Yes, the Democratic prez debates will be a circus. But they’re also policy incubators | Fletcher McClellan

Joe Biden campaigns in Pittsburgh (Politico - screen capture)

Debates among candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination begin this week, giving voters the best opportunity so far to compare the platforms and personalities of 20 contenders.

Each candidate will have little time to explain what she or he will do as president. However, voters focused on issues and answers will still be rewarded.

There is a remarkable outpouring of ideas among Democratic hopefuls.

A few examples: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, wants to give every child an interest-bearing savings account at birth. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has a comprehensive program to combat climate change. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running almost solely on his plan to provide a universal basic income.

And almost every Democrat has a version of Medicare for All.

Some candidates are one-stop policy shops. The patron saint of policy nerds everywhere, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, has coined the phrase, “I’ve got a plan for that.” Not to be outdone, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, listed 136 actions she would take in her first 100 days as president.

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Then there is the structural approach that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, is taking. He outlined a “democratic socialist” vision that would address social class differences in economics, politics, and the quality of life.

To be clear, not all contenders are campaigning on solutions. Former Vice President Joe Biden touts his service as President Barack Obama’s right-hand man. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg, who is 37, is running as the catalyst of generational change.

But what stands out in this early stage of the 2020 presidential campaign are the efforts of candidates to market themselves as politicians of substance.

What accounts for this surge of interest in ideas? And where are the ideas coming from?

One obvious reason is tactical. In a field of two dozen presidential candidates (now including former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, of Delaware County), it is a struggle to be heard. Lesser-known contenders stake out specific policy areas to get media attention and attract issue activists.

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Another explanation is that demonstrations of policy expertise are easy ways for Democrats to contrast with President Donald Trump, whose approach to governing has been more instinctual than fact-based, without getting enmeshed in the debate over impeachment.

A third reason is that strong liberals, who are most likely to vote in presidential primaries, want action. Alongside labor unions and other traditional partisans are allies of social crusades such as #NeverAgain, Black Lives Matter, and the Sunrise Movement.

Some candidates are appealing directly for movement support. For example, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), speaking to #MeToo concerns, calls for stronger measures to stop sexual harassment and assault. Responding to waves of teachers’ strikes nationally, US Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) wants to raise teacher salaries by $13,500 over four years.

Fourth, there is a large supply of ideas from which to choose, and not just those that undo Trump policies. The Green New Deal materialized in Congress after the 2018 midterm elections. Warren’s program of “economic patriotism” relies heavily on green manufacturing.

The Democratic majority in the House has passed more than 100 bills, including disclosure of political contributions, universal background checks for gun owners, and civil rights for LGTBQ Americans, many of which are on candidates’ agendas and are likely to remain, given the opposition of the Republican-controlled Senate.

While Washington is paralyzed by divided government, the states are putting innovative policies into effect. For instance, eleven states are implementing free college tuition programs, a centerpiece of Sanders’ platform.

It is reasonable to ask whether voters should pay attention to what politicians say. Do public officials take campaign promises seriously, or do they forget them once elections are over?

Believe it or not, political science research shows that presidents try to keep their promises, making good-faith efforts to fulfill an average of two-thirds of their pledges.

Many notable presidential initiatives originated during election campaigns. Ronald Reagan sold supply-side economics, Bill Clinton proposed AmeriCorps, and George W. Bush advocated No Child Left Behind. Trump promoted a border wall, a promise unrealized but not for want of trying.

Of course, not all new campaign ideas are good or popular, and many will never see the light of day. If you prefer free market approaches to solving social problems, for example, the Democratic debates are likely to disappoint you.

Regardless, leave it to the political reporters, flacks, and pundits to look for the zingers, gaffes, winners, and losers from the presidential debates.

Follow a different course. As you watch, try asking yourself which candidate has the best ideas for the country.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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