Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been serving in the House for years, but it wasn’t until this year, as she eyes the White House, that she signed onto a resolution that envisions reparations to black Americans for the legacy of slavery.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke watched for years as fencing divided his home city of El Paso from Mexico, but it wasn’t until he was taking on President Trump — and as illegal immigration soared in El Paso — that he suggested it might be time to tear it down.
Businessman Andrew Yang, meanwhile, carved out a niche all his own this week, embracing a push to end male circumcision.
“I’m highly aligned with the intactivists,” Mr. Yang told The Daily Beast, having some fun with world play. “History will prove them even more correct.”
Emboldened by the 2018 midterm elections, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is demanding its 2020 presidential candidates embrace their most aggressive ideas for social change — and many of the candidates have complied.
Darrell M. West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said progressives have earned greater influence after helping power Democrats’ massive gains in House seats in the 2018 elections, and their agenda now dominates the party’s debate.
“That offers opportunities in terms of voter mobilization and campaign energy, but risks moving the party out of the political mainstream,” he said. “Much of the electorate still is in the middle, so the party has to be careful not to move too far to the left.”
For the candidates already in the 2020 presidential race, though, there’s little sense that any brake-pumping is coming.
This week alone, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced for the first time that she wants to scrap the Electoral College.
Sen. Cory Booker softened his opposition to ending the filibuster, catering to liberal activists eager to win the White House, snare control of the Senate and push through major changes such as universal government-sponsored health care and tuition-free college.
Abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, decriminalizing prostitution and embracing a Green New Deal also have been kicked around by the candidates, all of whom are trying to entice various demographics of the sprawling Democratic coalition.
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel this month warned that some of the proposals play into the hands of Mr. Trump, who has painted the Democratic field as a bunch of socialists.
“Earth to Democrats: Republicans are telling you something when they gleefully schedule votes on proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all and a 70 percent marginal tax rate,” Mr. Emanuel, a former congressman who served in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses, wrote in the Atlantic. “When they’re more eager to vote on the Democratic agenda than we are, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we’re inadvertently letting the political battle play out on their turf rather than our own.”
Others are more optimistic, saying the way some candidates have rushed to the left has helped define a debate that will play out in the marathon nomination race.
“The fact that there are 20 candidates has caused them to be more competitive in terms of ideas,” said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges. “It is really hard for a candidate to distinguish themselves from 19 others and one way to do that is to lay our new and specific proposals.”
Mr. Hodges said some plans appeal to the liberal base of the party and others are more in tune with the centrist voters.
But he said he’s not worried about what emerges, pointing to the large 2016 Republican field, which saw a rush to the right that produced Mr. Trump and left Democrats confident of Hillary Clinton’s victory.
“That is what we believed was going to happen three years ago for the Republican Party — how did that work out for us?” he said.
Liberal voters emerged from 2016 convinced Mrs. Clinton lost because she wasn’t bold enough on progressives’ issues, eschewing opponent Sen. Bernard Sanders’ calls for a “Medicare for All” health plan and other formerly far-left stances.
Now, Mr. Sanders’ positions are a starting point for the 2020 field.
“The ideas that we were talking about then were considered by establishment politicians and mainstream media to be ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’ — ideas, they said, that nobody in America would support,” Mr. Sanders said at a rally this week.
But even Mr. Sanders, who has popularized the push for Medicare for All and tuition-free college, has faced a barrage of criticism from the left for not following in the footsteps of former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who has touted reparations as a serious campaign issue.
The issue has been a non-starter on Capitol Hill for years, where former Rep. John Conyers Jr. regularly proposed H.R. 40 — a reference to the “40 acres and a mule” promise of Reconstruction — to study reparations for slavery.
Just four years ago, Mr. Conyers attracted only two co-sponsors. This year, with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee sponsoring the legislation, it has 30 co-sponsors just weeks into the new Congress.
Ms. Gabbard signed on in late February, a few weeks after officially starting her presidential campaign.
Her campaign and congressional office did not respond to inquiries about her change of heart.
Rep. Jerry N. Govan Jr., chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, said the reparations appeal has some resonance with voters in his state, but it’s limited. He said his advice for the candidates would be to stick with the basic issues.
“Most African Americans in this state are concerned about core or basic economic issues such as a fair wage for a fair day’s work,” he said. “I think they are concerned about health care, criminal justice reform and I think they are concerned about education.”