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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Good Time for Democratic Reflection

Democrats are pounded on a daily basis by Republicans, who are eager to point out our failings and shortcomings. That’s the way it should be, and vice versa. Yet, attacks by a political adversary have limited value. They can be helpful in terms of identifying policies and ideas which need to be modified or corrected. But there is always a lot of partisan axe-grinding that comes with it and doesn’t merit much consideration.
For a political party to stay honest and keep faith with its principles, however, it should undergo periods of rigorous self-criticism from time to time, and the year after a presidential election is a much better time for it than the year or two just before one. Toward that end, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has a provocative HuffPo post that can serve as a good starting point for Democrats to assess where they are and where they need to go. Here’s some of Reich’s assessment regarding what Democrats should be about on two of the most critical issues, Social Security and Medicare:

Prominent Democrats — including the President and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — are openly suggesting that Medicare be means-tested and Social Security payments be reduced by applying a lower adjustment for inflation.
This is even before they’ve started budget negotiations with Republicans — who still refuse to raise taxes on the rich, close tax loopholes the rich depend on (such as hedge-fund and private-equity managers’ “carried interest”), increase capital gains taxes on the wealthy, cap their tax deductions, or tax financial transactions.
It’s not the first time Democrats have led with a compromise, but these particular pre-concessions are especially unwise.
For over thirty years Republicans have pitted the middle class against the poor, preying on the frustrations and racial biases of average working people who can’t get ahead no matter how hard they try. In the Republican narrative, government takes from the hard-working middle and gives to the undeserving and dependent needy.
In reality, average working people have been stymied because almost all the economic gains of the last three decades have gone to the very top. The middle has lost bargaining power as unions have shriveled. American politics has been flooded with campaign contributions from corporations and the wealthy, which have used their clout to reduce marginal tax rates, widen loopholes, loosen regulations, gain subsidies, and obtain government bailouts when their bets turn sour.
Now five years after the worst downturn since the Great Depression and the biggest bailout in history, the stock market has recouped its losses and corporate profits constitute the largest share of the economy since 1929. Yet the real median wage continues to fall — wages now claim the lowest share of the economy on record — and inequality is still widening. All the economic gains since the trough of the recession have gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans; the bottom 90 percent continue to lose ground.
What looks like the start of a more buoyant recovery is a sham because the vast majority of Americans have neither the pay nor access to credit that allows them to buy enough to boost the economy…If there was ever a time for the Democratic Party to champion working Americans and reverse these troubling trends, it is now — forging an alliance between the frustrated middle and the working poor. This need not be “class warfare” because a healthy economy is in everyone’s interest…
But the modern Democratic Party can’t bring itself to do this. It’s too dependent on the short-term, insular demands of Wall Street, corporate executives, and the wealthy.
It was Bill Clinton, after all, who pushed for repeal of Glass-Steagall, championed the North American Free Trade Act and the World Trade Organization without adequate safeguards for American jobs, and rented out the Lincoln Bedroom to a steady stream of rich executives.
And it was Barack Obama who continued George W. Bush’s Wall Street bailout with no strings attached; pushed a watered-down “Volcker Rule” (still delayed) rather than renew Glass-Steagall; failed to prosecute a single Wall Street executive or bank because, according to his Attorney General, Wall Street is just too big to jail; and permanently enshrined the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent.

This not a blanket critique of Presidents Clinton and Obama. Clinton deserves great credit for having the wisdom to stay out of stupid, costly wars, which we have learned is not to be taken for granted. Obama has achieved a lot with unprecedented obstruction from Republicans, including the most significant health care reform since the 1960s. Former Speaker Pelosi is arguably one of the best House leaders ever.
But Reich is quite right that weakening Social Security and Medicare is not what America’s progressive party should be about. He points out that Dem leaders have been complicit in allowing the Social Security fund to be raided, chickened out on supporting reforms to help unions thrive and are now opening the door to “pre-concessions” weakening Medicare and Social Security. Reich believes Dems must stand firm in protecting these two key programs:

…Social Security and Medicare are the most popular programs ever devised by the federal government, which is why Republicans hate them so much. If average Americans have trusted the Democratic Party to do one thing it has been to guard these programs from the depredations of the GOP.
Putting these two programs “on the table” is also tantamount to accepting the most insidious and dishonest of all Republican claims: That for too long most Americans have been living beyond their means; that we are rapidly approaching a day of reckoning when we can no longer afford these generous “entitlements;” and that prudence and responsibility dictate that we must now begin to live within our means and cut back these projected expenditures, particularly if we are to have any money left to invest in the young and the disadvantaged.
The truth is the opposite: That for three decades the means of most Americans have been stagnant even though the overall economy has more than doubled in size; that because almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top, most Americans haven’t been able to save enough for retirement or the rising costs of healthcare; and that because of this, Social Security and Medicare are barely adequate as is.

Despite significant reforms, like the Affordable Care Act, the Democratic Party has folded on too many critical issues in recent years. If we allow Social Security and Medicare to be further undermined in return for puny concessions by Republican leaders, we can’t blame working people for wondering what, if anything we are willing to fight for.
Noting record wealth concentration in the U.S., Reich concludes,

…An increasing share of that wealth is held by a smaller and smaller share of the population, who have, in effect, bribed legislators to reduce their taxes and provide loopholes so they pay even less…The budget deficit “crisis” has been manufactured by them to distract our attention from this overriding fact, and to pit the rest of us against each other for a smaller and smaller share of what remains. Democrats should not conspire.

Democrats have benefited substantially in recent elections by growing extremism in the Republican Party. But we can’t count on ever-increasing tea party lunacy contaminating the GOP brand forever. That’s not much of a foundation on which to build a viable party going forward. If Democrats now cave on two programs as fundamental to the security of working families as Social Security and Medicare, we shouldn’t be surprised if they begin to look elsewhere for leaders who will serve their interests.

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