Democrats lurch left on top policies as 2020 primary begins
By STEVE PEOPLES
Tuesday, January 22
NEW YORK (AP) — Democratic presidential contender Julian Castro launched his campaign by pledging support for “Medicare for All,” free universal preschool, a large public investment in renewable energy and two years of free college for all Americans.
That wasn’t enough for some of his party’s most liberal members.
Critics on social media quickly knocked Castro’s plan to provide only two years of free higher education — instead of four — as “half measures,” ”scraps” and “corporate Dem doublespeak.” Aware of the backlash, the former Obama administration Cabinet member clarified his position in an interview days later.
“At least the first two years of college or university or apprenticeship program should be tuition free — and preferably four years,” Castro told The Associated Press. “We’re going to work toward that.”
Welcome to the 2020 presidential primary. Almost no policy is too liberal for Democrats fighting to win over their party’s base, which is demanding a presidential nominee dedicated to pursuing bold action on America’s most pressing challenges.
Among two dozen possible candidates, virtually all have embraced universal health care in one form or another. Some have rallied behind free college, job guarantee programs, a $15 minimum hourly wage and abolishing — or at least reconstituting — the federal agency that enforces immigration laws. While few have outlined detailed proposals to fund their priorities, most would generate new revenue by taxing the rich.
The leftward lurch on top policies carries risks.
President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are betting that voters will ultimately reject the Democratic proposals as extreme. Some GOP leaders cast lesser plans as socialism during the Obama era.
Republican critics are joined by a handful of moderate Democrats, who fear that promises by well-intentioned presidential prospects may create unrealistic expectations with their party’s most passionate voters.
Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican mayor of New York now considering a Democratic presidential bid, recently opined that primary voters might be receptive to a more moderate approach.
“Most Democrats want a middle-of-the-road strategy,” Bloomberg said on ABC’s “The View.” He added: “If you go off on trying to push for something that has no chance of getting done, that we couldn’t possibly pay for, that just takes away from where you can really make progress in helping people that need help today.”
So far, at least, very few presidential prospects are heeding such warnings.
In the 2016 campaign, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was the only presidential contender to support “Medicare for All,” a proposal that would essentially provide free health care coverage to all Americans. This year, it’s hard to find anyone in opposition.
That’s even after one recent study predicted the plan would cost taxpayers more than $32 trillion. Proponents argue that those same taxpayers would save the trillions they currently spend out-of-pocket for their health care.
Lesser-known policies have emerged heading into 2020 as well.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is expected to launch his presidential campaign soon, has sponsored legislation to create a federal jobs guarantee program in several communities across America. The pilot program, which is co-sponsored by fellow 2020ers like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, could ultimately transform the U.S. labor market by providing well-paid government employment with benefits for anyone who wants it.
Critics decry the plan as a step toward socialism.
“Big challenges demand big solutions,” Booker told the AP. “Both Martin Luther King Jr. and President Franklin Roosevelt believed that every American had the right to a job, and that right has only become more important in this age of increasing income inequality, labor market concentration and continued employment discrimination.”
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer supports much of the liberal movement’s new priorities — including Trump’s impeachment — but says the federal jobs guarantee “doesn’t make sense” given the nation’s low employment rate.
“I want the private sector to produce jobs people can live on,” he said in an interview. “A guarantee of government jobs doesn’t make sense.”
Yet Steyer insists that most of his party’s policy priorities — universal health care and free college, among them — are anything but radical.
“The Republicans are an extremist far-right, radical party. When you say we need to moderate to their position, there’s nothing moderate or pragmatic about their position,” said Steyer, who recently backed away from a presidential run, although he’s expected to spend tens of millions of dollars to shape the 2020 debate.
Free college is quickly emerging as a litmus test for Democratic contenders.
Those already on the record backing free tuition at public colleges and universities include former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, Gillibrand, Harris and Warren. Estimates vary for the cost to state and local taxpayers, although Sanders acknowledged it could be $70 billion annually.
Warren seemed to back away from her support for free college during an appearance in Iowa earlier in the month, however. In 2017, she co-sponsored the “College For All Act,” which would have made tuition free at public universities.
Asked in a radio interview whether she supports reducing the cost of college or offering it free, Warren responded: “No, I think this is about reducing the cost.”
It’s unlikely the Democratic Party’s energized base would tolerate any significant shifts to the center on free college — or any of the party’s top issues.
Such populist appeals helped fuel sweeping Democratic victories in last fall’s midterm elections, while producing a new generation of unapologetic Democratic leaders such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is aligned with the democratic socialist movement. And polls repeatedly suggest that voters support proposals for universal health care, free college and free preschool.
“We have seen a dramatic shift in the Democratic Party’s center of gravity,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
To win the next presidential election, the Democratic nominee must embrace “big ideas,” he continued. “Those who deny that are hurting their chances in 2020.”
Meanwhile, Castro, like others in the early 2020 field, says he’s fully committed to a “bold vision” to address the nation’s top policy challenges.
“All Democrats recognize that this is not going to be easy, that to get Medicare for all, for instance, it’s not guaranteed, it’s not going to be easy, it may require along the way there are some compromises,” he said. “But I’m convinced that it’s worth it to go forward.”
King events draw potential Democratic presidential hopefuls
By ELANA SCHOR and MEG KINNARD
Tuesday, January 22
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As Americans commemorated Martin Luther King Jr., Democratic presidential hopefuls fanned out across the country to honor the civil rights leader and make themselves heard on the national stage.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., used the holiday to launch a presidential campaign that, if successful, would make her the first woman and the second black candidate to become president. Former Vice President Joe Biden accepted responsibility for his part in the passage of 1980s legislation that toughened sentences for crack cocaine possession, “a big mistake” because of its damage to the black community.
In a fiery speech in Harlem, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand lashed out at President Donald Trump for inspiring “hate and darkness.” South Carolina, a critical early-voting state in the Democratic primary, hosted two senators expected to seek the White House in 2020: Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg assailed gun violence in remarks at a Washington breakfast celebrating King’s life. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren denounced what she called the systematic suppression of black voters.
While the Democratic field for 2020 is only beginning to take shape, the year that would have marked King’s 90th birthday gives the party’s prominent members a valuable opportunity to address race and draw a contrast between their own views and those of Trump, whose approach to questions of racial justice has sparked criticism from multiple minority groups since he took office.
What Democratic contenders, both those officially in the race and those still mulling campaigns, said Monday while celebrating the King holiday:
Biden atoned for his role in the passage of a crime bill that imposed stiffer sentences on those convicted of crack cocaine possession — a law that has disproportionately affected the black community.
Biden said he hasn’t “always gotten things right,” but has “always tried.” He also spoke about his support for efforts by former President Barack Obama’s administration to reduce crack possession sentences.
Biden was the head of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee when the 1994 crime bill — which is now criticized as having helped create an era of mass incarceration — was passed and signed into law.
“It was a big mistake that was made,” he said. He added: “It’s trapped an entire generation.”
Biden says the crack sentencing guidelines are one example of broader racial injustice in America.
“White America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism,” he said. “And it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”
Bloomberg said far too many U.S. politicians don’t “seem to give a damn” about the victims of gun violence.
Speaking at the same event as Biden, he said many politicians care more about “getting re-elected than saving lives.” He spoke of his own efforts to reduce gun violence, including spending millions of his own fortune to support gun control initiatives.
His speech focused on policies he championed while New York City’s mayor, such as his efforts to improve schools and reduce neighborhood pollution. And he highlighted how he apologized to the fiancee of Sean Bell, a black man who was shot to death by New York police in 2006. At the time Bloomberg was critical of officers who he said used excessive force.
In Boston, Warren called for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to vote for every American.
Warren made the comment after saying “people of color have been systematically denied the most basic of human rights: the right to vote.”
“It would guarantee the right to vote to every American citizen and make sure that that vote is counted. Right now there is no constitutional right,” Warren said. “It would help protect and give us grounds for pushing back when localities undercut the right of people to vote.”
Warren said King’s fight was not just about civil rights, but also about economic rights. She said the road to prosperity is steep and rocky for millions of working people, but is “steeper and rockier for black and brown Americans.”
Warren also criticized the president for the partial government shutdown and responded to Trump’s offer to Democrats on Saturday to open the government.
“If the president wants to negotiate over immigration reform I’m all for it,” she said after the speech. “But open the government and open it now.”
Gillibrand addressed hundreds of African-Americans at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration hosted by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
“We have to have an honest conversation about systemic, institutional and daily individual acts of racism in our country that hold people and families back for generations,” Gillibrand said, citing ongoing disparities for black Americans related to heath care, criminal justice and the economy.
She continued: “White women like me must bear part of this burden and commit to amplifying your voices. We have to join you on the battlefield for justice … If I really care about your family as much as my own, it really is my fight.”
Gillibrand also condemned Trump at length. The president, she said, “has inspired a hate and darkness” that’s tearing the country apart along racial and religious lines.
Speaking in South Carolina, Sanders cited King’s “courage” in opposing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as well as in fighting to end racial inequity.
“Racial equality must be central to combatting economic inequality, if we are going to create a government that works for all of us, and not just the 1 percent,” Sanders said.
Sanders lost South Carolina’s 2016 Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton by more than 40 percentage points. His events in the state signaled that he plans to redouble efforts in South Carolina should he launch a second White House run.
Sanders also spoke of King’s efforts to help workers organize and “change the national priorities,” leaning into what sounded like a campaign message-in-waiting. Among the specific proposals he cited were a federal jobs guarantee, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and universal access to child care.
He also attacked the president, calling him “a racist” and saying he has purposely tried “to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion.”
Sanders avoided answering definitively Monday when asked if he would formally enter the 2020 race. Sanders, one of two independents in the Senate, said he’s still “assessing” his plans and that several already-declared candidates are “friends of mine.”
Booker implored those gathered at South Carolina’s Statehouse to channel their dissatisfaction with the country’s direction into action.
Recalling King’s words on needing to work toward change rather than waiting for it, Booker urged those in the crowd to build on their ancestors’ successes and struggles.
“We are dissatisfied that we live in a society that’s being seduced by celebrity and forgets that substance is more important than celebrity,” Booker said.
Booker and Sanders participated in a morning prayer service before leading a march to the Statehouse.
“We don’t just celebrate King’s holiday,” said Booker, who is African-American. “We recommit ourselves to be agents of change.”
Booker applauded Trump’s decision to visit the King memorial in Washington. “May everyone study his work,” Booker said of King. “This is not a day to criticize other Americans.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence laid a wreath at the memorial and held a moment of silence in a brief visit.
Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of Trump’s nominees, opened the holiday by declaring her bid on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I love my country,” she said when asked what qualifies her for the presidency. “And this is a moment in time that I feel a sense of responsibility to stand up and fight for the best of who we are.”
Harris grew up in Oakland, California, a daughter of parents from Jamaica and India who were active in the civil rights movement.
King, she said, “was aspirational, like our country is aspirational. We know that we’ve not yet reached those ideals, but our strength is that we fight to reach those ideals.”
Harris also cited her years as a prosecutor in asserting: “My entire career has been focused on keeping people safe. It is probably one of the things that motivates me more than anything else.”
The senator plans a formal campaign launch in Oakland in a week.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who attended a King event last week at a Seattle church, was scheduled to appear in overwhelmingly white New Hampshire to address a private fundraiser for the League of Conservation Voters but was delayed. The event aligns with his intention to put climate change at the center of a presidential campaign if he runs.
The juxtaposition highlights the challenges involved in building the diverse coalition necessary to win Democrats’ nomination.
Highly diverse South Carolina and Nevada are getting heavy early attention, but the process still starts with Iowa, which is 91 percent white, and New Hampshire, which is 94 percent white. That all adds up to a balancing act: No one can emerge from a crowded Democratic field without winning a considerable number of non-white voters; but candidates, particularly those who are lesser known, must show some strength in Iowa and New Hampshire or risk not even being around by the time the nominating calendar turns to more diverse states.
Associated Press reporters Brian Slodysko and Juana Summers in Washington, Steve Peoples in New York, and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.
House Democrats bringing new scrutiny to education secretary
By COLLIN BINKLEY
Tuesday, January 22
WASHINGTON (AP) — Wielding control of the House and a new set of investigative powers, Democrats are preparing to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos under the sharpest scrutiny she has seen since taking office.
DeVos has emerged as a common target for Democrats as they take charge of the House and its committees, which carry the authority to issue subpoenas and call hearings. At least four panels are expected to challenge DeVos on her most polarizing policies, among them her overhaul of campus sexual assault rules and her rollback of for-profit college regulations.
“We are going to hold Secretary DeVos accountable for, in so many ways, failing to uphold federal protections for our students,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat leading an appropriations subcommittee that oversees the education budget. “It has to do with hurting student borrowers, protecting predatory for-profit schools and, above all, moving toward privatizing public education.”
House Democrats are increasing scrutiny of several top federal officials, but few have drawn as much attention as DeVos. Along with the appropriations committee, DeVos is likely to see pushback from panels that oversee education, veterans’ affairs and government oversight.
Without control of the Senate, Democrats will have a tough time forcing DeVos’ hand through legislation, but they can press her through subpoenas, hearings and the budgeting process. In contrast, DeVos was called before the House’s education committee just once over the last two years of Republican control.
Much of the new scrutiny will come from Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the education committee, who said he will call DeVos to testify “as often as necessary.”
“We have not been getting answers to most of our questions,” Scott said in an interview, recalling when Democrats were in a minority. “It’s kind of hard to do oversight when they’re not answering our questions.”
Scott is particularly interested in exploring whether the Education Department is allowing states to skirt federal rules requiring them to address achievement gaps between students of different races.
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill countered that DeVos has been responsive to requests for information from Congress and will continue to be.
“She’s ready to work with any member of Congress who wants to rethink education and do better for America’s students,” Hill said.
President Donald Trump has dismissed Democrats’ scrutiny of his administration as nothing more than “harassment.” But Scott said he plans to work with Republicans on his own initiatives, including a push for federal money to update the nation’s aging school buildings.
“The majority has certain powers, but hopefully we would have an ongoing dialogue,” Scott said. “Some of the hearings become spectacles that really don’t add to solving problems.”
Part of the problem for Democrats will be picking their battles. They have opposed DeVos on nearly all of her major initiatives, including her proposed rules on the handling of campus sexual assaults, her support for arming school staff members and her revocation of federal guidance on school discipline.
But DeVos’ greatest opposition could stem from her rollback of rules targeting for-profit colleges. As Trump pursues a broader effort to scale back regulation, she has sought to undo policies that the previous administration crafted to rein in for-profit colleges accused of deceiving students. Among them are the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute chains.
A federal judge blocked DeVos from scrapping a policy that makes it easier for defrauded students to get loans erased. But her department has not enforced a separate rule meant to weed out shoddy for-profit colleges. Most recently, DeVos drew criticism in November when she reinstated an industry accrediting group that federal officials shut down in 2016 over lax oversight.
Scott has already vowed to dig into DeVos’ decision on the accreditor, and he’s joined by several other lawmakers concerned about for-profit college regulation.
Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat chairing the veterans’ affairs committee, plans to hold hearings on the impact of DeVos’ policies on military veterans. Takano said looser oversight has allowed predatory schools to recruit veterans and collect their GI Bill funding while ultimately leaving them with poor job prospects.
He also aims to investigate how for-profit colleges recruit on military bases.
“Where Secretary DeVos has been insidiously effective is in undermining rules and undermining protections for students,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee, said he, too, will conduct rigorous oversight of the Education Department and for-profit colleges, and explore whether DeVos “exposed student borrowers to predatory practices and jeopardized their educational goals.”
There’s also debate among Democrats about how closely to examine potential conflicts of interest within the Education Department. DeVos has hired several former executives from the for-profit college industry, which some Democrats say is ripe for investigation. But Scott said he would rather focus on policies than the people behind them.
“We’ve found a lot of confusion between potential bias and conflict of interest,” Scott said. “So long as they have no financial ties now with the industry, it would be hard to find a conflict of interest.”
Beyond oversight, some House Democrats are optimistic they can reach a deal on the Higher Education Act, a sweeping federal law that governs student financial aid and could be revised to address topics like campus sexual assault and student debt forgiveness.
The law has remained unchanged for a decade, but there’s new interest in renewing the bill in the Senate before the chairman of the education committee, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, retires after 2020.
Democrats also aim to boost money for public schools that serve low-income students and those with disabilities. They’re bracing for a fight if DeVos renews her push to fund vouchers for private schools.
“Ninety percent of our students are in public schools, and they need more resources to succeed,” said Rep. DeLauro, the Connecticut Democrat on the appropriations committee. “We should not be siphoning off taxpayer dollars, which are in demand, to pay for vouchers.”
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