Progressive Caucus Beats Republicans At Their Own Game

In recent years, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has spearheaded policy ideas, from debt-free college to the $15 minimum wage, that have gained incredible momentum from city halls to presidential debate stages. Predictably, Republicans’ responses to these ideas have ranged from nonchalance to sheer horror.

Still, progressives shouldn’t give up on messaging these policy ideas to people on the other side of the ideological spectrum. On the issues that rank-and-file GOP voters purport to care about most—economic growth, debt reduction, national defense—the new Progressive Caucus federal budget proposal, the “People’s Budget,” actually contains the most serious and effective policy proposals available.

While there’s a natural tendency for elected officials to preach to the choir—pitching progressive economic ideas to left-of-center audiences—the People’s Budget can be effectively employed to change moderate and conservative minds. It’s full of serious solutions to right-of-center concerns.

Start with economic growth. While Republicans have tried to own the issue of economic growth, even their own core constituencies—including bosses of the financial sector—routinely point to the urgent need to invest in infrastructure and education in order to maintain global competitiveness and long-run growth. The core principle of the People’s Budget—that we should boost consumer demand and investment by hiring people to undertake necessary work like repairing structurally unsound bridges and fixing Flint, Mich.’s water infrastructure—illustrates why the progressive approach is actually the clearest path to expanding the economy.

Or consider the federal debt. While Republicans constantly hyperventilate over the issue, it’s striking that the People’s Budget—a framework that aims to repair infrastructure, upgrade public services, and drastically reduce the cost of college—would, according to an outside analysis, actually reduce the public debt by $5.1 trillion, or 18.1 percent of gross domestic product, over the course of the coming decade.

How’s this possible? Part of the answer is through reforms to the tax code, such as equalizing treatment of income from investment and work, and closing the carried interest loophole (a solution everyone from President Obama to Donald Trump has endorsed).

The other part of the answer lies in a principle that was, until recently, a bipartisan policy priority: full employment. By focusing on ensuring people are trained and putting their skills to productive use in service of time-sensitive national priorities, the Progressive Caucus budget aims to expand the tax base and reduce the underlying need for federal help.

On defense, GOP presidential candidates try to carry the mantle with tough talk of “carpet bombings” and banning refugees—yet the biggest threats don’t fit these campaign narratives. As The New York Times reported in late March, extremists’ attempts to acquire loose nuclear material are now unquestionably the most urgent short-term security threat. Among the federal budget proposals now under consideration, only the Progressive budget emphasizes major funding for nonproliferation and the security of nuclear material.

On the other existential threat facing the world right now—climate change—the progressive budget offers the only proven and politically palatable solution to sufficiently lower greenhouse gas emissions: a carbon tax to put a price on dangerous emissions while directly refunding citizens. While this might seem like a progressive cause, a recent survey by leading GOP pollsters found that 54 percent of conservative Republicans would actually support such a measure if it reimburses taxpayers. Climate is no longer just a progressive issue: Among defense conservatives like Senator Kelly Ayotte, there’s an increasingly keen understanding that climate change effects like drought and forced migration have serious consequences for national security.

Of course, Republicans are also presenting budget plans that aim to reduce deficits, prime gross domestic product growth and increase military readiness. But their budgets seek to do so at the expense of needed infrastructure repairs, college affordability, basic research, environmental protection, public health, and the safety net—priorities that matter not only to the vast majority of Americans but also to many of their own base voters.

Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving Member of Congress and one of the key architects of the Progressive budge, has explained that the “People’s Budget” has the closest connection to the federal budgets that facilitated economic growth and social cohesion during America’s boom years following World War II: “From the interstate highway system to Medicare to the Apollo program, federal budgets facilitated full employment, rising living standards and unprecedented technological progress.”

In an age in which the old ideological dividing lines are looking increasingly blurry, it should come as no surprise: the progressive budget offers unique solutions to the problems that preoccupy conservatives. To reshape the economy, progressives need to start directly engaging the right and center. We can win the contest of ideas—even on the other side’s terms.


Justin Talbot-Zorn is a Truman National Security Fellow and founder of Upaya Strategies. He served as Legislative Director to three Members of Congress. Twitter: @JustinZorn

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