As the progressive push for big spending grows, so does the Democratic divide on the deficit

Brad Greer working with Scott Conger

by Benjy Sarlin

All across the country, Democratic candidates are sending a message: We’re the party that isn’t afraid to think big. Elect us, they say, and we’ll pursue transformative policies like Medicare for All, free college, and guaranteed jobs.

At the same time, Democratic congressional leaders are sending a parallel message: We’re the party of responsible budgets. Elect us if you’re mad about President Donald Trump racking up trillion-dollar deficits with his gigantic tax cut.

The Democrats’ two messages are increasingly coming into conflict — and some in the party are starting to notice.

“The instinct that some Democrats have, which is born out of a sense of responsibility as the ‘governing’ party, is to explain exactly how you’re going to pay for everything and how it all adds up,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told NBC News. “It puts you at a total disadvantage because you’re already constraining your priorities.”

While the party is united in its disdain for the Republican tax cuts, some on the left are concerned that Democrats are undermining their agenda by branding themselves as fiscal hawks.

Ascendant progressives, with backing from many of the party’s biggest names, are demanding tens of trillions of dollars in new spending. Finding ways to pay for it all won’t be easy and an increasingly vocal minority say Democrats shouldn’t bother. After all, it worked for Trump, didn’t it?


The left’s wish list is headlined by a single-payer health care plan in Congress that two nonpartisan studies, one by the liberal-leaning Urban Institute and one by the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center, each estimate would cost the federal government $32 trillion over 10 years. Supporters argue the plan could reduce overall health care spending by trimming overhead and negotiating lower prices, but it still requires a massive new source of tax revenue.

New proposals on issues like education, jobs, and taxes, all backed by prominent Democrats likely to run for president, add up to trillions more in new spending or tax credits. And if single-payer stalls, more modest tweaks like expanding Obamacare subsidies would still add to the pile.

Reversing the Republican tax cuts can only pay for so much and Senate Democratic leaders already plan to use $1 trillion for their infrastructure plan.

So some are proposing another approach: Just don’t say how you’ll pay for things.

When Schatz put out a plan for debt-free public college earlier this year, which he estimated would cost $950 billion over 10 years, he pointedly declined to name how he’d finance it. If he had his way, more Democrats would do the same, at least until Republicans are willing to accept higher taxes to tackle the debt.

“The basic problem is that Republicans have gotten us to negotiate against ourselves while they spend money like drunken sailors whenever they’re in charge,” Schatz said. “If we’re going to make progress on college affordability, on health care, and on our core values… we shouldn’t be playing their game.”

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