WASHINGTON (Circa) — Self-declared socialists are fueling the energy of the Democratic Party, marked by the rise of figures like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the mainstream of the party is embracing their agenda.
Last week, a group of roughly 60 Democrats established a Medicare for All Caucus to rally support for a government-sponsored single-payer health care system, an issue that is fast becoming a priority for almost every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia unveiled a plan for debt-free higher education and free tuition for two-year community colleges. The bill stopped short of more far-reaching proposals for free in-state college tuition, with the authors explaining they wanted to keep the plan "within a reasonable budget."
As the November midterms approach, the mainstream of the party is championing economic-populist policies that will shift the cost of services, like health and education, from individuals to the federal government.
According to recent polls, the majority of Americans support proposals for universal health care, free college tuition and an increasing number (46 percent) support the idea of a government job guarantee.
The policies may be popular, but the cost and potential size of the new federal programs have raised doubts about whether the agenda is feasible or if politicians are adopting the message to rally Democratic turnout in November.
"Each and every Democrat is serious about our agenda," insisted Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a member of the Progressive Caucus running to replace Rep. Joe Crowley of New York as the next Democratic Caucus Chair.
"When you talk about universal, accessible health care, debt-free college education, good paying jobs, the living wage, a better standard of living, that's a serious agenda, it's not just messaging," she told Circa.
Still, there is a difference between advocating policies and enacting them, especially when it comes to paying for the programs.
Universal health care is probably the best-studied proposal after Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, popularized the idea during the 2016 presidential race.
According to Sanders' own analysis, the program would cost $14 trillion over ten years and would be paid for through a higher income tax and higher taxes on employers and the wealthy. Other analysis estimated the cost of the Medicare for All proposal was above $34 trillion.
However, there is a reason many politicians who campaign on universal health care typically abandon the idea after taking office, explained Sally Pipes, president and CEO of the conservative Pacific Research Institute.
"Many Democrats have walked back their enthusiasm for single-payer after getting a look at the just how much public money they'd have to come up with," she said, citing state lawmakers in North Carolina, Vermont and California who canceled their programs before they were implemented. "That's because single-payer is cost-prohibitive."
There are similar problems with tuition-free college and proposals for a government-guaranteed job and minimum salary.
Sponsors of the new House bill to provide free two-year community college don't yet have an estimate of how much it will cost or how it will be paid for. During a press conference, Rep. Scott acknowledged it will be expensive but added, "I can guarantee you it'll be a lot less than the tax cut."
That may be a salient point for some voters, explained Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
In past elections, Harkins said he would have dismissed the socialist-inspired policies as electioneering but otherwise impossible to implement from a fiscal standpoint. "But in the last year we’ve watched Congress do two things that fiscally don’t make sense and the public doesn’t seem to care," he said.
Between the Republican Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the two-year budget agreement, Congress added roughly $2 trillion to the federal debt in the past year and set a course for trillion-dollar deficits beginning in 2019 and continuing for the foreseeable future.
"I haven’t seen the pitchforks yet," Harkins noted.
Given voters' apparent lack of concern about the federal debt, "it's not impossible" for Democrats to advance an agenda that would almost certainly add another couple trillion dollars to the debt over the next decade, he added.
Politically, even if Democrats win back the House in November, the Senate and President Donald Trump could still reject a far-left agenda, implying some political posturing on the issues.
"It sets the stage for 2020, to be blunt," Chairman of the House Progressives, Rep. Raul Grijalva told Circa. "So it won't become the law we want it to become, but it certainly sets the expectation and the template for...what is doable."
Republicans, particularly President Trump, have seized on the Democrats' shift to the left as a vulnerability. In endorsing Republicans in competitive races, Trump has blasted their Democratic opponents as "weak" on crime and border security and tied them to Nancy Pelosi and other polarizing figures in the party.
Other conservatives and some moderate Democrats have warned against a radical shift to the left as a response to President Trump, saying they risk losing the centrist vote, which has traditionally made the difference between a party winning or losing the majority.
Recently, former FBI Director James Comey pleaded, "Democrats, please, please don’t lose your minds and rush to the socialist left. This president and his Republican Party are counting on you to do exactly that."
A former aide to President Barack Obama replied, "No one is asking for your advice."
Democrats, please, please don’t lose your minds and rush to the socialist left. This president and his Republican Party are counting on you to do exactly that. America’s great middle wants sensible, balanced, ethical leadership.— James Comey (@Comey) July 22, 2018
Conservative commentator and author of "How the Modern Liberal Thinks," Evan Sayet argued that Democrats could face a backlash in 2018 by putting up candidates that are too liberal.
"A lot of Americans don't embrace the socialism of the left," he said. "It's the story of the frog in boiling water. They may have turned it up so high and so quickly that they jump."
Washington State Democrat Pramila Jayapal disagreed, citing Progressive Caucus polling conducted across 30 swing districts.
"That just really doesn't play out in the polling and policies that we look at," she said. "We found independents, just like progressive surge voters, want bold change in our economy. They don't want incremental change."
Asked if she was concerned about losing the traditional center of the electorate, Jayapal noted, "The country's in a different place."
As some incumbents face serious challenges from the left, like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein who was snubbed by the state party as too centrist, other Democrats said they will continue to fight for the center.
"The big middle needs to be addressed. It's been ignored by the leadership for too long," said New York Rep. Paul Tonko.
Striking a less absolutist tone on the party's national agenda, he noted, "We'll modify as we go forward. Building by consensus is what it's about here."
In order to win back the majority in the House in November, Democrats need to hold all of their 194 seats and flip at least 24 Republican-held districts.
In the Senate, Democrats face a bigger challenge with ten incumbents running in states that voted for Trump in 2016.