Democrats Go Bold

President Bill Clinton delivering Sate of the Union Address, January 23, 1996

“The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union Address. Clinton hammering the final nail in the New Deal’s coffin represented the ultimate triumph of the so-called “New Democrats.” According to Al From, director of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), these centrist Democrats owned “a new public philosophy — a synthesis of progressive ideas and a non-bureaucratic approach to governing, grounded in mainstream values.” Clinton, who chaired the DLC before his election as president, said New Democrats rejected “the old ideologies and the false choices they impose. Our agenda isn’t liberal or conservative. It is both, and it is different.” 

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York

One of the little noticed highlights of the election of scores of young, progressive members of diverse backgrounds to Congress in 2018 is the emergence within the Democratic Party of bold ideas that revive the old New Deal and Great Society conviction that government can be a tool for civic good. Little noticed — in part — because of the buzz around Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York  — the youngest woman ever elected to the House — who is smart, savvy, a democratic socialist, and very successful at getting under the skins of older white male conservatives. She and other new members have raised a number of exciting progressive solutions to current societal problems, but the content of their ideas has been too-often ignored because the media is more interested in superficial optics.

Actually, progressive ideas have been edging into the political dialogue for a number of years. Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont who sought the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, calls himself a “socialist and everyone knows it.” He ran a campaign urging free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, an aggressive attack on climate change, and steep taxes on the super-wealthy. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president in 2020, has made a name for herself pushing a vigorous attack on income inequality.

Inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981

The progressivism of Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and others is a salutary corrective to the intellectual me-tooism of the Clintonian New Democrats. The centrism of many Democrats in the 1990s and early 2000s turned them into Republicans “lite,” putting both political parties in the anti-government camp. Everyone on the political spectrum, from the right to the left (or what passed for the left several decades ago), seemed to buy Ronald Reagan’s line, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” A brief survey of the damage done to the national air transportation system, the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the National Parks, the Weather Service, and other agencies by the month-long government shutdown should convince all except the most hidebound reactionary that government has a vital role to play in the nation’s well-being.

Heading the list of bold, progressive ideas is an old quest: Universal healthcare. Democrats have sought some form of national health insurance since at least the administration of President Harry Truman. Proponents of what is commonly called “Medicare for All” have different proposals. There are many examples of national healthcare systems that work well — Canada and Sweden, in particular — and surveys show overwhelming support — including a majority of Republicans — for some form of a single-payer healthcare system. It is probably safe to say that the issue is not if, but when, America enacts a universal healthcare system.

One new proposal pushed by activist younger Democrats — who have grown up with the ravages of climate change — is the Green New Deal, a term deliberately chosen to evoke the original New Deal of the 1930s. Details of the Green New Deal are still being debated, but the thrust is simple: A massive investment in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure that will transform not just how Americans use energy but also will reorient the economy. Advocates of the Green New Deal believe such a program will end reliance on fuels that spew carbon into the environment while making the economy fairer. 

Democrats appear ready to employ the power of the federal government to guarantee everyone a job, reassert regulations on campaign finance spending, curb gun violence, protect voting rights for all citizens, and attack income inequality. Some Democrats are pushing a major hike in marginal tax rates as a curb on the gross income inequality afflicting American society and to pay for much needed public programs. Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a 70 percent rate on income over $10 million. Before any conservatives hyper-ventilate, we should remember two things: First, tax rates that high would affect only the super-rich and would go into effect only when their income hits a certain level, and, second, the United States is no stranger to very high tax rates. During World War II, the marginal tax rate reached 94 percent, and the top rate stood at 91 percent until the early 1960s, when it was reduced to 70 percent. 

Any progressive legislation passed by the House is doomed during the presidency of Donald Trump and the leadership of Mitch McConnell in the Senate.

None of these progressive proposals will become law anytime soon. President Donald Trump in the White House and a Republican-controlled Senate insures that bold legislation emanating from the House of Representatives will not become law. But, Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, and a vigorous attack on income inequality are now part of the national dialogue, which is moving to the left. It is instructive to note how many Republicans ran for office in 2018 pledged to uphold provisions of the Affordable Care Act that they had condemned only a year or two earlier.

Many of these ideas will dominate the 2020 presidential race, especially if Democrats go bold and nominate a true progressive. In any event, progressive ideas are moving into the political mainstream, and that is a good thing.

Posted January 22, 2019

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