Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Make no mistake, the 2020 presidential election campaign is well underway. At the latest count, over half a dozen Democrats have announced their intention to seek the party’s nomination and well over a dozen more could join the field in the coming weeks and months.
Building on the anger and passion that pushed the Democratic base to join the resistance and then turn out to vote in the midterms, the wide field of Democratic hopefuls is set to gravitate around a progressive left-wing agenda.
Pushing that leftward shift is the rising stars of the party, all of whom make no apology of their progressive and at times even socialist values. The nickname-only Democrats are the brightest lights in that group – namely “AOC” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), “Beto” (Beto O’Rourke) and to a fading extent “Bernie” (Bernie Sanders).
The policy platforms put forward by those running in 2020 are, for the majority, unquestionably left-wing. The default proposal by anyone seeking the Democratic nomination has been Medicare for all and support for a ‘Green New Deal’. It is no surprise that the Obama-alumni hosts of Pod Save America described those two policies as the “secret password” that gets Democratic hopefuls into the race.
On the campaign trail then, we will hear an awful lot more about Medicare for all and the jobs boom associated with a Green New Deal. But just as Donald Trump found that it is easy to promise that he will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it at rallies, Democratic hopefuls might also find that their most progressive policies are dead on arrival on day one of a Democratic presidency.
Political kryptonite for the Republican Party, a Medicare for all bill has no chance of passing a GOP-controlled House or Senate. The proof? Before introducing legislation that would create a government-run, single-payer health care system in September 2017, Sanders said:
“Look, I have no illusions that under a Republican Senate and a very right-wing House and an extremely right-wing president of the United States, that suddenly we’re going to see a Medicare-for-all, single-payer passed. You’re not going to see it. That’s obvious.”
Moreover, the party structures on the left are yet to get behind some of these radical reforms. Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman, regularly pivots to a broader answer about health care policy when asked whether he supports a single-payer plan. Nancy Pelosi, the House Majority Leader, was more direct earlier this year when she was asked whether Democrats should run on a single-payer platform in 2018, and said: “No. I say to people, ‘You want to do that, do it in your states.'”
All that is before we even consider the process required for such a fundamental overhaul. That’s why Vox wrote:
“Doing anything as big as Medicare-for-all would be difficult. Doing it while cancelling a large portion of the country’s current health insurance plans, even with a transition period, would be an undertaking with no precedent in the history of American social policy. It would require the categorical commitment of the next Democratic administration to get it done.”
Notwithstanding those legislative and political challenges, the left will be buoyed going into 2020 by polling that shows strong support for major policy overhauls. According to Reuters, 70 per cent of Americans support Medicare for all, including 85 per cent of Democrats and a staggering 52 per cent of Republicans.
Despite that gloomy picture, it is worth remembering historical examples of radical agendas being implemented in the face of political objection. Although there has been much commentary on the increasingly progressive economic policies favoured by the likes of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the viability of their ideas in today’s political environment, it should be noted that Democrats have, in the past, been able to advance an interventionist agenda in the face of staunch right-wing opposition.
From Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, which laid the basis for modern day social security, to Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ which, among many other things, created Medicare, an advancement of left-wing social and economic policies is not a new phenomenon in US political life.
A wide-open race that could get wider
Polling continues to show that there is no clear Democratic frontrunner for 2020. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 56 per cent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, when asked whom they would support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, didn’t offer up any name at all. The starting gun has barely been fired and there are months for more hopefuls to throw their hats into the ring.
With an early flurry of announcements and the creation of exploratory committees, more ‘establishment’ candidates like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (whose candidacies are expected but not guaranteed) might keep their powder dry and wait to see the direction that the race takes before entering.
With Trump entering a new period of vulnerability and exposure on three major fronts – the shutdown, Mueller, and his approval ratings – the list of Democrats and left-leaning independents that think they can run against him and win is long and growing by the day. At the same time, the rising Democratic stars are pushing the party’s presidential hopefuls further and further to the left. The narrative that underpins 2020 Democratic candidates will therefore become increasingly progressive.
Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the promise. Democratic hopefuls would do well to remember that what they promise in Iowa and New Hampshire is not necessarily compatible with what they can deliver in the White House. The President’s current self-inflicted problems are the perfect proof of that.