When Bernie Sanders went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert a week ago, he took a victory lap for his agenda.
"A few years ago when we said that health care is a right, not a privilege, and that we should create a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system, I was told I'm crazy, it's extreme, I'm a fringe guy," Sanders said. "Seventy percent of the American people, in the last polls I've seen, now support Medicare for all."
He went on to list other issues where he believes he has led the Democratic Party left: advocating a $15 per hour minimum wage, spending on infrastructure, abortion rights.
Sanders may not be solely responsible for these policies taking hold — Democrats have been moving left for years — but he hit on a clear trend that's emerging among Democrats' top presumptive 2020 contenders: They've been putting forward a steady stream of uber-progressive economic policies — some of which would have been unthinkable for mainstream candidates a few presidential cycles ago.
"I think it's pretty clear that Democrats are swinging for the fences right now," said Stephanie Kelton, an economist who served as an economic adviser to Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.
Consider, for example, that when Sanders introduced a single-payer bill in 2013, he had zero co-sponsors. When he introduced it in 2017, there were 16, as NPR's Scott Detrow has noted.
"There's a kind of a nuance or a specificity to the signaling in this round that looks kind of different to me," said Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. "I think there's more kind of checking a box by progressive candidates that they're willing to get outside the box."
A few of those outside-the-box ideas:
And that's just a partial list of the ambitious ideas that potential 2020 contenders are floating. There's also Booker's baby bonds idea, Sanders' Stop BEZOS Act and Gillibrand's proposal to bring banking to post offices, to name a few.
Popular? Maybe. Doable? ... maybe?
Thinking about the logistics of any of these programs may be putting the cart before the horse, because even passing these sorts of policies would likely require a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. Even then, moderate Democrats could easily be hesitant.
So let's be hypothetical and leave aside political possibilities. Given how sweeping any of these proposals are, there are legitimate economic criticisms of many of them. Even left-leaning economists have criticized a $15 minimum wage as too high, for example. A Medicare for all proposal could cost tens of trillions of dollars and would mean overhauling an industry that makes up one-sixth of the U.S. economy. A job guarantee could cripple private-sector businesses.
Bernstein knows many of these criticisms exist, but he isn't worried just yet.
"I would actually caution many of my fellow progressive wonks out there not to immediately reject these ideas because of their technocratic limitations," he said.
What he means by "technocratic limitations" is that in some cases, these policy proposals do not, technically, exist yet. But in his view, that's not necessarily bad.
"It may well be the case — in fact, I'd say it is — that they don't have a clear path from where we are to Medicare for all, or an ambitious guaranteed jobs program," Bernstein said. "But what's important right now is the aspiration that those programs represent in terms of finally trying to really do something about the profound gap between the haves and have-nots in this country."
For her part, Kelton is more bullish on how well some of these policies could work. Unlike many Washington policy wonks, for example, she's not worried about the cost of Medicare for all.
But aside from that, she thinks that putting these policies out there will make them — or even ideas like them — more politically palatable.
"The first step is of course getting them in front of the American people, finding out whether these are things that they actually support," she said. "It's important to put these things on the table and to begin that conversation because, as support builds around them, it can become increasingly difficult for lawmakers to resist acting."
All that said, there's plenty of reason to expect push back from Republicans and moderates, not to mention some economists in either camp.
"All of them strike me as a really bad idea, and I don't like any of them," said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "And I can't even think of any where I'm kind of shrugging my shoulders."
Emerging fault lines
So with a massive field of candidates taking shape, are all likely 2020 Democrats on board with these proposals?
Pshhh. No. Come on.
After all, one of the biggest storylines going into 2020 is a disagreement within the Democratic Party over strategy.
It can be easy to get hyperbolic about it (is there a "Democratic civil war"? Are Dems in disarray?), but there is definitely a question about the best way to win in 2020: aim for the middle and try to pick up disaffected Trump voters and moderates, or energize the left to turn out? (And, importantly, can anyone do both?)
Big-name progressives like Warren and Sanders seem to be bets on the left. And the people we've mentioned here are just a handful of the highest-profile Democrats for 2020, but certainly not all of them.
One thing that connects most of them, pointedly, is that they're sitting senators, so they have the opportunity to introduce high-profile bills right now to position themselves on the left for a 2020 presidential primary.
But potential candidates outside the Senate have been positioning themselves in other ways, some of them seemingly toward the middle. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has been touting his regulatory cuts — something that might endear him to centrists and even some conservatives.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been out pitching his economic ideas. But at a spring think tank event, he "stopped short of pitching some of the more sweeping proposals emanating from the party's left flank," as CNN's Lydia DePillis noted. "Instead, he offered up more mainstream ideas, like providing more federal funding for infrastructure projects and making the tax code less friendly to investors while expanding tax credits for low-income families."
Indeed, Biden hammered that idea home: "I love Bernie, but I'm not Bernie Sanders," he said at the time.
Fortunately for Biden, he (and any other 2020 candidates) have a little over a year to show voters who they are ... if they decide to run.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
With November's midterm elections already a distant memory, Democrats are now shuffling to see who will top their ticket on Election Day in 2020. And a part of that is, of course, testing out new policies. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, some of their economic ideas would have been unthinkable for mainstream candidates just a few elections ago.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Early this month, Bernie Sanders appeared on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he took a victory lap for one of his signature policies.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")
BERNIE SANDERS: A few years ago when we said that we should create a "Medicare for All" single-payer system, I was told I'm crazy, it's extreme, I'm a fringe guy. Seventy percent of the American people in the last polls that I've seen now support "Medicare for All."
KURTZLEBEN: When Sanders introduced a "Medicare for All" bill in 2013, he had zero co-sponsors. In 2017, he had 16, several of them now rumored to be running for president in 2020. And that's part of a bigger trend around Democrats and economic policy.
STEPHANIE KELTON: I think it's pretty clear that Democrats are swinging for the fences right now.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Stephanie Kelton, an economic adviser to Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign. It's not just "Medicare for All." Some of the most prominent 2020 names are backing other sweeping and uber-progressive policy changes. Those include a $15 minimum wage, debt-free college and guaranteed jobs, just to name a handful.
JARED BERNSTEIN: There's a kind of a nuance or a specificity to the signaling in this round that looks kind of different to me.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Jared Bernstein, who served as an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
BERNSTEIN: I think there's more kind of checking a box by progressive candidates that they're willing to get outside the box. Too many boxes in that phrase - but you know what I mean.
KURTZLEBEN: Given how outside the box some of these proposals are, they also draw economic criticisms. For example, even left-leaning economists have said a $15 minimum wage is too high. And a "Medicare for All" program would mean overhauling a huge sector of the economy. Bernstein knows many of these criticisms exist. He even makes some himself. But he stopped short of shutting these policy ideas down completely.
BERNSTEIN: I would actually caution many of my fellow kind of progressive wonks out there not to immediately reject these ideas because of their technocratic limitations.
KURTZLEBEN: Is that a nice way of saying, like, some of these policies aren't - like, they wouldn't work exactly as they are laid out?
BERNSTEIN: It's more that they're not really laid out.
KURTZLEBEN: In other words, he thinks these Democrats have some admirable goals but, in many cases, need to workshop the policies that would get them there. Even enacting these policies is practically impossible in this political environment. But Kelton believes that pitching these ideas now is the first step in a years-long project of building out the safety net.
KELTON: It's important to put these things on the table and to begin that conversation because as support builds around them, it can become increasingly difficult for lawmakers to resist acting.
KURTZLEBEN: There will be plenty of pushback. Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute is skeptical at best of many of these early Democratic economic proposals.
MICHAEL STRAIN: All of them strike me as a really bad idea. Certainly, I don't like any of them. And I can't even think of any where I'm kind of shrugging my shoulders.
KURTZLEBEN: And of course, progressives aren't the only Democrats plotting presidential runs. While people like Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren are staking out the liberal territory, other would-be candidates are differentiating themselves. At a Washington think tank event this spring, former Vice President Joe Biden distanced himself from Sanders' populist rhetoric.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: I love Bernie, but I'm not Bernie Sanders. I don't think 500 billionaires are the reason why we're in trouble.
KURTZLEBEN: Fortunately, all 2020 candidates have a little over a year to show voters what they stand for. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.