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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Top Clinton Policy Advisor Says Dems Should Go Big, Bold and Left on Economy

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Hillaryland Says: It’s Time to Think Big!

I thought this was really interesting. Jake Sullivan, who was senior policy adviser on Clinton’s 2016 campaign, has a lengthy article up on the Democracy Journal website where he argues strongly that Democrats should embrace big, bold policy ideas. Presumably this is indicative of how folks in that sector of the party are thinking about things these days. One of the most telling nuggets in the article is this:

“In contending with Sanders, we often fell back on the argument that his proposed agenda simply wasn’t achievable. I cheered when Hillary styled herself as a “progressive who gets things done” during the first primary debate in Las Vegas, but while it was a great debate moment, it also created a trap that became apparent as the campaign unfolded. Instead of aspiration, we gave people arithmetic: His numbers didn’t add up! This was a mistake. There was a time and place for expressing caution on the sheer magnitude of spending in Bernie’s agenda, but it should not have been our core critique.”

So clearly some serious re-thinking is going on here. What kind of re-thinking? Sullivan starts his article this way:

“When political commentators aren’t talking about Donald Trump, they are often talking about how the Democratic Party has “moved to the left.” This is often phrased as a lament, the notion being that the party has been hijacked by its progressive wing. But what if that is missing the point? What if, when it comes to economic policy at least, it’s the country’s political center of gravity that is actually shifting? That is, what if not just one party, but the American electorate as a whole is moving to embrace a more energized form of government—one that tackles the excesses of the free market and takes on big, serious challenges through big, serious legislation instead of the more restrained measures to which we’ve grown accustomed? What would that mean for Democrats?”

He answers his own question in a remarkably robust fashion:

“This essay proceeds from the premise that we have reached another turning point. Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess. There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before—and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality. The tide is running in the other direction, and, with history serving as our guide, it could easily be a decades-long tide…

In the face of Trump, some Democrats will be skittish about embracing big, bold economic policy solutions for fear of alienating independents and moderate Republicans who can help defend our national institutions, our core values, and our democracy. What these trends suggest is that Democrats do not have to choose between shoring up the “vital center” in American politics and supporting a more vigorous national response to our economic challenges. Both are possible. Indeed, both are necessary to defeating the long-term threat of Trumpism.

Most important, the bottom line is that Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving left. The center of gravity itself is moving, and this is a good thing. The government’s role in checking the excesses of the free market and supporting workers and families should and will be redefined in the years ahead…..

We Democrats do need to embrace a big, bold policy agenda. We do need to heed the calls of Franklin Roosevelt, who asked us to save capitalism from its excesses, and Lyndon Johnson, who asked us to think ambitiously about how government—and yes, government programs—can help do that. But, crucially, we need to apply their principles to a new economic landscape.

What we need, ultimately, is to encourage the rise of New Old Democrats.

Here’s the old part: reclaiming a willingness to take energetic government action when the circumstances call for it, based on a respect for the free market but also a recognition that the free market alone will not serve the public interest without checks against abuse, corruption, and unacceptable levels of inequality. Roosevelt knew this as well as anyone. My hero Hubert Humphrey, another son of Minnesota, knew this too. They saw that public policy can solve these problems—that the rise of inequality and the loss of mobility is not chiefly a story of abstract “market failures,” but of self-serving actors intentionally distorting markets, and government failing to stop them.

Here are the new parts:

We need to marry the principles of Roosevelt and the ambition of Johnson with updated understandings of how the job market works, how families live, and how corporate and political power are exercised in the globalized, technology-driven landscape of the twenty-first century.”

New Old Democrats. Not sure that’ll catch on but I take his point and generally agree with it. As I do with most of the policy ideas he advances under four “Core Pillars for s New Old Democratic Platform” I was particularly taken with Pillar #3: “Tackle the geography of opportunity so that all regions experience a middle-class revival”. This is absolutely essential given current economic trends and has not, until very recently, gotten enough attention from Democrats. As Sullivan notes:

“Old Democrats thought a lot about communities that had been left behind in the face of social and technological change. Roosevelt invested in rural electrification. Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson fought urban and rural poverty. Today, the geography of opportunity should be a central focus once again—specifically, the disparity in growth and dynamism between cities and rural communities, the urban core and wealthier neighborhoods, the suburbs and the exurbs, the coastal metropolises and mid-sized cities in the middle of America.”

Amen to that. Exactly which big ideas Democrats should be pushing to address this big problem–and others–is a reasonable subject for debate and I think it’s fair to say Sullivan does not have the definitive take. But that’s fine. These are the debates Democrats should be having in the run-up to 2020 rather than the endless and rather pointless debates about base mobilization vs. reaching swing voters (Spoiler alert: you need to do both!) Sullivan points the way to a healthier and way more interesting and important discussion.

Sullivan is not unaware that some will see his recommendations as some sort of dismissal of what we might loosely call “identity politics”. He urges us not get dragged down into that kind of argument. Instead his view is that:

“[T]he only way out is through. Hillary Clinton was fundamentally right when she said that we need to deal with all of the barriers holding people back—not just the economic and political barriers, but obstacles of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. We should not be apologetic about that, or tiptoe around it. The task—and where we fell short—is to figure out how to speak honestly about these barriers in a way that allows everyone to see themselves as part of a common effort, a shared effort, an effort that benefits the whole country. While I disagree with those who argue that Democrats should de-emphasize or outright avoid what some see as “inconvenient” issues touching on race or identity or immigration, I take their point that an explicit list of groups in a candidate’s stump speech can end up dividing more than uniting. Which brings me back to Hubert Humphrey. We need “happy warriors”—strongly crusading against injustice and disadvantages and doing so in a way that is hopeful and summons us to shared purpose.”

Sign me up!

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