Liberal Democratic presidential contenders’ rush to embrace the left’s most ambitious proposals has some Democrats worried there could be a price to pay when they try to defeat President Donald Trump next year.
Party activists have been energized as Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and other candidates endorsed plans to provide Medicare coverage to every American, some form of tuition-free college, a national $15 minimum wage and the so-called “Green New Deal” advocated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But Trump and his allies in the Republican Party have seized on those stances to attack the Democratic 2020 field as outside the American political mainstream — a claim the president plans to make throughout his re-election campaign, according to sources with knowledge of his strategy.
Some Democrats fear the argument has potency. They worry the primary may produce a nominee who will not appeal to centrist working and middle-class voters who voted for Trump in 2016 but whom Democrats believe they can win back.
“The big progressive programs are popular in a caucus or primary electorate, but probably don’t move the needle among voters who want to find someone who will change Washington by tilting the system to favor people in the middle — not the very rich or the very poor,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democrat who worked for former President Barack Obama’s campaign.
His last Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, was widely known to the voting public before her campaign. This time, Trump may face someone new to the national stage, and he is looking to brand that candidate before she or he emerges as the nominee.
In recent speeches, including his State of the Union address and again this week in Florida, a key 2020 battleground, Trump used the crisis in Venezuela to equate Democrats with socialists.
“There’s no question this is a deliberate strategy on his part,” said Matt Bennett, a political analyst with Third Way, a Democratic centrist think-tank. “It is a bit scary to think about what it could do to us in a close, tough election next year.”
Democrats have already seen the risks of catering to progressives.
Senators Booker of New Jersey, Harris of California, Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts almost immediately backed Ocasio-Cortez’s push earlier this month for the Green New Deal, a sweeping 10-year blueprint for combating climate change that involves reducing carbon emissions and retrofitting infrastructure.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist who announced this week he is running for president a second time, plans to introduce his own version of the climate plan.
Ocasio-Cortez, who has enjoyed disproportionate influence for a first-term congresswoman because of her social media presence, was forced to backtrack when an information sheet contained policy goals not in the plan, including doing away with nuclear power and airplanes and providing income to Americans “unwilling to work.”
That didn’t stop Trump and other Republicans from treating those goals as fact, suggesting that Democrats want to destroy air travel and expand the welfare rolls.
Republicans also jumped on Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to hike the marginal tax rate to 70 percent as a way to finance her environmental initiative. Even so, Warren followed by suggesting a “wealth tax” on Americans with large fortunes to help finance her child-care plan.
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