Six months before President Obama’s 2012 reelection, his campaign released an online slideshow. It was not an effort that helped him win.
Called “The Life of Julia,” it was an imaginary story complete with slick graphics and digestible talking points designed to illustrate “how President Obama’s policies help one woman over her lifetime — and how Mitt Romney would change her story.”
The timeline showed the mythical Julia growing up, graduating from college, building a business, giving birth, and eventually retiring. For every major milestone, a federally subsidized government program was there to help. Democrats saw Julia as illustrating the promise of a second Obama term under a caring and effective government. Republicans, on the other hand, gleefully discovered a ready-made, cradle-to-grave narrative about the dangers of Big Government.
Romney, the Republican nominee, dismissed the fictional fable as a “little cartoon,” while the editors of National Review called it “creepy,” and one conservative columnist summarized the mockery by asking, “Who the hell is ‘Julia,’ and why am I paying for her whole life?”
Nearly eight years later, not a single 2020 hopeful has waded into a similar digital space. None of the contenders has packaged a platform into easily consumable internet infographics. The sum of all their policies proposals, however, is even more expansive.
Under these plans, with the help of Uncle Sam, Julia could enroll her children in day care for free or at a subsidized rate. She could go to community college or a public four-year university without paying a penny. She could claim a federal tax credit to help with rent. She would enjoy a mandated $15 minimum wage at an entry-level position or compete for the millions of government-created jobs promised by the Green New Deal. And of course, she’d be automatically enrolled in Medicare. What follows is an examination of those promises, and others, along with the costs.
Universal Child Care
Child care is expensive, even more expensive than college tuition in some cases. Families in Massachusetts, the least affordable state for such care, according to one analysis, can expect to pay as much as $34,381 to enroll both an infant and toddler in day care.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren plans on making it free for millions of people. The Massachusetts Democrat is the first 2020 contender to endorse universal child care. She envisions subsidized nurseries in every community, “a network of child care options that would be available to every family.”
It wouldn't be a nanny state, per se. Warren calls for the government to partner with existing services provided by cities, schools, nonprofits, tribes, and faith-based groups. For families making less than 200% the federal poverty line, the care is free. For anyone making more, Warren would cap their costs at no more than 7% of family income.
“In the wealthiest country on the planet,” Warren wrote, “access to affordable and high-quality childcare and early education should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich.”
Who would pay for all this? According to the candidate, everyone whose net worth exceeds $50 million. How much would they be on the line for? According to independent analysis by the Moody’s Corp., $1.7 billion over 10 years.
The average college graduate who walks off stage with a diploma, once advertised as the ticket to the middle class, also leaves campus with student loans, now feared as long-term financial shackles. According to an analysis by industry expert Mark Kantrowitz, the average 2016 graduate owed a whopping $37,172. The Federal Reserve estimated a monthly payment of $393 to service that debt.
Now White House hopefuls promise the same college education without the crushing expense.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed legislation to make community and four-year public colleges free for students from families earning less than $125,000 per year. Warren goes a step farther. She wouldn’t just make tuition free at those same universities, she would have the federal government forgive as much as $50,000 of loans for any graduate earning less than $100,000.
Sanders and Warren aren’t the only Democratic candidates being generous with other people’s money. Three other senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York., have co-sponsored the Debt-Free College Act. Introduced last month, the legislation would create a one-to-one match of federal to state dollars to cover any costs above the “expected family contribution,” a measure of a family’s financial health as calculated by the Department of Education.
Not every candidate is sold on free college, including Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The mayor of South Bend, Ind., told students at Northeastern University earlier this month that making the federal government pay their tuition wasn’t feasible, a sentiment echoed by the Minnesota senator during a Monday night CNN townhall.
Momentum is moving toward debt emancipation, though, and the costs are significant. According to the Warren campaign, for instance, her plan would create a one-time cost of $640 billion, plus another $1.25 trillion over the next 10 years. Here, too, the wealthy are expected to cover the cost.
The political promise of a good job has been eclipsed by the prospect of guaranteed minimum wages and, in some cases, guaranteed income regardless of work.
Sanders has made increasing the minimum wage one of his hallmarks. The self-described Democratic socialist rails against the current federal minimum of $7.25 as “a starvation wage” and authored legislation to more than double it to $15 an hour. When Sanders first introduced the bill in 2015, only five senators added their names as co-sponsors. That number jumped to 30 just four years later, and every Senate Democrat running for president now backs his initiative.
An increased minimum wage pales in comparison to the massive jobs program included in the Green New Deal. Introduced by Sanders acolyte Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it calls for an economic effort to combat climate change no less dramatic than the mobilization for the Second World War.
Also a jobs program, an early GND blueprint released by Ocasio-Cortez’s office promised to put millions of Americans to work overhauling every existing building in the country, rebuilding the national power grid, and jump-starting the clean energy industry. The plan would blaze a path to the middle class for anyone able to follow. It also promised “economic security” for anyone “unable or unwilling to work.”
After the more controversial aspects of her proposal sparked an uproar, Ocasio-Cortez scrapped that blueprint in favor of a non-binding resolution that affirmed the overall spirit but not the specific policy proposals of the Green New Deal.
Aside from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the entire 2020 field has voiced support. Every Senate Democrat running for president endorsed the idea. The remaining mix of governors, mayors, and representatives voiced support for the spirit of the proposal if not the initial specifics.
Their hesitation comes from the cost, which the conservative American Action Forum pegged at $93 trillion. While some candidates shy away from specifics on environmental reform and subsequent economic redistribution, Andrew Yang is more than happy to discuss his plans to give away money. The Silicon Valley progressive wants the federal government to cut a $1,000 check each month to every citizen over 18.
Yang calls it a Freedom Dividend, his brand name for what economists describe as Universal Basic Income. On its face, the annual cost would be around $3 trillion, though Yang insists the spending would be offset by stimulated growth.
More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, only former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has declined to join every major candidate in supporting the establishment of a commission to study possible government reparations to descendants of former slaves. Even Sanders, though initially hesitant to back payments, said that as president he would sign legislation that creates a commission.
The discussion over reparations hinges on what the payments look like, as Harris explained last month in an interview with NPR. Reparations, the California Democrat noted, “mean different things to different people.” For Harris, reparations could mean investing in disadvantaged communities by funding mental health services. For Marianne Williamson, the self-help/spirituality guru, New York Times best-selling author and long shot presidential contender, reparations mean money.
Williamson told CNN in January that $100 billion should be paid in reparations over the next decade in the form of economic stimulus and infrastructure investments. She did not say where the money should come from.
Three presidential hopefuls want to help put a roof over a large portion of the population’s head. Warren introduced legislation last month to address what she describes as “an American housing crisis.” Co-sponsored by her Senate colleague and primary competitor Gillibrand, the Warren bill would spend $445 billion to do two major things.
First, build as many as 3.2 million new housing units for lower-income and middle-class families. Second, provide mortgage assistance to help people who were hurt by the financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Warren touts an analysis by Moody’s that found the bill would be deficit neutral, a balance only achieved by increasing taxes and fees over the next decade.
Harris has her own housing bill but geared it toward those who rent their homes. According to the summary of the bill, which was introduced last year, the Harris plan would create a tax credit for anyone spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Depending on the individual’s income, the government would pick up between 25 and 100 percent of the excess amount spent on rent.
‘Medicare for All’
It was dismissed as a progressive pipe dream four years ago. So-called Medicare for all has since become all but official Democratic orthodoxy in this presidential primary. Eleven stalwarts demand some version of it. Five others -- apostates in their own party -- prefer more modest plans. Sanders is very much the OG of Medicare for all. His plan would offer the most generous benefits and, in theory, would eliminate private health insurance altogether.
“The current debate over Medicare for all really has nothing to do with health care,” he said at a recent news conference announcing the legislation. “It has everything to do with greed and profiteering. It is about whether we continue a dysfunctional system.”
Fixing that system would mean dropping the 8.8 percent uninsured rate to zero and lumping the 155 million Americans who are insured through employer plans with 20 million who have coverage through the individual market, 60 million current Medicare beneficiaries, and tens of millions now without insurance. But the costs, according to both liberal and conservative economists, are staggering.
The libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated last year that an earlier version of the plan would cost $32.6 trillion over 10 years. Gerald Friedman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, put that number at $14 trillion.
Sanders argued that overall spending on health care in the U.S. would drop as a result of his plan even as overall government spending would spike.
How does Sanders plan on paying for it? According to a five-page memo released by the senator’s office, a grab bag of options including a 70% tax on those making above $10 million a year, fees on financial institutions, and a mandatory 4% income-based premium on employees plus a 7.5% income-based premium paid by employers.
In all, the Democrats’ “free stuff” menu is sure to tempt voters in the primaries that begin in nine months. Which of those offerings survive to be placed before the larger electorate in November 2020 is anyone’s guess, as is the ultimate choice voters will make. If a Democrat moves into the White House two months later, the work of fulfilling at least some of these campaign promises will begin. Closing the deal, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate, is sure to be far tougher than selling it was to a receptive base.