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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

In her Politico article, “Reparations bill tests Biden and Harris on racial justice: The House proposal has been introduced in every Congress for more than three decades and would establish a commission of experts to study direct payments to African Americans.,” Maya King writes, “Despite the enormity of the task behind the legislation known as H.R. 40 — named for the “40 acres and a mule” that has come to symbolize the post-Civil War government’s failure to help formerly enslaved people — the bill has new political momentum since its last introduction in 2019, when the GOP controlled the White House and Senate. The nationwide protests last summer following George Floyd’s killing have raised public awareness of racial injustice and kick-started a national conversation that advocates for a reparations dialogue see as valuable….What no one knows yet is how committed the White House is to the specific House legislative vehicle, which has been introduced in every Congress for more than three decades and would establish a commission of experts to study direct payments to African Americans….If the legislation passes, it would create a commission of more than a dozen experts to review the United States government’s role in supporting enslavement of African Americans from 1619 to 1865 from financial and legal perspectives. It would then recommend to Congress ways to both educate Americans on the legacy of slavery and alleviate its harms.”

However, “Americans are growing increasingly aware of racial inequality in the United States, but a large majority still oppose the use of one-time payments, known as reparations, to tackle the persistent wealth gap between Black and white citizens,” Katanga Johnson reported at Reuters last June. “According to Reuters/Ipsos polls this month, only one in five respondents agreed the United States should use “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States…A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Monday and Tuesday showed clear divisions along partisan and racial lines, with only one in 10 white respondents supporting the idea and half of Black respondents endorsing it…Republicans were heavily opposed, at nearly 80%, while about one in three Democrats supported it. The poll did not ask respondents why they answered the way they did. Other critics have said too much time has passed since slavery was outlawed, and expressed confusion about how it would work.” Yet, “The failure of efforts to offset inequality, beginning with broken promises of farmland for freed slaves after the Civil War, “laid the foundation for the enormous contemporary gap in wealth between Black and White people in the U.S.,” Duke University economist William Darity and writer A. Kirsten Mullen argued in their April book “From Here to Equality.” It appears that any form of cash grants to individuals are a non-starter, politically. But “too bad about your enslaved ancestors, but that was then and this is now” is also a non-starter. While compensatory programs for horrific historical injustices are justified, the term “reparations” remains a tough sell. However, large grants to HBCUs and tuition grants for Black students may be a more promising approach.

In his post, “The Democrats Have An Ambitious Agenda. Here’s What They Should Learn From Obamacare” at FiveThirtyEight, Dan Hopkins writes, “Democrats are back in the driver’s seat, with unified control of the federal government thanks to their Senate wins in Georgia. So, what lessons from their 2010 signature accomplishment should they apply to their efforts to pass legislation in 2021, whether it’s on COVID-19 or climate change?….As a political science professor studying public perceptions of the ACA, I see two core lessons for Democrats to keep in mind. First, to stop high-profile laws from becoming unpopular, it helps to keep them simple. And the ACA was anything but: It sought to increase access to health insurance through a complex patchwork of regulations and other policies, which included creating new health insurance exchanges, expanding Medicaid, adding new rules to guarantee insurance access regardless of preexisting conditions, and mandating that all Americans obtain health insurance….Second, when the public evaluates a complex, multifaceted policy, like the ACA, there is a tendency to focus on its least popular parts. Most of the ACA’s major provisions were actually pretty popular. In a January 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, for instance, 67 percent of respondents said that they were more likely to support health care legislation that created insurance exchanges, while 62 percent said the same about expanding Medicaid. Yet, Obamacare as a whole was viewed unfavorably from 2011 until 2017. That was, in large part, due to one unpopular provision in the law: the individual mandate. In that same 2010 KFF poll, 62 percent said that the health insurance mandate made them less likely to support the bill. And for millions of Americans, the ACA became synonymous with the individual mandate.” Perhaps another lesson is that big package reform is possible only when 60 Senators are in favor of it or with budget reconciliation.

Dylan Scott makes the case that “The Covid-19 relief bill is also an Obamacare expansion bill: Millions of Americans could gain health coverage under the Democrats’ stimulus bill” at Vox. As Scott observes, “The Covid-19 relief package proposed by President Joe Biden and being considered by Democrats in Congress could expand health care coverage to millions of people, the most significant step in the last 10 years toward patching up some of the holes in the Affordable Care Act….The ACA led to a historically low uninsured rate in the US — 8.6 percent in 2016 — but the number of uninsured Americans started ticking up again during the Trump administration, rising to 9.2 percent by 2019. Then millions of people lost their insurance (along with their jobs) during the coronavirus pandemic….The Covid-19 relief plan is trying to move the rate back in the other direction. The most effective provision would be a two-year expansion of the ACA’s premium subsidies, which Americans can use to purchase private health insurance on the marketplaces the law established….Completing the work of universal coverage, which is what Biden’s campaign platform amounted to, will almost assuredly not be accomplished in the president’s first big legislative package. Democrats will likely face a lot of pressure from progressives to go bigger in the next reconciliation bill they pull together….But this is, nevertheless, a start.”

2 comments on “Political Strategy Notes

  1. Martin Lawford on

    From the linked Politico article: “William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University whose work has focused heavily on reparations, said that if Democrats’ goal is to close the racial wealth gap, a handful of individual programs will not achieve it.

    “We’re talking about moving from about two-and-a-half trillion dollars to $13 trillion in wealth among Black Americans,” Darity said. “So I’d like to see how each of these individual initiatives would actually do that. And I’ve never seen anybody actually demonstrate that in any kind of convincing way.”

    There are about two hundred million white Americans. If they are to pay $10 trillion in reparations to their black neighbors, that works out to $50,000 for each white American. Not only does he not have that much money, to pay even most of that sum would consume his entire personal net worth. Nor does he believe he ever enslaved anybody, considering that slavery ended 150 years ago and even then slave owners were a minority in the section of the country where it was legal. What is likely to happen is that the Democrats will add up programs which especially benefit a fraction of black people, like special black-only scholarships, and call that token amount a down payment on the $10 trillion Darity claims full reparations would represent. The majority of black people who do not go to college would get nothing, which hardly compensates them for anything the slave owners did to their great-great-great-grandparents. Appoint a commission, and another, and another, to study the issue, but they will never design a solution which both the payors and the payees will agree on.

  2. Victor on

    This relatively new thing where progressives and leftists argue that the redistributive effects of policies in terms of ethics (class and racial equity) or efficiency are not open for discussion because universal policies are always more politically popular is based on historical arguments that are not solid.

    We do not live in the 1930s or 1960s. Correlations without taking into account current material circumstances and the actual policies involved is politically negligent.

    As with the minimum wage and stimulus payments the problem is not Biden but the deep divisions in the caucuses.

    As long as Democrats don’t embrace “modern monetary theory” there will always be trade offs between political and budgetary priorities. Unless every desirable program is going to be 100% immediately funded then we need to have priorities.

    As long as Democrats don’t support “universal basic income” all programs will involve some degree of means testing or other type of design that excludes a lot of people from benefits.

    Student loans are a good example because you can have universal debt cancellation but this just benefits the rather small minority of Americans with high student loan debt.

    Program design can mean that the benefits become the equivalent of a tax cut for the upper middle class.

    This may be politically popular because college graduates have become one of the key constituencies of the Democratic party, but it doesn’t mean it makes sense from a policy, an ethics or an electoral perspective.

    If Democrats can send $20,000 checks to the poor and working class instead of giving $50,000 in student loan cancellation there should be a discussion on why doing one but not the other is the right way to go.

    In policy terms there are also differences in term of:

    1. how to account for the increase in the national debt (will banks or the federal government assume liabilities?);

    2. does cancelling debt actually stimulate the economy (specially for richer graduates);

    3. what incentives are given for the future behavior of postsecondary educational institutions (will they continue increasing tuition?);

    4. intergenerational equity (will the future student loans also be cancelled to the same amount?).

    Biden is right in taking all these elements into account. He is also right in taking into account that Democrats have just won the election in part by attacking Trump’s abuse of executive power.

    Of course it is becoming obvious that Democrats won’t be able to get deals in Congress, but this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least try.

    I do think that the $10,000 reduction is politically the best way to go and that Biden should act if Congress doesn’t. But he can’t act if Congress actually votes, so the Democratic caucuses should vote in secret first.

    On the minimum wage there should also be internal votes until Democrats can settle on the right speed to achieve $15 and to account for regional variations.

    The notion that the loss of jobs in certain regions and among the poor shouldn’t be taken into account is just another example of leftist political arrogance.

    Moderate Senators are pushing for differentiated minimum wages and this may be the only way to achieve an increase.

    Biden ran on moderating the national political conversation but he is still not taking firm control of the Democratic agenda.

    Voters will judge Democrats not only on what they do but how they get there.

    So yeah, a lot of people were tired of Trump.

    But can Democrats actually govern?


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