Ronald A. Klain’s Washington Post column, “Democrats can’t give up on white working-class voters,” sheds some fresh light on Democratic prospects for winning a pivotal portion of this large constituency. Klain, a senior White House aide to Presidents Obama and Clinton and also a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, writes that, “pragmatically, Democrats need to capture a larger share of white working-class voters. Yes, the party can win the national popular vote without them — and thanks to demographic trends, the Democratic base will continue to grow. But the electoral college remains a reality in presidential politics, and as 2000 and 2016 proved, winning the popular vote alone is not sufficient.”
Credit Klain with using an important phrase that even many seasoned pundits have missed, rendering their “either/or” analyses less than useful. The phrase is “a larger share of white working-class voters.” Not “all white working-class voters,” not “white working-class voters in general” or even “most white working-class voters.” No false choices about strategizing to win all or none. It’s about getting a larger share, and it doesn’t have to be all that much. A gain of 10 percent of white working-class voters for Democrats could be a major game changer, insuring a progressive future for America for decades to come.
And the best part of this modest objective is that it does not sell out any other Democratic constituency. It requires no pandering to racism or nativism, and no squandering of money, time and effort needed to mobilize turnout of the base. What it does require is inclusive policies and rhetoric that speak to working-class voters of all races, policies that brand the Democrats as the only party that offers hope for a better life for working people and their families — black, white, red, brown, yellow and all shades in between.
Klain underscores another good point: “Moreover, for Democrats, it is not enough to win elections: To legislate, you need control of the Senate, where power is concentrated in less populous states, and a solid majority in the gerrymandered House. Thus, to achieve real change, progressives need majorities in a wide swath of the country.” From now on, and forever going forward, Democrats must more strongly emphasize the critical importance of midterm elections to their base, the rising American electorate and all working-class voters. It’s not enough to win the presidency alone. Democrats must also have congressional majorities to move reforms forward. Otherwise, it’s gridlock and polarizing frustration.
“From a policy perspective,” writes Kain, “if Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could build inclusive coalitions to advance progressive aims, than surely future Democratic leaders can, too. FDR’s Social Security, Clinton’s earned-income tax credits for poor workers and Obama’s health-care reform were all examples of policy ideas that crossed “tribal lines” behind progressive goals.” More such bread and butter reforms are needed to brand Democrats as the party of working people and their families.
Klain points out that “One concept central to these successes was linking progressive aims to the widely shared value of work: tightening the bond between hard work and decent pay, health security and a safe retirement.’ But he cautions that “This may explain why some ideas that Democrats advocated in 2016 — such as “free college” — did not resonate with white working-class voters: Even if such policies were in their economic interest, these voters rejected “free anything” as “handouts.” More to the point, “free college” can be twisted by Republicans to sound like “you’re going to pay for somebody else’s kid’s education.” The better term, the easier sell, is “affordable education.” That implies fair cost-sharing from all families.
Klain endorses a revitalized movement for full employment, including “new proposals from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif).; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — to provide a job for any American willing to work,” which “could be on target. This idea would unite voters who want to help people left behind with those who share former vice president Joe Biden’s view that an earned paycheck is central to Americans’ dignity. And it would provide a powerful rebuttal to cruel new GOP plans to take away health-care coverage and other benefits with “work requirements” that would punish the disadvantaged for not having jobs that don’t exist.”
This sounds a lot like putting some teeth into the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, a law which got badly watered down into a grandiose statement of principles and intentions by the time it reached the President’s desk. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a “guaranteed job for any American willing to work.” But an enormous amount of time, money and energy went into securing passage of Humphrey-Hawkins, which said essentially the same thing. Instead of another comprehensive, multifaceted job guarantee bill, might all those resources be better utilized in building a movement for an infrastructure bill that would put millions of Americans to work in good jobs?
In a sense, such an infrastructure bill is already pre-sold: Polling shows that Americans overwhelmingly agree that our infrastructure needs major repair and rebuild, coast to coast. A Harvard-Harris poll conducted in September found that 84 percent of the public wants to invest more in infrastructure, which is about as close to a slam-dunk as you can get in a poll. In an AmericaThinks survey conducted last July, 70 percent agreed that “improved infrastructure is worth possible tax and toll increases.” According to the Ipsos 2017 Global Infrastructure Index, “nearly two thirds of Americans (62%) believe that the U.S. is not doing enough to meet its infrastructure needs” and “roughly three quarters of Americans think investing in infrastructure is vital to America’s future economic growth (73%).”
Powerpost’s Mike Debonis reports that Democratic leaders are already moving forward in developing an ambitious infrastructure proposal to create 15 million jobs at a living wage, far more substantial than anything on the GOP docket. “As the White House struggles to finance an ambitious infrastructure plan, Senate Democrats are proposing one alternative — albeit one unlikely to pass muster with President Trump: rolling back the recently passed Republican tax overhaul…The proposal unveiled by Democratic leaders Wednesday would plow just over $1 trillion into a wide range of infrastructure needs, including $140 billion for roads and bridges, $115 billion for water and sewer infrastructure and $50 billion to rebuild schools.”…The spending would be offset by clawing back two-thirds of the revenue lost in the Republican tax bill by reinstating a top income tax rate of 39.6 percent, restoring the individual alternative minimum tax, reversing cuts to the estate tax, and raising the corporate income tax from 21 percent to 25 percent.”
Democrats are in very good shape to win majority control of the House of Representatives and the speakership, which will force Trump to negotiate, if he wants to get anything done. Whatever hopes the GOP had for making a credible infrastructure program all their own are shot — if there ever was any possibility. Any such bill is going to have the Democratic stamp on it in a big way, and that would be very good thing for branding the Democrats as the party of working people and their families.