Although the midterms are still in front of us, the leading lights of the Democratic party, and its likely presidential frontrunners, are already preparing for the election to follow, with a series of sweeping domestic policy proposals. You can think of these plans as teaser trailers for the 2020 election. Although they don't reveal the entire plot, they offer a sense of the race to come, what the issues will be, and how they are likely to be fought.
As it turns out, the pitch for nearly all of them is fundamentally the same: The government should be larger and spend more money, with debt and deficits an afterthought at best. Bernie Sanders would like to spend more money on Medicare for all, Kirsten Gillibrand on a jobs guarantee, Cory Booker on bonds for children, Kamala Harris on a tax credit—essentially a cash subsidy—for the middle class and working poor.
Taken together, these plans highlight the ways in which, under Trump, Democratic policy ambitions have become emboldened by the Republican party's hypocrisy and carelessness when it comes to the deficit—and in particular by last year's tax law, which, along with both military and domestic spending increases, has helped send annual deficits toward the trillion dollar mark.
The influence of the GOP's shruggie approach to the federal budget is most apparent in Kamala Harris' plan, which would provide up to $6,000 a year in cash benefits to low-income families—a sort of partial universal basic income meant to supplement America's existing welfare state rather than replace it. Harris wants to pay for this new spending by repealing major parts of the GOP tax law.
"Last year, Congress gave a trillion dollars in tax breaks to corporations," Harris recently told The Atlantic. "That money should have gone to American taxpayers who need it instead of handing it over to corporations and the top 1 percent."
Harris, notably, isn't making an argument that the tax law raising the deficit is a bad thing. Instead, she's saying that it raised the deficit in service of the wrong goal. The GOP tax bill, which added $1.5 trillion to the deficit, has provided a convenient excuse for progressive economic policies.
Thanks in large part to the GOP's deficit hypocrisy, Democrats now feel free to propose bigger and bolder economic policy ideas than they have in decades. These are not tepid centrist plans designed to triangulate the parties or cater to some imagined moderate center. Instead, they are blue-sky visions for a significantly more activist government and a substantially larger welfare state.
That is particularly true if you take these plans in combination. At the moment, each of these plans is mostly associated with a single figure (along with Gillibrand, Sanders has offered his own version of a jobs guarantee). But they are not mutually exclusive, and they point toward a sprawling, multi-part vision of all the ways that empowered Democrats might choose to expand the size and scope of the federal government.
This represents a transformation from the 1990s, when Democratic centrists were ascendant and President Bill Clinton famously declared that the era of big government was over. Heading into 2020, Clinton's party has all but announced its intention to bring it back. For most prominent Democrats, whether or not to embrace a bigger role for government is no longer a question.
One of the reasons for this shift is Donald Trump, whose coarse and unconventional approach to the presidency has encouraged a radical mindset in the opposition, both tactically (think: court packing and restaurant harassment) and in terms of policy. Trump's radicalism, the thinking goes, must be countered with a progressive version of the same.
But it's not just a response to Trump. It's also a rejection of the Clintons and their hold on Democratic politics. Many on the left believe Hillary Clinton failed to beat Trump in 2016 in part because she stuck too close to the more moderate approach adopted by her husband. And the emerging deficits-don't-matter consensus is, at least implicitly, a rebuke to Bill Clinton's low-budget-deficit presidency, which the Democratic party's left flank has long regarded as deeply compromised, if not an outright failure.
If there is an exception to this tendency amongst the current crop of likely Democratic contenders, it is Elizabeth Warren, who has rolled out proposals to dramatically increase corporate regulation and oversight, without any direct fiscal cost. But even this is largely a matter of emphasis, intended to gently sidestep the spending argument (for now) rather than to duck it completely.
Democrats may not succeed with all or even most of their agenda, but so far they are encountering precious little effective resistance. If anything, Republicans are working to further advance the cause.
Although the GOP has begun to attempt to counter the Democratic agenda, they have do so by adopting rhetoric that ends up supporting their opponents, offering defenses of Medicare and Obamacare's insurance regulations, signing on to spending bills that accept domestic funding increases in exchange for more money for the military, and promising further waves of tax cuts that would send the deficit spiraling ever higher, and offering additional justification for the Democrats' fiscal expansions in the process. Under Trump, Democrats have become the party of even bigger government—but Republicans have become the party of the big government we already have.