Who’s Winning the Democrats’ Wonk Primary?
The 2020 Democratic primary has already been underway for months, with the likely candidates jockeying for email sign-ups and positioning themselves against the 800-pound gorilla in the White House: Donald Trump. Prominent Democrats have taken whatever opportunities available to them given their limited legislative power, whether through viral moments in Senate hearings, attention-grabbing tweets, or campaign-trail cameos for vulnerable allies in swing states. But a quieter campaign has been happening largely in the shadows—a battle for the hearts and minds of both the policy mavens who set the parameters of conventional wisdom on the left, and an activated Democratic base hungry to see those parameters expand. Call it the wonk primary.
It looks something like this: Most of the big-name Senate Democrats rumored to be eyeing 2020 presidential bids—among them Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—have introduced at least one bold, progressive policy initiative as a legislative proposal over the past year. Their efforts are doomed to failure under a Republican-controlled Congress, but the initiatives are useful in shoring up that base’s morale, and, perhaps more important, planting a flag in what’s likely to be a crowded Democratic field.
“It’s like a race to the great idea,” said Ann O’Leary, lawyer and former policy adviser to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign. “Who’s going to adopt what first, between guaranteed jobs, bold cash ideas and other policies … they’re recognizing, ‘OK, the election starts the day after the midterms,’ so you put a marker down the month before and really hook on.”
Top Democrats have drawn on progressive pipe dreams both new and old such as universal basic income and single-payer health care, as well as more relatively modest, proven initiatives like Kirsten Gillibrand’s Postal Banking Act, which would allow the U.S. Postal Service to establish basic checking and savings accounts and offer small-dollar loans, effectively putting payday lenders out of business. Harris’ LIFT the Middle Class Act would give a basic monthly income to Americans within a certain income bracket, an idea in vogue in Silicon Valley and pushed heavily in its universal form by ex-Facebooker Chris Hughes’ Economic Security Project. From a policy standpoint, the mood on the left is freewheeling, collaborative and ambitious—the product of a nothing-to-lose Democratic Party at its lowest ebb of power since the 1920s.
The 2016 primary was a bitter two-person contest, in which the policy was decidedly secondary to the clash of ideologies between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, whose finely tuned policy apparatus was overshadowed by the Vermont senator’s characterization of her as an establishment hack beholden to corporate dollars, and in turn how Clinton painted her opponent as an impractical dreamer.
The next Democratic primary will be different. The 2020 contenders, however many they number, all know they want to remedy wealth inequality, and they know they want to “resist” Trump by whatever means necessary. The combination could lead to the Democrats’ most ambitious slate of legislation since the New Deal—and the competition to attach one’s name to FDR-style progressivism is already well underway.
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