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Democrats Divided On Policy Specifics


With the addition of Joe Biden this past week, there are now 20 Democratic presidential contenders. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, one thing dividing the candidates is how specific they feel they need to be about their policies.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Elizabeth Warren spoke at a Houston presidential forum this week. And a pattern emerged as she answered the audience's questions.



I have a proposal.

I've got a plan. I do.

KURTZLEBEN: Having a plan has become the Massachusetts senator's brand. A steady series of policy releases has underpinned her campaign on things like child care, student loan debt and breaking up big tech companies to name a few. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg offered a marked contrast at a Monday CNN Town Hall. Anderson Cooper asked him about the lack of policy proposals on his website. Buttigieg's response is that those policies are coming but that early in the campaign, core beliefs matter more.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: I also think it's important that we not drown people in minutiae before we've vindicated the values that animate our policies because, as Democrats, this is a habit that we have. We go right to the policy proposals. And we expect people to be able to figure out what our values must be from that.

KURTZLEBEN: And this is one of the biggest contrasts emerging among the 2020 Democratic candidates - specificity versus broad strokes. Austan Goolsbee advised Barack Obama's 2008 campaign on policy and eventually headed Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: The approach of putting out policy details is one that, at least, since Bill Clinton's race in 1992, has kind of been the modern approach to the primary.

KURTZLEBEN: But as with many other things in Washington, Donald Trump has helped to blow up the usual way this works.

GOOLSBEE: I think the thing that's got people kind of recalibrating is that the 2016 experience really did not go well for that approach.

KURTZLEBEN: Hillary Clinton famously got specific on everything from tax rates to immigration. Trump used that to criticize her, at times untruthfully, about how those policies would affect Americans. But there's a reason candidates have long gotten into the weeds - to telegraph intelligence, readiness and even a kind of selflessness, according to Heather McGhee, a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a progressive think tank.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Showing voters your ideas is a measure of respect. It's saying that this contest is not about me, my personality, even my general values. It's about you, the voter, your families, the community you live in.

KURTZLEBEN: Aside from that, some voters may simply want a clear roadmap, particularly on sweeping policies like debt-free college or "Medicare for All." Or they may want to see a candidate is serious about thinking big.

MCGHEE: These are policies. But they also stand for a level of ambition, a level of courage, a level of audacity that, I think, is about something more than just the policy itself. But it's about how bold the Democratic Party can be.

KURTZLEBEN: When it comes to whether it's better to get granular or stick to general themes, the frustrating answer is that it depends on a lot of factors, many of which depend on the candidate. Here's Republican Michael Biundo, who worked on the 2016 Rand Paul and John Kasich presidential campaigns before advising Trump.

MICHAEL BIUNDO: I mean, you look at the field and you look at everybody else's strengths. You put that up against what your strengths are. And then you have to figure out a unique task for yourself.

KURTZLEBEN: Warren is clearly comfortable in the policy wonk lane, but it's also a lane where she has struggled to break out. She did, however, stand out from the pack by being the first Democratic candidate to call for Trump's impeachment right after the Mueller report was released.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.