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Democratic Debate: Democrats Explain Plans in Houston

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“I think it makes sense, asking how you’re going to get it done,” Castro told me afterward. “Democrats tend to be a little more introspective about how you’re actually going to do things. On the whole, I think that that’s good.” At the first debate, Castro drew attention with his proposal to make crossing the American border illegally a civil charge instead of a criminal one. I asked him if he worries that getting too deep into detail could backfire on Democrats. He told me that was a great question, and he’d have to think about it.

“There’s a fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats: Republicans talk about all the things they’re going to kill and not do, so it’s easy to not do things. How much detail do you need for that?” Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders’s campaign, told me in the spin room. “Democrats, to varying degrees, are talking about doing new and different things, so that requires explaining.”

“The expectation is that Trump’s going to do nothing, and for Democrats, the biased expectation is ‘You can’t get it done,’ so it starts with a negative,” echoed Brad Woodhouse, a veteran Democratic operative who’s now the executive director of the Obamacare advocacy group Protect Our Care.

Needless to say, the level of detail in a proposal doesn’t always correspond to its seriousness. Just look at Trump. Remember how Mexico was going to pay for the border wall? In the spring of 2016, after much pestering from the press, his campaign produced a two-page memo, a rare dive for the campaign into actual specifics (though it’s barely anything compared with most of the plans 2020 Democrats have released). The memo described how Trump would literally overnight squeeze the money from Mexico through transaction fees on remittances sent by people in the United States and by raising the price of visas. The administration never pursued that approach once Trump won the presidency, and these days, it’s pulling money for the wall out of military bases.

Republicans get a pass on a whole lot,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who was walking around the spin room as a surrogate for Warren, her home-state senator. I asked Healey why she thinks that’s so. “If I had the answer to that question,” she said, “I’d do something about it.”

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