A Democratic Party in Search of its Soul

Richard Eskow

Lately there’s been a great deal of talk about finding a better Democratic message, one that will unify the party and energize voters. But how, exactly, can Democrats reconcile factions that include both the Wall Street-friendly Clintons (whose relationship with the financial industry is highlighted in this cutting infographic from The Nation) and populist senators like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown?

Voters can sense an absence of conviction from a political party. The absence of a unifying core may help explain the Democrats’ devastating 2014 performance. The electorate may have concluded that, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was no there there.

But the problem wasn’t that the party lacked a common message. The problem was that its leaders seemed to lack commonly held values. Many of its candidates even seemed to be lacking in core convictions.

The Democratic Party doesn’t need to find its message. It needs to find its soul.

The Schumer Solution

Some of this talk was triggered by a recent speech in which Sen. Charles Schumer proposed a stronger and more populist economic strategy. The New York senator isn’t entirely off-target. The problem is that he doesn’t take his argument far enough.

“After passing the (2009) stimulus,” said Schumer, “Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on (its) partial success … unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem — health-care reform.”

Democrats, said Schumer, must make “a forceful case that when Democrats govern again we will make government the people’s champion, not captive to the powerful. This message has an element of populism … (but not) the rabble-rousing populism or divisiveness of Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan … “

Schumer argues that this “pro-government” strategy could “unite Democrats from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin.”

That rather Utopian vision came with a call to “illustrate that government can provide solutions by delineating specific concrete programs that, if enacted, would actually improve lives and incomes …”

Action Plan

But it’s not enough to be “pro-government,” although that’s a good idea. Democrats will need to propose specific things that government should do to “improve lives and incomes.”

What might those proposals be?

One policy that fits Schumer’s prescription, but which he doesn’t mention, is Social Security expansion. Increasing its benefits would improve both the lives and the incomes of most Americans, and polls show that voters would be willing to pay more in payroll taxes to finance it. Warren has already expressed her support for the idea, as have many other members of the party’s progressive wing. But the Clinton/Manchin wing of the party has largely kept its distance, after pushing for benefit cuts in the “Simpson-Bowles” austerity plan.

Why? We can only speculate, but increasing Social Security benefits would probably require a tax increase for high-income Americans. Democrats would be called upon to challenge the conventional wisdom of insider Washington, which is convinced that further benefit cuts are the “responsible” move – despite their harmfulness, and the lack of need for them.

A responsible, more assertive attitude toward the banking industry would also unify the party’s factions. Criminal prosecution of fraudulent bankers, increased regulation, breaking up the big banks, an end to the “revolving door” between Washington and Wall Street – each of these ideas poll well among Democrats. So do increases in corporate tax rates and upper tax-bracket incomes.

But the party’s dominant wing hasn’t pushed Wall Street reform since the Dodd/Frank bill passed in the wake of the financial crisis, even though more reforms are needed. The administration has so far failed to prosecute criminal bankers, and its agencies have been slow to implement Dodd/Frank reforms.

Opposition to job-killing trade treaties could also energize the party. But, while some Democrats oppose them, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have heavily promoted them.

Job creation and wage-strengthening are also popular among core Democrats. In fact, these engines of economic growth are the logical foundation for restoring the party’s strength – and its soul. But mixed messaging and failed efforts in this area, dating back at least to 2010, are still getting in the way.


There are those who argue that “centrist” Democrats like President Obama did, in fact, embrace a pro-growth economic approach back in 2010. In an interesting counter-argument to Schumer’s speech, Bill Scher writes that “pursuing health care reform did not stop President Obama from building on the stimulus. Congress did.”

This counter-argument is right, in fact – but only as far as it goes. Obama did propose an additional stimulus, in a 2010 bill that contained a total of $80 billion in stimulus spending and tax breaks, and Congress did vote it down.

But if we dig a little deeper into the events of 2010, it becomes easier to understand why the Democrats need soulcraft to complement their statecraft. The White House’s original stimulus bill was too small, reduced after Clinton-official-turned-Obama-appointee Larry Summers reduced the original request.

Meanwhile, the president sent mixed messages on the need for stimulus spending, even as the nation cried out for jobs and economic growth. That same year, President Obama formed something called the “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform,” popularly known as the “Simpson-Bowles commission,” and appointed two right-leaning anti-government types to run it, former Republican senator Alan Simpson and a Democrat, Erskine Bowles, to preserve the illusion of impartiality.

The President even began the year by weakening support for government spending with an economically inappropriate analogy in his 2010 State of the Union speech. “Like any cash-strapped family,” he said, “we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.”

But national economies don’t work like family budgets, and – however nuanced his intention – this less-than-apt comparison undercut political support for an urgently needed additional stimulus.

The stimulus bill itself sent a mixed message, too, by combining urgently needed (but still underfunded) spending initiatives with tax breaks founded on discredited conservative economics. Even though the president had majorities in both houses of Congress, the bill failed to pass. (Twelve Democratic senators joined with Republicans to block it.)

That shouldn’t have been a surprise, and it wasn’t. This bill was a tepid effort, sabotaged by indecisiveness and orphaned by rhetoric. The kindest thing that can be said about this effort is that the president’s heart didn’t seem to be in it.


How can a party be expected to follow its leaders down paths that are only taken in halting and reluctant steps? The dominant faction of the party – more accurately described as the Clinton/Obama, rather than the Clinton/Manchin, wing – has demonstrated little more than a halfhearted commitment to populist values. That could be seen in President Obama’s 2010 actions. It’s equally apparent today, whenever “centrist” Democrats talk about the majority’s economic difficulties in vague generalities without offering concrete proposals for addressing them.

The Affordable Care Act itself appears to have been born at least as much out of calculation as conviction. It’s based on a Republican law, first enacted on the state level by Mitt Romney when he was Massachusetts governor, and it seemed to take years for the president to understand that its conservative lineage offered him no protection from conservative attacks.

Schumer’s critics are right when they argue that his “either/or” formulation makes no sense. But the ACA could have made stronger use of government resources in a number of areas, most prominently with the so-called “public option,” and the president distanced himself from most of them.

In fact, ultimately the ACA’s greatest failing was precisely the one Schumer diagnosed elsewhere: an unwillingness to wholeheartedly champion government as a force for good. While the law has had some positive results, its greatest political and policy shortcomings stem from this failing.

Schumer is right when he says that Democrats should make the case forcefully for the ability of government to improve people’s lives, and then back up their rhetoric with action. But that requires conviction, specificity – and soul.

A Party in Waiting

Given the lack of cohesion among Democrats, talk of a unified Warren/Clinton party seems like magical thinking. Yes, the party can be rejuvenated, but that won’t happen unless the values of its progressive wing prevail over those of its more corporate-friendly faction.

The Democrats’ nascent soul can be glimpsed in the work of good people inside and outside the party. But progressives need to understand that change won’t come easily, or by acclamation. There are debates to be held, primaries to be fought – and, for some Democratic politicians, some difficult choices to be made.

It’s clear that voters across the political spectrum would be energized by an economically populist platform. Majorities of Republicans and independents, as well as Democrats, support many of these measures. (See PopulistMajority.org for more.) When it comes to issues like Social Security expansion, minimum wage increases, or job creation, those majorities are surprisingly large.

Buried within the Democratic Party, as well as in independent progressive organizations outside it, is a fundamentally different and stronger party – a party with greater electability and firmer values. It can be seen in senators like Warren, Brown, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and in representatives like Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Alan Grayson of Florida.

But not all Democrats share their values. It will take hard work if Democratic reformers are to reclaim their party. It can be done, but it won’t be easy. The lessons of history are clear: powerful people don’t surrender their privileges without a fight.

But it’s a fight worth fighting. It’s encouraging to see senators like Warren and Brown resisting the latest appointment of a Wall Streeter to a White House post, because a Democratic Party that keeps appointing wealthy bankers to senior economic positions has lost its way.

But then, a Democratic Party that is prepared to choose its next presidential nominee without a spirited debate has lost its heart. And a Democratic Party that lacks passionate commitment to core progressive values has lost its soul.

Get updates in your inbox