There’s a long, long way to go before the 2020 presidential campaign draws to a close. Early-round primary voting is still nine months away, and the field of Democratic hopefuls stands at nearly two dozen, with even more contenders poised to enter.
And although the average American is far more engrossed in the final season of Game of Thrones than the preliminary jockeying among presidential aspirants, the campaign goes on. And on.
So just how do a swelling numbers of Democrats convince an inattentive citizenry to turn away from other distractions and pay attention to their political palaver?
Short answer: Nearly all of them are staking out early policy positions on a wide range of issues to burnish a self-flattering political image, before the full-scale campaign onslaught begins in earnest.
It is an approach that is particularly appealing to little-known Democrats fighting an uphill battle, hoping to carve out national recognition and media attention at the expense of the headline-grabbing, big-name candidates.
For example, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) entered the race earlier this month, making a case that his campaign would put jobs in rural America at the forefront of his policy prescriptions.
Similarly, Wayne Messam, the Democratic mayor of Miramar, Florida, joined the campaign trail last month with a video promoting his policy platform of statehood for Puerto Rico and eliminating college student debt.
Another long-shot candidate, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) kicked off his ambitious campaign Sunday, focusing on gun control as his top policy priority.
Even some front-running candidates are trying to gain an early advantage by pointing to their policy ideas as the reason they should be the nominee.
As far back as the 2016 campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) set himself apart by promoting Medicare for All, a policy he still pushes and that many other Democrats have come around to embrace. And his once-radical, outside-the-mainstream call for a $15 minimum wage and tuition-free college are now a part of the Democratic policy orthodoxy.
Perhaps no candidate has turned on the spigot of campaign ideas better than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). As Rolling Stone puts it, “Warren continues to outpace her competitors on policy,” offering up proposals on affordable housing, imposing a wealth tax, introducing free and low-cost childcare, and dismantling Big Tech.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has proposed a system of “baby bonds,” direct federal bond payments to children at birth as a way to close the wealth gap. While, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has introduced legislation, the LIFT Act, that would grant working-class families $500-per-month tax cut to address the rising costs of living.
In all likelihood, none of these campaign themes will be the magic-bullet policy issue that ultimately determines the Democratic nominee. But a candidate has to stand on a soapbox and offer ideas and policies that would appeal to prospective voters.
To be sure, just about every candidate feels it’s imperative to have something meaningful to say about how he or she would address perennial issues like healthcare, standard of living for the middle class, climate change, public education, and immigration.
But unlike past presidential campaign seasons, this time around the Democratic Party is more diverse — some say might even say more divided — than it’s ever been in the past. Reflecting the broad array of personalities, politics and policies that comprise the party, the candidates encompass more gender identities, and racial and ethnic diversity than any national political campaign in history.
Seen from this point of view, these early-season policy ideas are the introductory gambits for candidates to test out on the hustings and in media interviews. Their early campaign messages are aimed to draw support from narrow, targeted slices of the Democratic electorate, in hopes of building a groundswell of broader, national support for their nascent campaigns.
That’s why a week or so ago, there was a flurry of political chatter that forced some of the candidates to talk about reparations. And, before that, the topic du jour was the Green New Deal. Surely, before the campaign runs its full course, other flavor-of-the-moment issues will rise and fall, demanding the sporadic attention of some or all of the Democratic candidates.
Handicapping the Democratic nomination race based on policy ideas, so early in the process, is akin to betting on the outcome of a golf tournament by looking at the Thursday morning leaderboard. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge from the crowded pack.
Consider, for instance, how Beto O’Rourke is running strong in many polls and raising buckets of money for his presidential campaign without issuing clear or specific policy proposals. O’Rourke is the exception that proves the rule because he’s more likable than substantial.
By the same token, take the unusual campaign strategy employed by former Vice President Joe Biden, who has publicly dithered over when — or even if — he will enter the race. If, as expected, he enters later this month, most political observers say he will immediately become the Democratic frontrunner on the strength of his strong ties to the still-popular Obama administration, alliances within the party establishment, and his universal name recognition — without having floated a single policy proposal.
Until primary voters have their say, assessing the best Democrat to take on President Trump based on the current debate over policy ideas is as unreliable a metric as the old saw of voting for the candidate “you’d want to have a beer with.”
The whole point of the candidates spinning out policy proposals, after all, is to identify voters who share their ideals — and who, by extension, like them enough to cast a vote in their favor.