The leftward drift of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates seems to reflect a common frustration within the party’s base: Democrats have simply never dreamed big enough.
Perhaps, lefties suspect, Democratic politicians have been cowed by bad-faith accusations of socialism. Or—worse—they’ve been captured by big-money special interests.
Implicitly or explicitly, a slate of recent books and essays suggests that this was a core failing of the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and others considered to be Democratic moderates. The takeaway: Democrats' inability to implement single-payer, a student-debt jubilee, a Green New Deal or other ideas on the progressive wish list is because of either insufficient political will or impure motives.
But what if the real reason is something else entirely? What if it’s that Democrats have used research and evidence to inform their ideas — just as policymakers are supposed to do?
For most of the past decade or so, the Democratic Party has had a relative monopoly on a valuable political resource — expertis e— as Republican politicians worked to discredit any independent source of accountability whose findings proved inconvenient to their agenda.
If the Congressional Budget Office said Obamacare repeal plans would leave more people uninsured, the CBO must be lying or wrong. If independent forecasters said tax cuts wouldn't pay for themselves, they must be biased or stupid. If scientists predicted that GOP policies would worsen climate change, those scientists must somehow be trying to make a quick buck.
Trust us, Republican officials said: We know better than the experts.
By contrast, Democratic leadership — especially under Barack Obama — was pretty good about trying to achieve progressive goals in efficient, evidence-based ways. Rather than fiats, Democrats relied whenever possible on market-based mechanisms and tweaked incentives.
Exhibit A: the Affordable Care Act, which despite being branded as "socialism" was built upon market-based mechanisms. Exhibit B: efforts to put a price on carbon, rather than wishing away market realities through a vague and sometimes supposedly free Green New Deal.
There were of course political constraints upon what was possible, particularly since Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared that the Republicans' top goal was to make Obama a one-term president. They did this largely by sabotaging or obstructing Obama's proposals (revisit Exhibits A and B, respectively).
The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party watched all this in frustration and lashed out … at Democrats. Reliance on market-based mechanisms was craven "neoliberalism." Clinton's fiscally responsible commitment to paying for her policies was a sign of political cowardice.
Down with technocratic fixes to market failures, up with revolution!
So here we are. A significant contingent of the 2020 candidates is promoting bigger and bolder ideas — yes — but also worse ones. Ones that actual experts clearly played little to no role in crafting, because we know what experts have to say about them.
I'm thinking of proposals such as Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' idea for universal rent control, which would cap rent increases everywhere in the United States at 3%, or 1.5 times the rate of inflation (whichever is higher), regardless of local conditions. This idea seems almost designed to troll economists. Study after study of such policies finds that they result in less available housing, a worse housing stock, reduced mobility and a slate of other unintended consequences.
Or consider Sanders' and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's dueling debt jubilee proposals, which would forgive student loans even for high-income Americans. As experts of varying political persuasions have pointed out, this would be a needlessly expensive giveaway to rich people. (Yes, high-income people have educational debt, too.)
Or, more broadly, the wholesale rejection of any and all fiscal constraints, thanks to a politically convenient but crank economic theory known as "modern monetary theory."
It's fine, I suppose, for a primary to be about the policies Democrats wish they could enact that have little chance of making it through the Senate. Except the problem with these policies isn't just that they're politically infeasible. It's that they're bad. But anyone who points out any weaknesses is accused of not dreaming big enough or being a neoliberal shill.
The far left, in other words, has been taking a page from its opponents' playbook. Experts don't agree with us? Research, evidence and math prove inconvenient? Just trust us, they say. Our plans do everything we say they will.
Now where have we heard that before?
Catherine Rampell’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.
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