How Democrats In 2015 Can Honor Mario Cuomo’s Progressive Vision

Isaiah J. Poole

The passing last week of former New York governor Mario Cuomo is prompting many people to revisit his speech at the 1984 Democratic Party convention – a speech as electric and iconic as the 2004 address that propelled a young Barack Obama to the national stage.

That speech is particularly relevant this week as now-President Obama prepares to barnstorm the country to announce legislative proposals and executive actions with the goals, as White House spokesman Eric Schultz was quoted in USA Today, of “helping more responsible Americans own a home, getting kids a college education, and creating new, good-paying jobs.” He starts his series of speeches Wednesday in Detroit.

The president and congressional Democrats would do well to use Cuomo’s speech to remind them of what Americans who are either treading water or sinking in today’s economy need the Democratic Party to stand for.

“The difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence,” Cuomo said then. “The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. … ‘The strong,’ they tell us, ‘will inherit the land.’

“… We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once, ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees – wagon train after wagon train – to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way … For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence. … And it would be wrong to forget that.”

Cuomo directly took on President Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” – a statement that still gives cover for a generation of Republican leaders to remove government from the side of the people and put it into the pockets of the powerful. Cuomo countered that Democrats “believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need” – one that is “strong enough to use words like ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities,” one for a society that “ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.”

It is a tragedy and a travesty that the “tale of two cities” that Cuomo said was the America of 1984 is pretty much the description of America entering into 2015 – an economic “recovery” for the top 1 percent and economic despair, frustration and gloom for the bottom 99 percent. During the 2014 midterm elections, we chronicled on the strong political mandate for progressive populist policies, but voters did not see Democratic candidates who embodied the kind of “courage and confidence” that could inspire them and earn their trust.

Now the party, having lost control of the Senate and even more diminished in the House, is asking itself how to regain its footing. There is one clear answer: Now that political timidity and triangulation is a proven loser, it’s time to be bold, passionate and visionary.

“In the minds of a lot of voters, economic fairness and the Democratic brand have in some ways separated, which is really tragic because that really is what we stand for,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus in an interview with the McClatchy News Service. “The president can help rebuild that brand.”

The president has shown he has the capacity to do just that, with his executive action on immigration after the election and with his efforts earlier this year to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers. That is even as his administration is backing a dangerously flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that it wants to ram through Congress through an undemocratic “fast track” plan, and as he pursues “revenue-neutral” tax reform when his imperative should be to ask more of those who have pocketed all of the gains from recent economic growth. Still, there is hope that instead of lowest-common-demoninator ideas that allow obstructionist conservatives to set the boundaries of the politically possible, the president will use this week to push the limits of the economic debate toward what America needs for a true working-class recovery. In doing so, he may find himself compelled to retreat from the trade and tax policies that threaten to mar his record.

The president’s first destination, Detroit, is among the dozens of communities around the country where unemployment is still at recession or even depression levels. Even with the increases in the minimum wage that went into effect at the beginning of the year, directly affecting some 3.1 million workers, that doesn’t begin to make up for the years lower-wage workers have seen their wages fall in real terms. Housing affordability is a crisis in many of our cities, as the very workers essential to the revival of our urban areas are being priced out of the revival. College debt is doing real harm to millions of graduates and to the economy as a whole, as conservative state lawmakers continue to starve public universities and Washington conservatives cripple the federal government’s ability to act.

President Obama and Democrats in Congress could start with the proposals contained in the budgets offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Caucus’ annual federal spending proposals have for the past several years translated the basic Democratic principle that government should be on the side of people into a concrete and sound program for strengthening the economy and making it more fair. The budgets contain plans that would put millions of people to work repairing and bolstering our decrepit infrastructure and move the nation toward a green energy economy. They would make college more affordable for millions of students and put more teachers and resources into public school classrooms. They would increase the support that states would have to provide affordable housing and to encourage economic development in communities that have yet to feel the effects of the recovery. They would end the tax dodges and loopholes that enable corporations and the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share for the government services that provide the foundation for their financial success.

Last year’s Progressive Caucus budget did not even get a majority of votes from House Democrats. But it is now clear that Democrats have nothing to lose from uniting behind the Progressive Caucus budget when its latest version is introduced in a couple of months. There is only one deficit that poses a problem for working-class Americans today: the deficit of courage and confidence within today’s Democratic Party. Vowing to face today’s rigged-against-working-people economy with bold, visionary proposals would not only be a fitting tribute to one of the Democratic Party’s great liberal lions, but would regain to loyalty of millions of voters who would finally see a party that is unapologetically fighting for them.

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