In the last week alone, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren released trillion dollar-plus climate change plans, while Jay Inslee added to his voluminous set of tracts on the issue.
Julián Castro unveiled a wide-ranging proposal to address “overaggressive” policing, Beto O’Rourke produced a raft of government and electoral reforms and Cory Booker unfurled a housing plan heavy on land use, estate tax and federal grant rules.
In a presidential primary system that doesn’t always reward substantive policy debates, the 2020 contest is beginning to stand out for featuring an unlikely renaissance of ideas. Twelve hours rarely passes without a candidate offering some new plan.
“Right now, the primary is an ideas contest,” R.L. Miller, founder of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, said. “Jay Inslee’s policies are getting talked about, even if he himself is not rising much in the polls. Kamala Harris is putting out some very bread and butter, kitchen table policies. One of the ways in which candidates stand out right now … is to write smart, compelling policies. And that’s why every day or so it seems like another candidate has released another policy.”
One reason for the rush of policy proposals is Warren, the Massachusetts senator whose popularity has inched up alongside her focus on churning out detailed policy plans. It’s even created a fundraising opportunity for her campaign: the sale of “Warren Has a Plan for That” T-shirts.
“Now the others are saying, ‘I’ve got to get me some positions, too,’” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
But broader forces are at work, as well. Never before has a presidential primary opened with an incumbent president who is as loathed by Democrats as is Donald Trump — or who has so dramatically altered the policy landscape on issues ranging from climate change and health care to immigration and trade. At the same time, the president is famously disinterested in policy details.
For brooding Democrats, the primary field’s position papers are an emotional refuge — this summer’s dreamy must reads.
“I think that what is happening is the voters are taking the policy proposals as visions of hope after the 2½ years of Trump, where everything has been so negative, so horrific,” Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said. “Voters are starving for some positive, hopeful, aspirational things to look forward to.”
Doug Herman, a California-based Democratic strategist, put it this way: “If you’re looking at the plans as a solution, then today is dystopia and tomorrow is utopia.”
The yearning for changed policies in the White House — regardless of the Democrat shouldering them — is so acute that when 14 presidential contenders traveled to California recently for the Democratic State Convention, supporters of Bernie Sanders and Warren temporarily suspended rival demonstrations to join together in a chant for "Medicare for All."
For candidates still introducing themselves to voters, the substance of a plan can carry significant political weight. Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate proposal served to blunt some criticism from the party’s left flank, though it inadvertently drew unfavorable attention when it appeared to include passages copied from existing documents.
Harris, a California senator, has used policy proposals involving teacher pay and maternal mortality to reinforce her credentials as an advocate for working people and women — especially women of color. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota put infrastructure investment at the center of her campaign with her first major policy proposal. And even long-shot candidates can rely on policy proposals to generate some media attention — as John Delaney received for his climate change proposal and plan to create a national service program for young people.
The sheer multitude of plans is staggering, reflecting both the breadth of the 24-candidate Democratic field and the lack of any one dominant issue within it.
“Obviously the economy’s important,” Miringoff said. “But I don’t think there’s one thing that’s driving the electorate, other than Donald Trump, and there are a lot of things Democrats are interested in.”
How closely voters are scrutinizing the policy proposals they come across is unclear. There is also some risk to laying out detailed proposals because it offers a fixed target in the general election — particularly if it contains controversial elements.
After the midterm elections last year, only 9 percent of Democrats listed policies as reasons for votes they had cast that cycle, with a majority of voters citing partisan concerns instead, according to a Pew Research Center survey from November.
But Democratic voters appear to want their candidates to have plans. And they have frowned on those who are slow to introduce them. O’Rourke, despite once writing a book about legalizing marijuana and espousing specific positions on any number of issues early in his campaign, was widely perceived as light on policy before releasing a robust climate plan in April. He has now released plans, as well, on immigration, reproductive rights, and government and electoral reform — a plan that is divided into three parts with footnotes and nearly 30 key points.
“The one thing you’ll always hear in focus group research is, ‘I want to see the plan,’” Herman said. “But what that translates to in real life is that they want to see you hold up a stack of papers and say, ‘This is my plan.’ Most voters don’t really care what’s in it. They just want to know you have a plan.”
That is a departure from the most recent presidential election, which was defined less by policy than by Trump’s bombast and Hillary Clinton’s emails. Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who worked for Clinton's 2016 campaign, said “policy got lost in the conversation because the current president … wanted to have personality conversations instead of policy conversations.”
Now, Seawright said, “I think the American people are so hungry and thirsty for [policy] that I think it’s the candidate’s job to really feed the electorate’s thirst for a real policy agenda that will have an impact.”
That is, if the interest holds.
Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster, said it is possible that voters next year will be especially interested in policy. But it is also possible the interest is temporary, the function of a “monster of content that has to be filled somehow.”
“There’s so many things spinning around that are part of the game that you have to fill them, and it’s sort of like, let’s do policy now, because there’s only so much viral campaigning or town halls on CNN or door to door in Iowa or New Hampshire or driving in the country,” Maslin said. “I don’t know that the policy push means that’s going to be a crucial criterion that’s going to determine people’s votes next January or February, or whether it will just be one building block on a very complex road.”