there’s no denying that the policy-oriented candidates, men and women alike, are struggling to be heard—and it may well be precisely because they’re getting lost in the details, releasing fine-tuned proposals at a time when they should be focused on energizing Democrats with simple ideas and broad rhetoric.
This flood of policy work is the direct result of the 2016 election. That year’s Democratic primary proved that voters were hungry for new ideas, and were more open to issues like universal health care than they had previously been. Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton provoked an existential crisis—and a desire for approaches that broke from the neoliberal approach that Democrats had taken for the previous three decades. A galvanized left-wing began pushing more vocally for Medicare for All, decarbonizing the economy, reparations, and new ways to undercut the economic hegemony of corporations and the ultra-wealthy. While Democrats bickered about what kind of candidate could beat Donald Trump, nearly everyone in the party coalesced around a more ambitious policy agenda.
It always helps, of course, to have a foil. And Trump, who barely seems to grasp anything about policy or governance, and the Republican Party, which has largely abandoned policymaking, are perfect contrasts for a party brimming with ideas. The ideas being formulated by Democratic presidential candidates, and others in the party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are, at their root, about articulating differences with both Trumpism and more conventional conservatism. While the political right embraces bigotry, crony capitalism, and white identity politics, Democrats are creating policies for a multi-ethnic America that’s committed to economic fairness and social and environmental justice. While the Republican Party ignores longstanding and complex problems like health care access and affordability and climate change, the Democratic Party has made them into centerpieces of a broader agenda that would fundamentally transform the economy.
But enacting this agenda will not be easy. It will require not only winning back the White House, but winning a majority in the Senate and holding the House as well. Thus, the exact details of a plan to break up big tech, for instance, are largely immaterial at the moment. It’s even possible that delving into such detail at this stage in the election is a political mistake. “In campaigns ... more can sometimes be less,” The American Prospect’s Paul Starr recently wrote. “[Hillary] Clinton’s many rational and sensible policies could not compete successfully for the voters’ attention with the few simple things that Donald Trump used to stir outrage and appeal to raw emotion.” Clinton, he added, was unable “to convey a clear and strong message about what she would change as president and how she would do it.”
Trump’s campaign was all about the big picture. His campaign was built on the idea of returning America to a mythical golden age, dialing back the clock to an era before free trade and automation. His criticisms were similarly broad, directed at a corrupt and bipartisan political elite that had enriched itself while the rest of the country suffered. His few policies were laughably undercooked. He would build a “beautiful” wall to keep immigrants out of the country—and Mexico would pay for it. That’s as detailed as he got.
This was true, to a lesser extent, with Sanders’s campaign. While there were myriad reasons for his surprising success, including Clinton’s unpopularity and an anti-establishment wave, his support for Medicare for All and free college proved so popular that they became mainstream Democratic policies. But these ideas weren’t just bold. They were simple to understand, and fit clearly into a broader critique of a broken system. There is widespread agreement that higher education and health care are far too expensive, and most everyone immediately understands what “free college” and “Medicare for All” mean. Sanders didn’t have to explain them—not that he would have anyway. He studiously avoids granular detail in speeches and interviews.
The policy-focused 2020 candidates might be taking the wrong lessons from Sanders. He proved that policy ideas aren’t inherently boring, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently interesting—or that the party’s base is craving more ideas, however niche they may be. Some Democratic voters might have a sense of what “postal banking” is, and approve of it, but the proposal will never inspire an arena of 50,000 people to whoop at the top of their lungs.