Sweeping plans from 2020 contenders come with trillion-dollar price tags

The Democratic presidential contenders are ready to break the bank with expensive policy proposals that would add trillions of dollars to the deficit if enacted.

The 2020 hopefuls are angling to one-up each other with big policy ideas that would overhaul the U.S. health care system, address climate change and provide free college tuition or erase student debt.

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Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOvernight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate MORE’s “Global Climate Mobilization” plan, hailed by environmental activists as the gold standard, would cost the U.S. government $3 trillion over the next decade.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Four companies reach 0M settlement in opioid lawsuit | Deal opens door to larger settlements | House panel to consider vaping tax | Drug pricing markup tomorrow On The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax MORE’s (Mass.) proposal to eliminate tuition at public colleges and erase existing student debt carries a $1.25 trillion price tag.

And Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Sanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Democratic strategist: Sanders seeking distance from Warren could 'backfire' MORE’s (I-Vt.) “Medicare for All” bill, co-sponsored by four other 2020 Democrats, would require $32 trillion in government spending, according to one study.

The Democrats have proposed a raft of smaller plans as well, such as Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisClinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Poll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Trump declines to participate in Weather Channel 2020 climate change special MORE’s (Calif.) plan to raise teacher pay and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPoll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Trump declines to participate in Weather Channel 2020 climate change special Bennet: Warren 'not being honest about' her 'Medicare for All' plan MORE’s (N.J.) proposal to make rent more affordable through housing credits, both of which reach into the hundreds of billions.

In many cases, the Democrats explain that they'd pay for the plans by rolling back the GOP’s tax cuts, levying new taxes on the wealthiest Americans or eliminating corporate subsidies.

They also argue that the changes they seek will in some cases pay for themselves by lowering the cost of health care, slashing drug prices, creating new green jobs or unlocking private sector investments.

But the torrent of expensive policy proposals has drawn criticism from some Democrats, including several 2020 contenders, who warn that the “massive government expansions” will scare off swing voters. 

And the proposals have provided ammunition to Republicans, who say they will make the case that Democrats are galloping toward socialism. 

“When you poll these issues, they’re initially popular, but when people learn about the price tag, they quickly become unpopular,” said Matt Gorman, a GOP strategist. “It all fits into the broader narrative that Democrats have gone all-in on government intervention and beyond that, socialism.”

Still, the proposals underscore the degree to which both parties have abandoned their concerns about deficit spending.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE had expressed interest in working with Democrats to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, though he has since backtracked. And fiscally conservative groups were irate with the GOP Congress for passing a $1.7 trillion spending package in 2017 that was signed into law by the president.

The federal deficit jumped 38 percent in the first seven months of the current fiscal year, ballooning to $531 billion, well above the previous year's $385 billion mark.

As liberals push to redirect government spending for their own proposals, they say they’ll make the case that Republicans are standing in the way of progress through their own wasteful spending and tax cuts for the wealthy.

“If we hadn’t gone to war in Iraq, if we stop shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars to the Pentagon war machine, if the Bush and Trump tax cuts had never passed, and if we treated taxes as our dues in society, not a burden, we could fund all [these Democratic proposals] and more,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist.

With polls showing health care is a top concern for voters, the Medicare for All proposal has become a flashpoint among Democrats both for its price tag and for the extent to which it would reshape the U.S. economy.

Polls generally find majority support for some version of universal health care coverage and a single-payer system, although support drops dramatically when voters are told that they’d likely have to pay more in taxes. 

“It’s very common with these health care plans that they’re very popular at the bumper sticker level and then become less popular as more details come out,” said Larry Levitt, the senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Sanders is right now the only Democratic contender to go all-in on Medicare for All.

Most other contenders — including those who co-sponsored legislation with him — support multiple pathways to expanding Medicare or incremental movement toward a single-payer system that would allow people to keep their private insurance plans.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Warren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE, the current Democratic front-runner, has made it clear that he does not support Medicare for All, which would cost the government tens of trillions of dollars but would lower payments to hospitals and physicians and eliminate consumer copays, deductibles and premiums.

Several other 2020 contenders have also raised concerns about the cost and scope of Medicare for All. 

“It’s political suicide,” former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyWarren, Yang fight over automation divides experts The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Warren's surge brings new scrutiny to signature wealth tax MORE (Md.) wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. 

On the environment, Democrats are making the case that global warming is an existential crisis and that no cost should be spared to address it.

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But they also say that their green jobs plans will stimulate the economy and rebuild crumbling U.S. infrastructure.

Biden released a plan this week calling for $1.7 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, with trillions more coming from private sector investments. Biden proposes raising that money by repealing the GOP tax cuts and eliminating subsidies to big oil companies.

An analysis for Warren’s campaign conducted by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, estimated her $2 trillion environmental spending plan would add only $100 billion to the deficit.

That estimate accounts for “the stronger economy on government spending and revenues” brought about by tax hikes on companies earnings over $100 million, coupled with the elimination of subsidies for the oil industry.

Inslee’s plan carries the biggest price tag, but the costs include updating U.S. infrastructure, which is a priority for both parties.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocratic strategist: Sanders seeking distance from Warren could 'backfire' These 3 women are defining the race to unseat Trump CBS to Ocasio-Cortez on Sanders support: 'As a woman of color, why back an old white guy?' MORE (D-N.Y.) has pushed the debate further, saying recently that the U.S. must spend $10 trillion to effectively combat climate change.

Republicans say that climate change is low on the list of voter priorities and that Democrats are overplaying their hand on it, particularly in the industrial Midwest and Rust Belt states they’re trying to win back.

“People in the heartland just don’t see climate change as the emergency that Washington does,” said Myron Ebell, who led the environmental transition team for Trump. “They’re much more sensitive to energy costs and often have to drive longer distances to work or rely on pickup trucks or big rigs for work. They’re not looking to disrupt the flow of their lives.”

For now at least, the Democratic proposals are largely markers meant as statements of values.

For instance, Warren’s $1.25 trillion plan to erase all student debt and make public college tuition free would raise money by taxing the 75,000 wealthiest families in the United States, helping stake her claim as a candidate for average Americans who is fighting to level the playing field.

“Assuming Democrats hold the House and win the White House, every proposal to make the country better, more fair and environmentally sustainable will be dead on arrival in the Senate as long as Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump urges GOP to fight for him Senate Dems signal they'll support domestic spending package Trump's top picks for Homeland Security chief are ineligible for job: reports MORE [R-Ky.] is majority leader,” said Tasini.