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With November's midterm elections already a distant memory, Democrats are now shuffling to see who will top their ticket on Election Day in 2020. And a part of that is, of course, testing out new policies. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, some of their economic ideas would have been unthinkable for mainstream candidates just a few elections ago.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Early this month, Bernie Sanders appeared on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he took a victory lap for one of his signature policies.
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BERNIE SANDERS: A few years ago when we said that we should create a "Medicare for All" single-payer system, I was told I'm crazy, it's extreme, I'm a fringe guy. Seventy percent of the American people in the last polls that I've seen now support "Medicare for All."
KURTZLEBEN: When Sanders introduced a "Medicare for All" bill in 2013, he had zero co-sponsors. In 2017, he had 16, several of them now rumored to be running for president in 2020. And that's part of a bigger trend around Democrats and economic policy.
STEPHANIE KELTON: I think it's pretty clear that Democrats are swinging for the fences right now.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Stephanie Kelton, an economic adviser to Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign. It's not just "Medicare for All." Some of the most prominent 2020 names are backing other sweeping and uber-progressive policy changes. Those include a $15 minimum wage, debt-free college and guaranteed jobs, just to name a handful.
JARED BERNSTEIN: There's a kind of a nuance or a specificity to the signaling in this round that looks kind of different to me.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Jared Bernstein, who served as an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
BERNSTEIN: I think there's more kind of checking a box by progressive candidates that they're willing to get outside the box. Too many boxes in that phrase - but you know what I mean.
KURTZLEBEN: Given how outside the box some of these proposals are, they also draw economic criticisms. For example, even left-leaning economists have said a $15 minimum wage is too high. And a "Medicare for All" program would mean overhauling a huge sector of the economy. Bernstein knows many of these criticisms exist. He even makes some himself. But he stopped short of shutting these policy ideas down completely.
BERNSTEIN: I would actually caution many of my fellow kind of progressive wonks out there not to immediately reject these ideas because of their technocratic limitations.
KURTZLEBEN: Is that a nice way of saying, like, some of these policies aren't - like, they wouldn't work exactly as they are laid out?
BERNSTEIN: It's more that they're not really laid out.
KURTZLEBEN: In other words, he thinks these Democrats have some admirable goals but, in many cases, need to workshop the policies that would get them there. Even enacting these policies is practically impossible in this political environment. But Kelton believes that pitching these ideas now is the first step in a years-long project of building out the safety net.
KELTON: It's important to put these things on the table and to begin that conversation because as support builds around them, it can become increasingly difficult for lawmakers to resist acting.
KURTZLEBEN: There will be plenty of pushback. Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute is skeptical at best of many of these early Democratic economic proposals.
MICHAEL STRAIN: All of them strike me as a really bad idea. Certainly, I don't like any of them. And I can't even think of any where I'm kind of shrugging my shoulders.
KURTZLEBEN: And of course, progressives aren't the only Democrats plotting presidential runs. While people like Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren are staking out the liberal territory, other would-be candidates are differentiating themselves. At a Washington think tank event this spring, former Vice President Joe Biden distanced himself from Sanders' populist rhetoric.
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JOE BIDEN: I love Bernie, but I'm not Bernie Sanders. I don't think 500 billionaires are the reason why we're in trouble.
KURTZLEBEN: Fortunately, all 2020 candidates have a little over a year to show voters what they stand for. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.