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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

December 5: Obamacare: No Regrets

eI gotta say, J.P. Green is a lot more positive than I am about Sen. Chuck Schumer’s big speech telling Democrats the time and energy they spent enacting the Affordable Care Act was a big mistake. Here’s part of my response to Schumer–over at TPMCare:

In a much-discussed National Press Club speech last week, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York argued that by prioritizing health care reform, Democrats had elevated the interests of “a small percentage of the electorate”–the uninsured–at the expense of the interests of middle class voters who wanted economic magic. Schumer did not identify exactly what sort of proposals Democrats might have embraced to meet that demand, leading one to suspect he thinks agitating the air on behalf of the desired constituency and its demands might be enough, particularly if combined with a conspicuous decision to abandon the decades-long progressive project of health care reform as a sort of propitiatory sacrifice….
Some left-bent critics of Obama and the Democratic Party do have a specific parallel economic agenda in mind, mostly involving the financial sector: breaking up the largest banks, for example, and perhaps jailing some bankers for their role in the pain and suffering of the Great Recession. That may well represent good policy. And yes, this sort of agenda may have exerted some political appeal. But would financial shock-treatment have had any immediate effect on middle-class incomes? Would it have reduced inequality? And would it have sped up the recovery from the Great Recession? That’s all unlikely. The most-discussed positive policy prescription among progressives, an expansion of Social Security benefits, had less than a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted by Congress even before, much less after, 2010. And it, too, like the much-derided minimum wage increase proposals of Democrats in the 2014 cycle, and like Obamacare, would have appealed to a relatively small share of voters.
If the point is simply that Democrats would have benefited from a more “populist” political message, that’s easy to agree upon, though it’s not so easy to agree on the components of such a message. You can certainly make a strong case that Democrats were incompetent in conveying their actual accomplishments in economic policy, and the threat Republicans pose to their preservation and extension. For example: how often or well did Democrats explain the Affordable Care Act as an economic initiative? When did they focus on the economic calamities risked by excessive reliance of fossil fuel energy? And in discussing poll-tested policy proposals like a minimum wage increase, to what extent did Democrats nestle these commitments in a broader agenda–that most certainly did exist–of measures aimed at boosting wages and real incomes?
In sum, there are too many variables involved, many of them having nothing to do with policy, to conclude with any degree of precision that a different economic agenda or subordinating health care and the environment to “jobs” would have made a big difference in 2014. And this entire debate is a distraction from what Democrats can do to win in 2016 when they will be in a much better position to hold a comparative “two futures” debate over economic policies instead of a “referendum” on hard times.

I guess this is the season for 20-20 hindsight. But it needs to end soon as we enter the 2016 cycle.

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