The Newest Deal: Dems build a progressive platform for 2020

West Coast Correspondent
Yahoo News

Democrats may have no idea yet who will be topping their presidential ticket in 2020; as many two dozen potential candidates have hinted they might run against Donald Trump. But due in large part to these White House wannabes, the party’s new, post-Barack-Obama platform is already coming into focus, and it’s full of unabashedly left-wing ideas that represent a sharp break with Hillary Clinton’s technocratic tendency toward nine-point plans and a growing embrace of bold, Bernie Sanders–style liberalism.

“You have to have a small number of big, easy-to-understand ideas,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., recently told Yahoo News. “Trump had those. Bernie Sanders had those. But it didn’t seem to me that the Clinton campaign did. I don’t know that anybody in Connecticut could have listed a specific economic proposal from the Clinton campaign. They had great ideas. The ideas just didn’t light anybody’s fire.” 

Left to right: Sen. Brian Schatz, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Tammy Baldwin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images, AP(4)).
Left to right: Sen. Brian Schatz, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Tammy Baldwin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images, AP(4)).

Whether the emerging Democratic platform lights anybody’s fire remains to be seen. It’s far to the left of anything the party has proposed since the 1970s, and sounds more like the to-do list of a Scandinavian parliament than Bill Clinton’s triangulated politics or even Obama’s careful, consensus-seeking progressivism. 

But in the age of Trump, Democrats aren’t just looking for the man or woman who can depose the disrupter in chief. They’re also looking for a message that can break through and connect with voters who defected or stayed home in 2016.

Here are some early, eye-popping ideas that could define that message in 2020:

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Medicare access for all

Democrats have aspired to establish a universal health care system for much of the last 100 years. In 2008, the debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton was about how to expand private insurance to as many Americans as possible; in 2016, Sanders introduced single payer into the presidential conversation, even as Clinton continued to campaign on improving Obamacare’s private insurance exchanges.

Since then, however, the party’s leading lights have moved rapidly in Bernie’s direction — particularly as Trump and his Republican allies have made it clear that focusing solely on Obamacare, which the GOP has undermined at every turn, would be an unproductive way to proceed.

That isn’t to say Democrats now agree completely with the Vermont senator. Sanders still wants to phase out private insurance entirely and replace it with a single government-run plan that provides coverage to all Americans — “Medicare for all,” as he calls it. And he may still run in 2020. But forcing everyone to give up their current coverage would create very real challenges, both practical and political. That’s why much of the rest of the potential Democratic field seems to be coalescing around a less disruptive alternative to Sanders’s vision: what you might call “Medicare access for all.”

Sen. Chris Murphy. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)
Sen. Chris Murphy. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

The idea is simple. As detailed in the Choose Medicare Act, which was introduced in April by Murphy and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, individuals and large businesses should be allowed to buy coverage through Medicare. Private insurance wouldn’t go away. You could keep your existing coverage if you wanted. But if you didn’t, you’d have the option of choosing the popular public plan for elderly Americans instead.

Murphy and Merkley are both considered possible 2020 contenders, as are several of their co-sponsors: California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. So don’t be surprised if this modified single-payer proposal becomes a big part of the 2020 campaign.

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Federal job guarantee

In 2016, Clinton lost for two reasons: Working-class minorities didn’t turn out for her the way they’d turned out for Obama and, Trump peeled off just enough of the working-class white vote in just the right places — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — to eke out an Electoral College victory.

As a result, Democrats have been searching for a silver bullet of sorts: a “big, easy-to-understand idea” that would appeal to all working-class voters, regardless of race.

And now some Dems think they’ve found it: offering every American a government job at a living wage.

The shift has been sharp enough to induce whiplash. In 2016, neither Sanders nor Clinton mentioned a federal job guarantee; in fact, you’d have to go back to the 1970s, and before that the New Deal, to find a time Democrats were even discussing the idea, let alone attempting to implement it.

But that’s all changed. First, liberal wonks starting floating the notion. Then, in an interview, Kirsten Gillibrand signed on. Finally, in April, Cory Booker introduced pilot program legislation that would give 15 local areas federal money so they could guarantee all their residents a job paying at least $15 an hour, plus paid leave and health benefits. Sanders also introduced job-guarantee legislation around the same time.

Sen. Cory Booker (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)
Sen. Cory Booker (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)

The entire party isn’t on board yet, and there are real downsides to a broader jobs guarantee: a price tag that could approach half a trillion dollars, for one thing, along with uncertainty about what participants would actually do. (The early focus is on infrastructure work, childcare and eldercare.)

Yet for the 2020 crowd, the upsides might be too tempting to resist. In policy terms, a jobs guarantee could effectively eliminate recessions, and many economists believe it could boost wages as well — a top progressive priority at a time of rampant income inequality.

The politics also look promising. A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans like the idea; among Clinton voters, approval is nearing 70 percent. Meanwhile, Republicans who make less than $25,000 per year are more supportive than Democrats who make more than $150,000 — which suggests that the Democratic dream of a cross-racial, working-class coalition could be within reach.

Expect to hear a lot more about guaranteed government jobs between now and 2020. Sens. Harris, Gillibrand, Merkley and Elizabeth Warren all co-sponsored Booker’s bill.

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Corporate freeloader fee

Barack Obama once called economic inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” and most of his would-be Democratic successors seem to agree.

“I do my very best to fight for working people in this job,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told Yahoo News last October. “And that means all workers — whether you punch a time sheet or swipe a badge, make a salary or earn tips. Whether you’re on payroll, a contract worker, or a temp — working behind a desk, on a factory floor, or behind a restaurant counter. The fact is, all workers across this country are feeling squeezed.”

To that end, Brown, a possible 2020 contender, has proposed what is perhaps his party’s most potent statement of principle for the age of inequality — a message to anxious workers that at least one party wants to make it less profitable for big companies to pay so little.

He calls it a corporate freeloader fee: a “carrot-and-stick” approach to big companies that slash labor costs to pad their profits.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)
Sen. Sherrod Brown (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)

“Companies that pay a living wage and provide health benefits and retirement benefits and don’t outsource their jobs — they should get a lower tax rate,” Brown recently explained. “But the companies that pay $10 or $11 [an hour], so that their employees get food stamps and Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers? Those companies should pay a corporate freeloader fee, because taxpayers have to subsidize those corporations’ wages.”

The chances of Brown’s corporate freeloader fee actually becoming law? Nil, under the current regime, and not much higher even if the Democrats take over. Both parties are loath to offend the business community.

But that doesn’t mean that he (and perhaps even some of his fellow Dems) won’t campaign on the idea in the years ahead. When Brown’s legislation came up for a floor vote last year, every Senate Democrat supported it.

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Debt-free college

The idea of free public-college tuition was one of the flashpoints of the 2016 Democratic nominating contest. Sanders backed it; Clinton did not.

“My late father said, ‘If somebody promises you something for free, read the fine print,’” Clinton snapped at the time.

Eventually, though, Clinton adopted something like Sanders’s position, promising to cover public-college tuition for families making up to $125,000 as a way of reaching out to his voters after the winning the primary.

Now the rest of the party seems to heading in the same direction. In fact, Democrats might go even further in 2020, if the latest legislation from Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz is any indication.

Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act of 2018, introduced in March, differs from Sanders’s approach in that it wouldn’t cover everybody’s public-college tuition. And it differs from Clinton’s plan in that it wouldn’t stop at covering tuition for those beneath a certain income threshold; it would cover all of their other college-related expenses as well, including room, board and books.

Sen. Brian Schatz (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)
Sen. Brian Schatz (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)

That’s because “we ought to cover the full cost of college for people who can’t afford it before we cover tuition for people who can,” Schatz recently explained.

Schatz’s needle-threading proposal solves a tricky political problem — and could become the Democratic Party’s default college-affordability plan as a result. A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that “less than half of Americans — or just 47 percent — supported the idea of tuition-free college,” and that it was “especially unpopular among the white working-class voters who flocked to Donald Trump and whom Democrats are now working hard to court.”

The reason: because blue-collar voters assumed that only elites would benefit from the policy. Schatz’s proposal counters that perception, denying freebies for upper-income students (unlike Sanders) while promising more support for their lower-income counterparts than Clinton. Sens. Gillibrand, Booker, Harris, Merkley, Warren and Brown have all signed on as co-sponsors.

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Public banks 

Imagine if your local post office wasn’t just a post office, but a bank as well. That’s the vision behind New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s new Postal Banking Act, which would transform America’s vast network of U.S. Postal Service facilities into places where low-income Americans with inadequate access to commercial banking could open accounts, cash checks, deposit money and obtain low-cost, short-term loans.

Both Sanders and Warren have touted the idea in the past, but Gillibrand is the first senator to introduce legislation. The goal would be to steer the 34 million “unbanked” and “underbanked” American households away from the for-profit payday lending system, in which workers — many of whom are black or Hispanic — routinely shoulder triple-digit fees to borrow money for bills that come due before their next paycheck because they don’t live near a traditional commercial bank or can’t afford to maintain an account at one. They often descend into permanent debt as a result.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)

With 30,000 locations nationwide — including nearly 18,000 in so-called banking deserts — the postal service could provide an alternative that makes it a little less expensive to be poor in America.

“You need bold ideas to fix some of the structural challenges that we have in our economy today,” Gillibrand told HuffPost in April. “So if you are going to be tinkering around the edges and picking around the margins, you are literally never going to fix the problem.”

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Child allowance, European-style labor laws, ‘democracy dollars’ and more 

Not every new Democratic idea is as big and bold as, say, a federal job guarantee. But nearly all of them are bigger and bolder — and more liberal — than what the party was proposing just a few years ago.

For instance, along with Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown has floated “by far the most ambitious child allowance plan … in recent memory” — $3,000 per year in tax credits for each child ages 6 to 18, and $3,600 per year for each child ages 0 to 5, with no strings attached. (Currently the U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world without such an allowance.) If implemented, Brown and Bennet’s plan would lift 5.3 million children out of poverty, slashing the overall child poverty level by 45 percent.

There are also a bunch of new pro-labor ideas gaining steam in Democratic circles — most of which draw inspiration from policies in Europe, where a national or industry-wide approach has supplanted individual workplace-level organizing. In March, Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin proposed that public companies let their workers directly elect one-third of the corporate board’s members; the following month, the Center for American Progress called for “the creation of national wage boards tasked with setting minimum wage and benefit standards for specific industries.” These ideas might seem “pie-in-the-sky today,” explained Vox’s Dylan Matthews, but “they could easily become part of the next Democratic president’s agenda.”

From left, Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ro Khanna. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP (2))
From left, Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ro Khanna. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP (2))

Even the typically staid issue of campaign-finance reform has come in for a shakeup, with Rep. Ro Khanna of California, whose district includes Silicon Valley, introducing a plan that would give every American citizen $50 virtual “democracy dollars” to donate to the presidential, Senate and House candidates of their choosing — a plan that would, if every 2016 voter participated, generate $7 billion in campaign contributions, outpacing the $6.8 billion donated that year by private interests.

Most of these ideas would, of course, carry a hefty price tag, so it isn’t hard to imagine the 2020 GOP attack ads: How will Democrats pay for all of their big-government promises? But even there, Dems seem to be learning a lesson from Trump and his Republican allies, who last year passed a corporate tax cut that will add an estimated $1 trillion to the deficit by 2019.

“I’m happy to have that conversation with my colleagues in Congress,” explained Khanna, who is also arguing for a massive, $1.4 trillion expansion of the earned income tax credit (EITC) for low- and middle-income Americans. “I also look forward to learning more about the House Republican offsets to pay for their $5 to $7 trillion worth of tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.”

“I don’t play the pay-for game,” Brian Schatz agreed. “After the Republicans did the $1.5 trillion in unpaid-for tax cuts … I just reject the idea that only progressive ideas have to be paid for. We can work on that as we go through the process, but I think it’s a trap.”

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