Senator Elizabeth Warren was on a roll. Halfway through an MSNBC town hall appearance in Indiana on Wednesday night, she had wowed the friendly crowd with a bold and tantalizing list of campaign promises — from providing affordable child care and college to everyone, to creating more than 1 million manufacturing jobs by investing in clean energy.
Then, some of the voters in the audience provided a reality check.
“The thing is, we get everybody promising manufacturing is coming back,” Frank Staples, a 2016 Bernie Sanders supporter, told her. “We get [people] promising all this stuff, and it never happens.”
Another voter, referencing Warren’s proposed multimillionaires tax to fund much of her agenda, declared bluntly: “I just don’t see it happening.” Warren tried to defuse the skepticism by vowing to create a “grass-roots movement,” but moderator Chris Hayes pushed back.
“You’ve got a website full of plans that might pencil out and people might like,” Hayes said, “but in what universe are those going to be passed?”
That is the uncomfortable question hanging over all the Democrats vying for the presidency, many of whom, like Warren, are pushing the most ambitious policy platforms seen in decades: packing the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, making college and health care free, and fully transitioning to carbon-neutral energy.
“The time for small ideas is over!” Warren declared to thunderous applause last weekend at the California Democratic Convention.
Less discussed on the campaign trail is the Herculean political maneuvering it would take to enact and pay for these bold ideas in an era of soaring budget deficits and increasing political gridlock. Abolishing the Electoral College, for example, would probably require two-thirds of the House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and three-fourths of the states to agree to amend the Constitution.
In a sharply divided Washington that barely managed the most basic function of funding the federal government this year, some of these aims look aspirational to the point of delusional.
But political analysts say the big ideas reflect voters’ very dissatisfaction with Washington and its dysfunction. The rising rates of wealth inequality following the 2008 financial crisis — and Americans’ sense that the political system favors large corporations over average citizens — have pushed almost every candidate to grapple with more populist and transformational policies.
“Democrats have spent decades afraid of their shadows, afraid to offer real solutions to our nation’s problems,” said Rebecca Katz, a longtime Democratic political consultant who worked on Cynthia Nixon’s unsuccessful bid last year for New York governor. “Now we have how many leading contenders for president who have signed up for a Green New Deal? How many are now for Medicare for All? The window has shifted dramatically to the left.”
That pressure to tackle big, structural problems in the economy and government is being felt across the board, with Democrats floating the boldest, most sweeping ideas in a heated game of one-upmanship that occupies the very heart of the race. Presidential campaigns often feature an “ideas candidate” or two who push the field to embrace bolder policy proposals but don’t generally emerge as a mainstream choice. But this year, spouting big ideas is the norm, not the exception.
“I’m not so naive as to say everyone is going to sound just like Elizabeth Warren, but they’re all asking these questions,” said Felicia Wong, president of the liberal Roosevelt Institute think tank.
This crop of Democrats is not the first to ignore political reality when dreaming up unorthodox campaign promises to capture voters’ imaginations. President Trump mastered the strategy in 2016, vowing to build a giant concrete wall along the US-Mexico border that he dubiously claimed Mexico would pay for and promising to block Muslims from entering the country entirely, despite serious questions about the constitutionality of such a move.
“I think Trump himself has widened the aperture of discourse,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank that generated many policy ideas for the Obama administration. “He’s pointed to how the debate in Washington has been too constrained for too long.”
Trump’s embrace of a massive tax cut that swelled the national debt has also freed Democrats from the constraints of explaining how they would pay for every new policy they tout. Democrats could roll back these tax cuts in order to pay for new programs.
“I think Trump’s tax cut gives us $1.7 trillion to use on something else,” former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean said.
Sanders, the Vermont senator, started the trend among Democrats toward bolder proposals in the 2016 primary, with the audacious ideas of free college and health care that were miles beyond the more modest proposals emanating from Barack Obama’s White House.
“He has done more than anyone in the Democratic Party to expand the imagination of what is possible,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, cochair of Sanders’s campaign. “I think he’s very pleased that the campaign is now about big ideas.”
In this election cycle, no one has been more aggressive in the policy arms race than Warren. She has picked up Sanders’s mantle, but surpasses him in both specificity and volume. She’s churned out proposals to cancel most student debt entirely, create a new federal agency focused on job creation, and fund a national network of child care centers to bring down day care costs, all paid for by her most audacious proposal of all — taxing the assets of “freeloading” multimillionaires and billionaires.
“The difference between Warren and Bernie is Bernie has ideas and Warren has plans,” Katz said. “And she has plans to accomplish her plans.”
Among other candidates, Senator Kamala Harris has embraced Medicare for All and a massive teacher pay raise, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has suggested expanding the Supreme Court, and Jay Inslee has laid out the most ambitious climate change targets of any Democratic contender.
But these candidates are proposing sea changes in government at a time when Washington has never been more partisan and dysfunctional. A quarter of the federal government shuttered for its longest stretch ever this year, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who blocked much of Obama’s agenda, has barely moved any legislation since Democrats took control of the House this year, a preview of his likely strategy if a Democrat wins in 2020.
If Republicans retain the Senate majority in 2020, it’s hard to imagine these liberal policies becoming law, which means candidates risk disappointing and alienating supporters lured by those big ideas.
“The failure to deliver on promises and the reality of political gridlock on Capitol Hill these days is one of the reasons why anger against politicians is so high,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to former US senator and Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.
At a recent Warren rally in Oakland, several of her supporters said they see her policy proposals as a statement of her values, not a precise and ironclad list of what she would accomplish in the White House.
“She’s not taking a piecemeal approach to policy making. She’s like, ‘We need to fix these big problems now,’ ” said Jamal Johnson, a graduate student in the Bay Area. “I think that’s a good bargaining position.”
And Warren builds in the difficulty her agenda would face into her campaign slogan: “Dream Big, Fight Hard.” She is one of just a few candidates to endorse elimination of the filibuster in the Senate, which would mean legislation would only need the support of 50, not 60, senators to move forward.
Still, the Democratic candidate leading the early polls, Joe Biden, has largely avoided making similar promises. His high name recognition means he doesn’t need big ideas to draw attention, but his support so far also raises questions about how hungry the electorate is for promises of transformational change in a year when the main objective of so many Democrats is to simply unseat Trump.
Although Biden unveiled a sweeping climate change plan Tuesday, he’s otherwise sat out the heated policy primary and instead emphasized the need to find common ground with Republicans. That reflects the view among about two-thirds of Democratic primary voters in a recent CNN poll, who said it was very important to them to have the president work across the aisle.
“The design of our system is that we have to reach consensus on everything,” Biden said in Concord, N.H., Tuesday night.
Some of Biden’s supporters are attracted to his vision of moderate bipartisanship.
“He’s not making outlandish promises that we know can’t be fulfilled, but he cares about people,” said Dr. Don Levi, a retired pediatrician who went to see Biden campaign in Nashua last month.
Other Democrats said they feel so unsettled by having Trump in the White House that they’d rather defeat him before weighing major policy changes.
“We’re in a car crash. Not the time to buy a new house,” said Mindy Musumeci, another Biden fan who joined him on the trail in Nashua.
But Biden is making his own promise to voters, one that may be the most dubious of all: that simply by replacing Trump, as Biden told a group of New Hampshire supporters in May, he would be able to get a Democratic agenda passed.
“With Donald Trump out of the White House, you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” Biden said.