The Empty Center: Challenge and Opportunity for Progressives

Robert Borosage

Legislators in the new Congress haven’t even cut the curtains for their offices, but it is already clear that the right has no clue and the “center” offers no hope.

Republican Mitch McConnell, newly installed as Senate majority leader, announced that his goal is not to be “scary.” House Speaker John Boehner declared his troops had to prove Republicans can “govern.” But Republicans are already tripping over those low bars. They stuffed the legislative docket with “message” bills to repeal Obamacare, rollback immigration reforms, and cripple agencies that protect the environment (Environmental Protection Agency), consumers (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), workers (the Labor Department) and taxpayers (cutting the IRS ability to police tax dodgers). They’ve already proved adept at backroom maneuvers to tuck Wall Street favors in “must-pass” legislation.

The truly “scary” agenda, however, is the legislation that McConnell and Boehner have teed up for bipartisan approval: authorization of the Keystone pipeline is already on the president’s desk; next comes fast-track trade authority to grease the skids for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, corporate tax “reform” that “simplifies” the tax code and lowers rates, and inevitably a budget that will posture on a budget deficit that should be larger while ignoring the debilitating deficits that must be smaller (the public investment and trade deficits). It will starve already inadequate programs for the vulnerable, while larding more on an already bloated Pentagon.

These “bipartisan” measures assume that the best thing to do in a hole is to keep digging. Progressives will have their hands full simply trying to stop the parade of horrors, which will require either Democratic unity in the Senate or firm presidential vetoes – both less then certain trumpets. Obstructing the horrible, however necessary, is not sufficient. Republicans already suffer from the absence of any positive agenda. Their pollsters have finally accepted that they must find a populist voice, but thus far that entails not much more than donning a hard hat atop their uptown garb.

Confront and Counter

Progressives must find ways not simply to confront the Republican idiocies, but to counter with a bold reform agenda that is commensurate with the size of our problems.

We suffer an economy that does not work for most Americans even in the fifth year of “recovery.” That could occur only because the rules have been systematically rigged to favor the few. Changing that reality requires far more than a few sensible reforms. It requires taking on fundamentals at the heart of our economy: transforming our global tax and trade policies, shackling Wall Street, progressive taxes to pay for vital public investment, empowering workers and curbing perverse CEO compensation policies, reviving anti-trust, curbing money in politics, cleaning up Washington, capturing a lead in the green industrial revolution.

In this effort, President Obama will be at best a sunshine general. Hopefully, he will continue to frame vital wage reforms – calling for lifting the minimum wage and guaranteed sick days and family leave, enforcing overtime, procurement reforms that give preference to “good jobs” employers. He will continue to build his legacy on the environment. But on fundamentals – trade, Wall Street, public investment, antitrust and more – he’s more part of the problem than the solution.

At the national level, senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders have begun to take the lead. A broader formal or informal populist caucus in the Senate, and the strengthened Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House, can help define and drive big alternatives, with outside allies rallying support and taking the names of the Blue Dog or Wall Street Democrats who don’t get it. Major debates – on trade, on taxes, on budgets – can be occasions for offering real alternative directions.

The danger here is that the debate turns quickly to framing “message” bills rather than debating fundamental reform. The recent rollout of the Democratic middle-class tax cut shows the perils. The proposal excels for partisan positioning. It offers working Americans real money – a $2,000 tax cut, paid for by taxes on the banks and the rich. It puts Republicans in a box, since they won’t raise taxes to pay for the equivalent. But a tax cut competition with Republicans is something of a mugs game. It accepts the conservative notion that tax breaks offer workers the only hope for a raise. And by devoting progressive taxes to tax cuts, it defaults on addressing our debilitating public investment deficit. If Democrats aren’t making the case for rebuilding our starved public sphere – including basic infrastructure like roads, rail and sewers, providing the basics for schools, investing in R&D – then we will all suffer.

The debate about agenda should not be left to politicians. The recent AFL-CIO convocation on raising wages – which will be echoed in forums across the country – provides one example of how progressive groups can help frame and drive the reform debate.

Local Action; National Megaphone

With Washington largely gridlocked, progressives have sensibly turned more attention to driving reform at the state and local level. Given Republican gains at the state level, many of those battles will be defensive, against their assault on unions and worker rights, and their efforts to roll back environmental protection while constricting the rights of women, voters, and the vulnerable.

But in blue states like California and in blue cities even in the midst of red states, progressives should be championing fundamental reforms. Already significant progress has been made in raising the floor under workers – raising the minimum wage and extending basic worker guarantees. Procurement reforms can offer preference to good jobs employers, and enforce Buy America provisions. As California Governor Jerry Brown has shown, states can drive the climate debate, extending state renewable energy standards and providing markets for renewable energy. State taxes could favor companies that maintain less obscene ratios of CEO to worker pay.

None of this will come easy, given the hold of corporate interests over state and local politics. Citizen groups like National People’s Action, PICO, Jobs with Justice and LAANE, along with labor unions like the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are already driving change. What is needed is a coherent strategy to provide a national megaphone that provides local reforms with national attention, demonstrating that progressives are not only on the case, but also on the march.

People in Motion

As the film Selma correctly makes clear about the transformation of civil rights in the 1960s, none of this will get done without people’s movements – people in motion protesting the rigged game and demanding a better deal.

Occupy Wall Street set the stage, awakening Americans and the mainstream media to the Gilded Age inequality that too many had come to accept as natural. The demonstrations of fast-food workers and low-wage government workers have begun to challenge the Walmart low road in the economy. What progress has been made on immigration reform has come from aggressive popular mobilization. The post-Ferguson demonstrations have forced a national debate about police practices. The environmental movement has begun to show its force in the streets. It would be useful to link with money-in-politics groups to expose and confront the entrenched interests and corrupted politicians that cling to climate denial. Students, graduates and parents should be rallying against the absurdity that getting a college education all say is necessary requires taking on debt burdens that all agree are ruinous.

What the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the Latino movements have shown over and over again is one simple truth: Those who benefit from a stacked deck won’t call for a new deal. Fundamental change comes only when the oppressed make it impossible to sustain the old order.

2016: Who is Prepared to Stand Up?

The mainstream media has already begun its saturation coverage of the 2016 presidential horserace. How will Hillary run? Will she be challenged by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or another candidate on the left? Will Bush or Romney consolidate the Republican establishment? Who will emerge on the right? Where is the big money going in both parties?

In this coverage, platforms and reform ideas are contrasted with those of rival candidates, measured only for their potential political effectiveness. Congressional showdowns are assessed for their potential effect on “the race.” In the lead-up to 2016, this is likely to disintegrate into the competitive posturing of ersatz populists. Absent will be any measure of the ideas against the scope of the challenges Americans must struggle with everyday.

Filling this vacuum is the imperative for progressives. The real question isn’t who is prepared to run, but who is prepared to stand for fundamental reform? This is one reason why progressive challengers in the primaries are so important. Hard-pressed Americans pay little attention to politics or to congressional debates. Presidential primaries often surprise because they are one occasion where, if activists are engaged, a broader public begins to pay attention.

Progressive challengers – a Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown – can force a debate on what it really takes to make this economy work for working people. They can expose the limits of the center reform agenda, and the scope of real alternatives. It would be a true tragedy if 2016 took place without a fundamental debate about the stark reality we face and what the presidential contenders plan to do about it.

But again, no challenge in the Democratic Party will have legs unless people are in motion, mobilizing, challenging business as usual, and forcing politicians to get outside of their comfort zone. Dislodging the entrenched interests and big money that dominate our politics won’t be easy. It won’t happen in one election or with one movement. Democracy, as Bill Moyers has written, isn’t easy. But it is our only hope.

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