Andrew Yang got the least amount of speaking time of any candidate on the Democratic primary debate stage last night—less than half of Joe Biden's. But this son of Taiwanese immigrants still managed to distinguish himself as a New New Democrat who broadly shares his party's progressive goals but doesn't always endorse its big-government solutions. A lawyer turned entrepreneur, Yang seems to understand intuitively that good public policy involves not Elizabeth Warren–style 10-point programs that empower bureaucrats and technocrats—or Bernie Sanders–style hostility to private industry—but devolving power to individuals.
He kicked off in a decidedly un-Kennedyesque spirit by extolling the primacy of the individual over the collective. "We have to get our country working for us again, not the other way around," he declared. "We have to see ourselves as the owners and shareholders of this democracy rather than inputs into a giant machine."
That doesn't make him a libertarian. But as my colleague Christian Britschgi points out, he made probably the most libertarian pitch possible for his universal basic income scheme last night when he announced that his campaign would hand a "freedom dividend" of $1,000 a month to 10 American families for the whole year. To qualify, they'd have to go to his website and explain how "you can solve your own problems better than any politician."
It is not surprising, then, that Yang is no fan of the public school monopoly (whose backers he has accused in the past of being in "bed with teachers unions") and is a supporter of charter schools. This is increasingly becoming hate speech in Democratic circles, which is why he pulled his punches last night, declaring that he was "pro–good school." Still, he seemed to suggest that the solution to the poor education in the country was not necessarily "putting money into schools" but "more directly into the families and neighborhoods."
Where Yang is most disappointing is on health care. Given his preference for putting more money in Americans' own pockets to let them solve their problems, you might think he'd be friendly to expanding medical coverage through more health savings accounts (IRA-style accounts that allow individuals to set aside a certain amount of money tax-free to buy coverage and pay deductibles)—or, better still, giving individuals the same tax breaks to purchase coverage that employers currently get. Instead, he backs Medicare for All, the biggest of big-government health care solutions. If there is a silver lining, it is that he does still want to improve incentives for physicians and providers to lower costs by avoiding redundant testing and procedures.
Yang has by far the best framing on immigration. Julian Castro's bold-ish proposal to decriminalize immigration changed the terms of the debate in the Democratic field: He went beyond vague generalities and suggested a very specific reform—scrapping the Immigration and Nationality Act's Section 1325, which makes illegal entry into the U.S. a federal crime and set the stage for Donald Trump's border crackdown and draconian child separation policies. But that change still doesn't make immigrants sound like the assets they are. Yang, on the other hand, pointed out last night that America's ability to attract "human capital" has been "integral to its continued success." Immigrants or their children, he noted, founded almost half of America's Fortune 500 companies. In vocabulary that should warm the hearts of market enthusiasts, he noted that "we have to compete for this talent." This is a fundamentally positive, Reaganeseque vision of both America and immigrants that no other candidate is espousing.
Yang isn't any kind of limited-government constitutionalist. But he isn't a big government liberal either. He comes across as the anti-Warren. She likes top-down solutions where powerful bureaucrats ride on their white horse to smash big business and protect the little guy. (Think of the all-powerful Consumer Financial Protection Agency that she pushed President Barack Obama to create.) He likes bottom-up approaches that empower the little guy. She is a bureaucrat with "a plan." He is a scrappy entrepreneur who speaks the language of ordinary people who've never been within shouting distance of a wonk.
He is a different kind of progressive.