Andrew Yang departed the Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, taking with him his math pin and business casual debate wardrobe and also one of the more intriguing ideas a Democrat put forward: universal basic income.
With it, the Democrats’ ideas primary, once a vibrant discussion about how to improve the country, is, essentially, over. Democrats have settled on health care and, to a lesser extent, college affordability, as their main social programs. The party is united on addressing climate change, but they’ll square off against a party led by Donald Trump, who wants to focus on American fossil fuel production.
Progressive proposals pushed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who got the most votes in both Iowa and New Hampshire, are seemingly nonstarters in Washington, certainly with a Republican-controlled Senate and probably even with a slim Democratic majority.
There may not be support for the half-measure public health insurance option pushed by more moderate Democrats, much less a root-and-branch remaking of a government-run health care system Sanders champions. Free public college, similarly, would be very difficult to enact.
What’s in the middle lane?
Other candidates doing well in primaries, like former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are not associated with transformational ideas so much as their moderation. Klobuchar has an infrastructure plan. So does Trump.
Those feel almost small compared to Yang’s radical proposal to give every American a paycheck. That wasn’t the only wild idea we heard this year.
Yang’s exit, after getting less than 3% in New Hampshire, came after the departure of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the climate candidate; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who pushed for baby bonds; author Marianne Williamson and her ideas about spreading love;
Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro had proposals to deal with poverty and, notably, wanted to decriminalize border crossings, a 180-degree departure from the current President, who wants to build a wall. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, after a mass shooting in his home town of El Paso, proposed taking certain guns from Americans to deal with the gun violence epidemic.
Yang’s big idea
But none were as tied to a specific proposal as Yang, a political neophyte. He owed his phenomenal popularity to his embrace of universal basic income. He called it a “freedom dividend” and it has been proposed by scholars before, but Yang took UBI mainstream – or as mainstream as the Democratic debate stage would let him.
The idea is that every adult American should get a $1,000 per month paycheck, regardless of their wealth or income. It would de-stigmatize government assistance while at the same time creating a new safety net and also addressing the growing problems of income inequality.
One of the smartest ideas that never quite caught fire was Booker’s proposal for “baby bonds.” The government would give every American child a nest egg to use on college or a business. It would be a way of addressing a generational wealth gap that has disproportionately kept African Americans back in the US economy. But by giving the benefit to every American, it would address inequality throughout the country.
Booker, who also pushed criminal justice reform proposals, pitched a universal jobs program pilot, dropped out of the race January 13, without really having gotten a look by voters, at least according to opinion polls. His support for a commission to study reparations is shared by Sanders and Warren, among other candidates.
The biggest idea generator of the race is still campaigning. Elizabeth Warren had a respectable showing in Iowa and a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire. Both were disappointments for a candidate who bragged about having a plan for everything, but has seen some buzz for her campaign fade before the primaries began.
She brought the idea of a transformational wealth tax into the primary and said it could pay for her many many proposals, like free college and child care. Sanders now has his own version of a tax on the wealthy to pay for his programs, although the math seems fuzzy. Sanders would still tax income. Warren wanted to tax the actual wealth of the super rich.
Warren could still rebound, but she’s not currently in the top tier of the race at the moment. One turning point for her came when she was unable or unwilling to explain how she’d pay for a Medicare for All proposal first pushed by Sanders. She didn’t want to admit she’d have to raise taxes to get it done, instead arguing that lower premiums would offset any tax hikes.
Sanders has a lot of policies proposals similar to Warren’s and he rightly still gets credit for the Medicare for All proposal. Health care is a motivating issue for Democrats.
In exit polls, 37% of New Hampshire primary voters said health care was their top issue. And Sanders won those voters. But he only got 31% of them.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who both made very clear during the campaign that they opposed Medicare for All because it would completely replace the private insurance system, combined for 43% of the voters who said health care was their top issue. That suggests the party is extremely split on Sanders’ top proposal.
There are, however, strong majorities of Democratic primary voters who favor a government plan for all instead of private insurance (60% in exit polls) and free tuition at public colleges (68%).
But that means a lot of the Democratic voters supported a candidate like Buttigieg or Klobuchar, both of whom oppose these big ideas. And if Democrats cannot unite behind a proposal, that means it is very unlikely to pass a US Senate currently controlled by Republicans. It’s an important thing to remember when picking a presidential candidate that big ideas are always very hard to actually make happen.