Democrats Are Finally Waking Up

Robert Borosage

Congressional Democrats rolled out an economic agenda for the 2018 elections this week, and despite its bland title, “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” the overview document and agenda reflect the growing strength and influence of the populist movement in the Democratic Party.

At the same time, Our Revolution, the group growing out of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, the National Nurses Union, Fight for 15, People’s Action and others launched the “Summer of Progress,” an activist push to get at least half of the Democratic House members to endorse the “People’s Platform.” The contrast between the two documents reveals why the activist push is needed.

Both the People’s Platform and the Better Deal agenda are designed to offer a small number of bold, clear reforms to put before voters. The Better Deal agenda is focused on the economy; the People’s Platform includes broader issues.

Both documents are grounded in the populist analysis of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  The Better Deal argues that Americans “believe the rules of the economy are rigged against them” by “special interests, lobbyists and large corporations In the last two elections. Both argue that Democrats must be clearer about what they are for.

“Democrats,” the leadership document admits, “have failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program…We also “failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake.” Democrats, the groups behind the Summer of Progress echo,  “must lay out a bold vision for how we create a country that works for everyone—not just the very wealthy.”

The background polling memo by Hart Research for the Better Deal documents how popular this language is, noting that “fully 79% of voters in Senate battleground states agree that, “the rules of the economy today are rigged against average Americans, and America’s working families need a better deal.”

Of course, against the destructive madcap chaos of the Trump White House and a Republican Congress intent on stripping millions of health insurance to pay for tax breaks for millionaires, a “better deal” is a pretty low bar.

Better Than It Sounds

The Better Deal agenda is better than its framing.   The centerpiece jobs program features public investment of $1 trillion in rebuilding our infrastructure. Democrats pledge to lift the floor under workers by embracing the movement call for a $15.00 minimum wage and phasing out the special minimum wage for workers who collect tips, shamefully mired at $2.13 since 1991.

They’ll require large employers to provide paid family and sick leave. They reaffirm the standard commitment to defend Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – no small matter in these days of Republican rule.  They promise help to make college more affordable, details to come later.

Most striking and laudable is a new initiative to revive anti trust and take on monopolies, “tackling the costs that are eating up family budgets.” The centerpiece is renewed commitment to taking on the “outrageous price gouging” of prescription drug companies – and finally empowering Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts on drug prices.

They pledge aggressive anti-trust action – creating a “21st century trust buster” — to challenge market concentration in areas that hit consumers the most – including food, cable fees, beer, airline tickets, and eyeglasses. If nothing else, this will encourage Democrats to rail at drug companies and cable monopolies which is valuable in itself.

Democrats promise to curb corporate outsourcing and unfair foreign trade practices, but oddly, given Trump’s emphasis on trade, leave the policy details for the future.

Instead, they make providing workers with the “tools they need” a centerpiece, calling for giving employers who are swimming in record profits a new tax break for training workers and hiring them at a “good wage.” The embrace of this “charade” is clearly a nod to the still potent New Democrat forces in the party.

A Legislative Agenda

The People’s Platform, in contrast, is currently limited to eight specific planks that are being turned into legislative acts. It also includes the commitment to a $15.00 an hour minimum wage and has a large infrastructure agenda, with a focus on addressing climate change and moving to 100% renewable energy.

The People’s Platform features fundamental reforms that the Better Deal document chooses not to endorse: Medicare for all, tuition free public college for those with family incomes under $125,000 a year (the College for All Act), and a financial speculation tax (Tax on Wall Street Act).

The People’s Platform also features reforms that are outside the boundaries of the leadership’s document, including automatic voter registration, elimination of private prisons (Justice is Not for Sale Act), and protection of equal access to abortion in public and private health insurance (the Each Woman Act).

The People’s Platform lacks the Better Deal’s initiative on monopoly and anti-trust. Despite Trump’s focus on our failed trade policy, neither document includes a clear initiative on fair and balanced trade, although the Better Deal authors pledge to address trade in the future, and Our Revolution Chair, Larry Cohen the former president of the Communications Workers Union, has been a leader of the opposition to our current trade policies.

Neither Nor

Neither document makes a commitment to full employment with government as the employer of last resort. Both would support extension of paid overtime, a crackdown on wage theft and dehumanizing scheduling, but neither discusses them.

What should be the centerpiece of any progressive economic or political agenda – unions and empowering workers to bargain collectively – is nowhere to be seen in either document. Also omitted is the need to take on CEO plunder, curbing the executive compensation schemes that are a primary contributor to our massive inequality.

The private debt overhang that impedes growth gets no discussion. Progressive tax reform beyond the financial transaction tax is also absent from both documents.

Two Roads to Victory?

Pelosi and Schumer hope they have produced a clear agenda that Democratic candidates will champion in the 2018 elections, emulating the infamous “Contract with America” that Newt Gingrich peddled when Republicans took the House in 1994.

The movement behind the People’s Platform, which has launched a mass petition and mobilization seeking to gain the endorsement of a majority of House Democrats, seeks to augment that agenda and detail it in existing pieces of legislation.

The contrast between the two documents provides some insight into the fault lines within the Democratic Party. Lifting the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour by 2024 is increasingly a consensus position, as is a massive public infrastructure program. Medicare for all and tuition free public college, and the financial transaction tax are still contested.

The leadership focus on anti-trust and breaking up concentrated economic power is new, but will become a shared position. Sadly, the importance of empowering workers, of rebuilding unions and collective bargaining remains on the cutting room floors.

Were Democrats to gain majorities that could fulfill the pledges in either of these documents — and have the temerity to overcome the entrenched interests lined up against them — most Americans would in fact get a far “better deal” than what they will get from Trump and the Republican Congress.

Democrats are moving to address the populist temper of this time. The popular mobilization behind the People’s Platform will push Democrats to add Medicare for All and Tuition Free Public College as part of their shared agenda. The Better Deal’s focus on concentrated economic power and anti-trust will surely be happily embraced by the activist base of the party.

The chattering classes fret about Democrats and their “circular firing squads,” but this is a debate that could well help make Democrats bolder and clearer about where they stand. And that surely is all to the good.

Cross-posted from The Nation

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