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The Democrats’ Radical Agenda

Play it safe or go bold? In the race to beat Trump, party leaders are rolling out revolutionary policies for the first time in a generation

Climate change activists holding signs join in on a rally supporting the "Green New Deal" in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles onCalifornia Climate Change, Los Angeles, USA - 24 May 2019Climate change activists holding signs join in on a rally supporting the "Green New Deal" in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles onCalifornia Climate Change, Los Angeles, USA - 24 May 2019

Climate change activists holding signs join in on a rally supporting the "Green New Deal" in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.

Richard Vogel/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For the 2020 election, Democrats are proposing policies of sweep and ambition not seen since the New Deal or the Great Society. Ideas that would have seemed radical even five years ago — publicly funded college, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All — are now at the top of many candidates’ platforms.

Most intriguing: As once-fringe ideas enter the mainstream debate, they are proving popular. “Medicare for All is supported by at least 55 percent of the public,” says Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress. “So why is that treated as an extreme position?” By offering visionary reforms for a defective democracy, a foundering middle class, the climate crisis and a system rigged for the wealthiest, progressives hope to inspire an electorate whose anger helped propel a strongman like Donald Trump to power.

These are moonshot ideas, to be sure, impossible to pass unless Democrats reclaim both the White House and the Senate. (Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to be the “Grim Reaper” for these plans if the GOP holds the chamber.) And with price tags often soaring into the trillions — with a “t” — these proposals face resistance from America’s wealthiest, whose taxes would be hiked to pay for them, as well as centrist Democrats who fear tacking too far left might fumble one of the most consequential elections in the nation’s history.

Below, we examine a half-dozen of the Democrats’ edgiest ideas, underscoring what they could achieve, how much they might cost, and the obstacles they face.


The Problem It Solves: The world has about a decade to arrest greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change, including the collapse of ice sheets that would raise sea levels, displacing as many as 200 million people by the end of the century.

Prominent Backers: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey rolled out the Green New Deal in February, calling for massive investments to quit carbon and create economic opportunities for America’s most disadvantaged communities. While 2020 candidates from Bernie Sanders to Amy Klobuchar are backing the GND, to varying degrees, Jay Inslee has offered the most detailed plan. He would invest $3 trillion in federal funds to drive $9 trillion in economy-wide investment, creating 8 million jobs, and he promises 100 percent clean electricity and zero emissions from new cars and buildings within a decade.

Biggest Obstacle: A Green New Deal would be cheaper than adapting to submerged cities or waves of climate refugees. But spending trillions to decarbonize America is anathema to a Republican Party subsidized by the fossil-fuel industry, which has waged a four-decade disinformation campaign — including $1 billion spent globally on deceptive lobbying and PR since the Paris Agreement. Some top Democrats have also questioned the GND, with Nancy Pelosi dismissing it as “the green dream or whatever,” and others promoting a more moderate solution, like a carbon tax.


The Problem It Solves: The price of a four-year undergraduate public education spiked by more than a third in the past decade, and Americans have taken on nearly $1.6 trillion in student debt (the average grad now begins adult life with $30,000 in loans). Rather than being a ladder to success, college can turn into a trap for borrowers, with debts that are very difficult to dismiss through bankruptcy, and often serviced by unscrupulous lenders.

Prominent Backers: Sanders shifted the debate in 2016 by calling for free public universities; 2020 competitor Elizabeth Warren has added debt forgiveness to her higher-ed package, seeking to cancel up to $50,000 in loans for households earning less than $100,000 — liberating 42 million Americans from student debt.

Biggest Obstacle: Warren’s proposal would cost $1.25 trillion over 10 years, financed by a wealth tax. But student-debt cancellation would also act as a stimulus, growing GDP by nearly $1 trillion as Americans invest in homes and start families rather than pay down loans and interest. While 56 percent of Americans back Warren’s plan, other 2020 contenders have thrown cold water on her ideas. Klobuchar suggested she’d have to be a “magic genie” to make college free for all, and Pete Buttigieg questioned the fairness of bailing out college grads who earn 80 percent more on average than nongrads: “As a progressive,” he said, “I have a hard time getting my head around the idea.”


The Problem It Solves: Marijuana has become legal in a dozen states, but Americans are arrested for it in disproportionately high numbers. In 2017, 650,000 people were arrested for pot possession, six times the number for heroin, despite an opioid epidemic that claimed 48,000 lives. And black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested as whites, despite similar usage rates.

Prominent Backers: 2020 candidate Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would federally legalize marijuana and invest $5 billion in communities hardest hit by the Drug War. The legislation — supported by most of the Senate’s 2020 contenders — would also expunge past pot convictions. “You can’t just legalize marijuana and say, ‘Solved the problem,’ ” says Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, of the Drug Policy Alliance. “You have to make an effort to repair those harmed.”

Biggest Obstacle: With the prospect of reaping billions in federal tax dollars from this lucrative new industry, centrist Dems and even a few Republicans are feeling pressure to act. But competing alternatives (simply exempting legal states from federal pot busts, for example) are clouding prospects for Booker’s bill. Joe Biden — who called legalization a “mistake” as recently as 2010 — could be an impediment. Marijuana Justice Act co-sponsor Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) believes the 2020 race will be clarifying: “My hope is this will be one of the top issues that candidates run on,” he says, giving the next president a “mandate to implement change.”

Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Warren.  Photo credit: Cliff Owen/AP/REX/Shutterstock, REX/Shutterstock, Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Cliff Owen/AP/REX/Shutterstock, REX/Shutterstock, Ethan Miller/Getty Images


The Problem It Solves: America spends twice as much on medical care as other developed countries, getting worse results: Nearly 30 million remain uninsured, life expectancy is dipping, and two-thirds of American bankruptcies are caused by medical debt.

Prominent Backers: Sanders’ Med­icare for All legislation — reintroduced in April and co-sponsored by fellow 2020 candidates Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Warren — would transform Medicare into single-payer, universal coverage, displacing private insurance. It would cover U.S. residents from birth and is tax-financed — meaning no premiums or co-pays at the hospital or doctor’s office. The government would pay providers and negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma.

Biggest Obstacle: Republicans who screamed about “death panels” under Obamacare are already blasting Medicare for All as a slippery slope to Venezuelan socialism. But such criticism should be liberating for progressives, argues McElwee: The lesson is that Republicans will fight like hell regardless, so Democrats may as well shoot for “the thing that does the job and makes the most difference in people’s lives,” he says. Medicare for All would cost $33 trillion over a decade, but net U.S. spending on health care could actually decrease. Even the right-wing Mercatus Center — funded by the Koch brothers — projects a $2 trillion reduction in medical spending, while nonpartisan studies show savings of nearly $3 trillion, or 10 percent. Perhaps the more potent political obstacle? At least 1 million employees of private insurance firms could lose their jobs in the transition.


The Problem It Solves: Economic disadvantages for black Americans have been compounded since the end of slavery through discriminatory policies ranging from the Homestead Act, which provided free land to white settlers, to Jim Crow segregation, to the redlining that blocked black families from buying desirable housing. The economic impacts are profound: The median net worth of black families in America stands at $3,500; for whites, it’s $147,000.

Prominent Backers: 2020 candidate Julián Castro propelled the issue into the national debate in March when he asked, “If, under the Constitution, we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn’t you compensate people who actually were property?” Booker has introduced legislation to form a federal commission that would put forward a reparations proposal — a bill that fellow 2020 contenders Harris and Beto O’Rourke have pledged to sign.

Biggest Obstacle: Estimates for fair repayment for the value exploited from slaves run as high as $14 trillion. Even the free-spending Sanders has blanched at trying to resolve American racial disparities by “just writing out a check.” Support for reparations is limited — favored by just 26 percent in recent polling — and any move to make amends for the sin of slavery could set off a racist firestorm in a country where dismantling Confederate statuary is enough to spark a riot.


The Problem It Solves: American income inequality is nearly as severe today as it was before the Great Depression. Three billionaires, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, hold more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of Americans combined. Republican policy is making things worse: The 2017 Trump tax law cut the effective corporate tax rate in half, while producing “no indication of a surge in wages” for regular workers, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Prominent Backers: Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and Warren have each proposed tax hikes to narrow America’s economic divides — and to raise the funds required to finance their sweeping policies. AOC calls for raising the top tax bracket to 70 percent for income earned above $10 million a year. Sanders proposes hiking the estate tax on the value of fortunes in excess of $1 billion to 77 percent. Warren seeks an annual wealth tax, rising to three percent for billionaires, which would raise $2.75 trillion over a decade.

Biggest Obstacle: Nothing unites the GOP as much as its aversion to taxes, so Democrats would undoubtedly have to go it alone. But tax policy can be changed with just 50 votes in the Senate. And targeting the wealthiest is popular with the public, with 60 percent backing Warren’s wealth tax. “If you own a home, you’re already paying a wealth tax — it’s called a property tax,” Warren tweeted. “I just want the ultra-rich to pay a wealth tax on the diamonds, the yachts and the Rembrandts too.”

In This Article: 2020 election, Democrats


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