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2020 Democrats jockey for position in wonk primary

Greg Nash

Democratic presidential hopefuls are rolling out policy proposal after policy proposal in an effort to differentiate themselves in an otherwise crowded primary field.

Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, became the latest candidate to delve into the nitty gritty world of policy on Tuesday, unveiling an immigration proposal that would offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

{mosads}That rollout came a week after Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) revealed an ambitious plan to raise teacher pay by an average of $13,500 nationwide.

With more than 15 candidates now seeking the Democratic nomination, 2020 hopefuls are eyeing such policy proposals as a way to stand out from the pack and curry favor with constituencies whose support will be crucial to the success of their campaigns.

It’s also a way for candidates to signal to voters that they are taking critical issues seriously.

“At the end of the day, policy positions are a proxy for values and the question by voters of: ‘Does this candidate get the problems of people like me?’” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said.

To be sure, broad policy proposals, like “Medicare for all,” have factored prominently into the Democratic primary contest for months.

But the spate of proposals from the likes of Harris, Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) marks an effort by some candidates to break out in a primary field that does not yet have a clear front-runner.

At the same time, others like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) have faced criticism for failing to speak more specifically on policy matters.

{mosads}No candidate in the race has been more prolific when it comes to policy specifics than Warren, who has announced sweeping proposals touching on everything from taxes to agriculture to tech companies.

The focus on policy details is natural for Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor who has long reveled in her reputation as a wonk.

But it has also allowed her to put pressure on other Democratic White House hopefuls to release proposals of their own and draw sharp distinctions from President Trump, Green said.

“There’s really a race to the top on bold progressive issues that are needed to defeat Trump,” Green, whose group has endorsed Warren in the Democratic primary contest, said. “People feel compelled to match Elizabeth Warren on the ideas primary.”

Last week, ahead of a candidate forum in Iowa, Warren announced a plan to dismantle agricultural giants and restrain future mergers. A day later, another 2020 hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register decrying the recent merger of the German drug and chemical company Bayer with agriculture giant Monsanto.

Other Democrats are tackling different policy areas as they look to define their candidacies before their opponents get a chance to.

Harris released one of the most detailed and ambitious proposals of her campaign last week, the plan to raise teacher pay by an average of $13,500 a year nationwide.

The plan, which would carry a $315 billion price tag over 10 years, was by far the most extensive of any Democratic candidate to date.

Harris’s campaign said that the federal government would pay for the increase by “strengthening the estate tax” and closing tax loopholes exploited by the ultrawealthy.

In unveiling the proposal, Harris is looking to court a key voting bloc with enormous political influence. The National Education Association, the union representing public school teachers, is the largest union in the U.S.

The policy could also hold sway with suburban voters, who played a crucial role in delivering Democrats control of the House in 2018 and count education as one of their top issues.

“I think there are a lot of suburban women and men and families who are desperate to address the problems with our education system,” said Navin Nayak, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank and advocacy group.

Nayak rejected the notion that any one policy proposal would help candidates secure certain voting blocs. But he said that by carefully crafting detailed proposals, 2020 hopefuls are signaling that they are serious about tackling critical issues.

“I don’t know that voters get into the minutiae, but they absolutely want to feel like there’s a proposal on the table to solve these problems,” Nayak said.

In fact, he said, those kinds of detailed proposals are expected. Eventually, pressure will build on candidates who haven’t released policy specifics to get moving on plans of their own.

“For most voters there’s no anxiety yet if you haven’t. Most voters are still getting to know these candidates,” Nayak said. “That being said, I think it’ll be very challenging if by the time Iowa caucuses start candidates haven’t put out a set of ideas.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren

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