The Democrats’ Middle Class Jump-Start

Robert Borosage

House Democrats released their 2014 election year platform Wednesday, entitled “Middle Class Jump Start: 100 Day Action Plan to Put the Middle Class First.” Naturally, the release of a major party’s election year agenda received virtually no press coverage, far less than Hillary getting asked if she’s running in 2016 by John Stewart.

That’s too bad because, despite its irritating title (leading one to wonder how many Americans still consider themselves part of the middle class), the agenda draws a clear contrast with Republicans, and offers a guide to how far Democrats have come – and how far they have yet to go – in reaction to an economic “recovery” that has yet to reach most Americans.

Democrats remain a big-tent party, but they are remarkably united around a core economic agenda, presented here in three parts.

First, “Making it in America,” a package of measures to create jobs here in the U.S.

These include investment in infrastructure – touting a Build America Bonds program to finance rebuilding our dangerously decrepit roads, bridges, water systems and more. House Republicans have blocked any new public investment, even finding it impossible to agree on how to sustain the Highway Trust Fund at current, inadequate levels.

Democrats would reward companies that create jobs at home with tax breaks, while cracking down on tax havens and dodges that reward multinationals for shipping jobs and reporting profits abroad. Republicans remarkably have blocked all efforts to shut down global tax dodges, scorning them as tax hikes.

And Democrats would act directly to address inequality, calling for lifting the minimum wage and taking a first step in curbing excessive CEO pay – not allowing companies to claim tax deductions for CEO pay over $1 million unless they give their employees a raise. Republicans have blocked even a vote on the minimum wage, and, needless to say, oppose any efforts to curb CEO excesses.

Second, the Democratic platform incorporates Leader Nancy Pelosi’s “Women Succeed Agenda,” clearly indicating how important the turnout of working women is to Democratic prospects.

This calls for pay equity, guaranteed paid sick leave, and increased support for affordable child care. Republicans have blocked progress on all of these. The agenda also highlights Republican opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, and to providing contraception and abortion in health care plans.

Third, the Democrats would invest more in education. Their agenda includes expanding support for universal pre-K – perhaps the most vital single reform for the children of working and poor families. They also adopt Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to allow those with student debt to refinance their loans at a lower rate, and promise to expand Pell Grants, college support for students from low-wage families. Again, all of these measures have been blocked by Republicans in Congress.

These are all overwhelmingly popular, sensible proposals. If passed, they would help put people to work, hike the pay and family security of lower-wage workers, begin necessary education reforms, and provide working parents with far better support.

Due to the tireless efforts of their leader Pelosi, House Democrats have out-fundraised Republicans this cycle. Republicans in Congress are about as popular as the clap. The best polling shows that Democrats are competitive in virtually all contested races. The Republican message consists largely of blaming Obama for the failed economy, Obamacare, and foreign turmoil – without offering even a glimmer that they might have learned something from the catastrophe their policies visited on the nation in Iraq and the Great Recession.

Yet, like Rodney Dangerfield, House Democrats get no respect. The energy of Democratic outside groups is focused on Senate and gubernatorial races. Every prognosticator projects a low Democratic turnout – particularly among the Rising American Electorate: the young, single women and people of color – that will allow Republicans to sustain their majority in the House, and very likely gain a few seats.

Why don’t the popular Democratic agenda and relentless Republican obstruction make a difference? I’d suggest two major reasons.

First, the economy sucks. The central Republican message will be that Obama has failed to make the economy work after six years in office. Voters tend to hold the party in power – that is the party that holds the White House – responsible for the economy.

The only counter to that would have been a clear, bold agenda for change, accompanied by a consistent, clear demonstration of how Republican obstruction, time and again, blocked reforms vital to making this economy work for working people. But neither the White House nor congressional Democrats has been able to sustain this argument. A premature turn to austerity and to seeking a “grand bargain” confused the issue. The president’s understandable desire to sell progress – even though most Americans can’t feel it – makes people think he’s out of touch. Republicans are paying a remarkably small price for their obstruction.

Second, the pudding lacks a theme. Each of the measures in the Democratic package is popular. Each reform would make a difference for working people. All are long overdue. There’s even a populist edge in calls to create jobs here and not abroad, to lift the minimum wage and curb CEO excesses.

Americans have yet to tune into this year’s elections. Most don’t know the name of their legislator, much less the positions of either party. Most will not learn of the Democrat’s Middle Class Jump-Start (who thinks up these names?).

What they will look for are champions. Who stands with us? Who has a clue of what we are going through? Who has a clear view of what can be done to make this economy work for working people again?

Americans understand something fundamental has changed for the worse in America. They realize, as Elizabeth Warren puts it, that the game is rigged. They are sick of the partisan fights. They are looking for a clear way forward.

These good, sensible reforms will appeal to various constituencies. They help highlight the scope of Republican obstruction. But they don’t add up to a solution or even a path towards a solution on this economy. And worse, they don’t make clear the willingness to stand up and fight for working people – not just against Republicans, but against the entrenched interests, the big companies and deep pockets that have rigged the rules to benefit themselves. Most Americans see Republicans as the defenders of business and not the little guy. But they are less than clear and more than a bit skeptical about where Democrats stand.

This agenda has some of the makings. Missing still are the juice, the spice and more of the meat.

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