Democrats Need to Get 2020 Priorities Straight

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We tend to think about presidential nominations in terms of the candidates. But in some ways, they are a sideshow. The real story is how party actors compete and cooperate on policy preferences and priorities. 

Democrats enter the current election cycle quite unified in several policy areas, including immigration, civil rights and other social issues. And it’s not clear that they’ll do much more on foreign affairs and national security than agree that it would be an improvement to have a president who learns his briefing papers and avoids attacking the U.S. intelligence community 

But there seem to be an unusual number of domestic issues where the Democrats have yet to come to a consensus, including areas where new voices in the party have been pushing for more aggressive positioning without necessarily making clear what specific policies that would mean. Among the key areas being discussed are:

  • Big government health care. But how big?: The party consensus has moved from just repairing Republican damage to the Affordable Care Act to introducing reforms — which leaves plenty of room for something new ranging from a new robust public option to various different “Medicare for All” plans. 
  • Soak-the-rich tax plan: At the very least, Democrats are going to advocate for repealing the recent tax cuts, especially those that benefit the wealthy. Beyond that, however, there is a range of possibilities, whether it’s Senator Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax or ideas for new tax brackets for the very wealthy. 
  • Fighting poverty: There are at least five plans out there, with very different approaches.
  • Climate The hot new idea is a “Green New Deal.” Candidates are signing up. But for what? Once again, however, there are a lot of questions to be worked out.
  • Trade: For years, Democrats took pot shots against trade deals on the campaign trail, and then tended to support them when elected, albeit while fighting for labor, climate and social-issue provisions Republicans had no interest in. It’s not clear how President Donald Trump changes that. Trade is more popular than it had been, and bashing the president over his trade wars seems an obvious choice, but are Democratic organized groups comfortable with that shift?
  • Deficits: This one might affect all the others. Since Ronald Reagan, Democrats have been a party of fiscal responsibility. But each of the last three times that Republican presidents replaced a Democrat in the White House, tax cuts (and in some cases spending increases) blew up the federal budget deficit. A lot of Democrats are starting to feel that whatever the best policy is, it’s terrible politics for their party to constantly worry about paying for their priorities while Republicans dump their costs on the next Democratic administration. 

The question of priorities is just as important. One of the ways candidates can stand out is by emphasizing one policy area over others, rather than by finding innovative policy options. Even if Democrats do very well in 2020, they won’t be completing their legislative wish list, since no party does that. So what should they do first? What should they be sure to get to in the first year? 

The fight over policy can take several forms. Sometimes, the party is united, and the big story is how the candidates adopt the consensus. That was the story with health care in 2008, when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards all embraced very similar positions on what eventually became the Affordable Care Act, and agreed that it was their top legislative priority. At the other extreme, sometimes the party is so sharply divided that the nomination process becomes little more than a fight over a policy issue, with the candidates serving as proxies for the issues. Think 1968, when Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War. 

Sometimes, too, the party is unsettled, and the process helps party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press — arrive at a unified position. That’s more or less what happened with Democrats in 2004 over the Iraq War. The explicitly pro-war candidate, Joe Lieberman, fizzled quickly. A candidate running primarily against the war, Howard Dean, thrived during the invisible primary. As a result, the more ambivalent candidates shifted toward an anti-war position, as party actors came to something close to a consensus position. 

When policy is contested within the party, it’s not exactly put up to a vote of all party actors, let alone all primary voters. After all, Lieberman dropped out early and pro-war Democratic voters were out of luck unless they lived in Iowa or New Hampshire. The debate over policy is an iterative, back-and-forth process, in which party actors listen to the relevant experts, as well as party-aligned organized interests that focus on a particular policy area, what they think voters are saying, and more, in hopes of coming to some sort of consensus view. It’s not just a question of taking a vote and the winning faction gets their policy. Instead, things are hashed out in all sorts of ways, with advocates doing everything from attempting to form winning coalitions within the party to trying to convince party actors their position is an electoral winner to simply lobbying candidates to accept their views.

Ideally, the party would eventually agree on all policy questions, including a rank-order of priorities — and then if the party wins the White House and Congressional majorities, it would implement that agenda step by step. In reality, it’s never that simple. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are hierarchical organizations in which national leaders (including a nominee or a president) can tell everyone else what to do. And sometimes, the best course for a party that doesn’t have a consensus position on something can be to fudge it during the campaign or even attempt to duck it altogether — a solution which sometimes cannot be sustained once they are in office.

Again, there’s no guarantee the party will wind up with a clear position on any issue area. And actually enacting those policies is yet another story. But it certainly does matter what policies the party adopts, and that’s what’s really at stake as the Democrats define themselves through their presidential nomination in the 2020 cycle.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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