One of the recurring questions of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries is whether the party has lurched too far to the left.
This topic has manifested itself most prominently in the divide between the more progressive candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass) and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), and the relative moderates, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It has largely taken the form of a debate over the merits of Medicare for All, a single-payer health care system that Warren and Sanders support and that Biden and Buttigieg do not.
Warren's rise over the summer, and the persistent strong support for Sanders, have given ammunition to Democrats favoring a sharper turn to the left. But Warren's campaign has faltered following the release of her Medicare for All financing and transition plans. That and the contemporaneous rise of Buttigieg to the primary's top tier have provided grist for the moderates.
Yet the best way to answer the question may require another comparison—not simply between the candidates in today's race, but between the current field and the 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, particularly on the issue of taxes.
Earlier this week, Biden released a proposal to raise a slew of new taxes, mostly on corporations and high earners. He would increase tax rates on capital gains, increase the tax rate for households earning more than $510,000 annually, double the minimum tax rate for multinational corporations, impose a minimum tax on large companies whose tax filings don't show them paying a certain percentage of their earnings, and undo many of the tax cuts included in the 2017 tax law.
Biden's tax hikes would raise about $3.4 trillion over a decade, slightly less than half of the $7 trillion in total tax hikes proposed by Buttigieg. Warren, meanwhile, would raise taxes by at least $26 trillion. Some reports put the figure as high as $30 trillion. Sanders estimates his health care plan alone could cost as much as $40 trillion.
That makes Biden look like a moderate, with a modest tax plan built on more conservative assumptions about the power of certain taxes to raise revenue. And in comparison to the rest of the Democratic field, that's a reasonable way to view his candidacy. Yet as The New York Times reports, Biden's proposed tax hikes are more than double what Hillary Clinton called for during the 2016 campaign.
And the race is far from over. As the Times notes, "It remains possible that Mr. Biden could propose additional spending plans and other new taxes to help pay for them."
As a single metric to determine how far to the left a candidate is on economic policy, total proposed taxation is admittedly imperfect. It doesn't capture regulatory proposals, and it can muddy questions of fiscal responsibility and the desire to reduce deficits and pay for government spending.
Yet it serves as a rough measure of a candidate's desire to expand the size of the federal government, to increase its reach into individual finances and its influence over the wider economy. That's especially true in a race that has been substantially if not wholly defined by a Warren-led policy arms race. It doesn't tell you precisely what a candidate wants to do, but it does offer a sense of how much he or she wants to do.
And it certainly reveals a lot about the party's trajectory, at least when it comes to domestic economic policy. Hillary Clinton may not have been a radical, but in the wake of the Obama administration she arguably pushed the party gently to the left. Four years later, before the campaign is even over, the party's supposed moderates are proposing double or even quadruple the new taxes she proposed. Determining the ideological pendulum swings of a political party is always a difficult task, but if you're trying to answer how far Democrats have moved to the economic left, that may be as good an answer as any.