After the midterm debacle, liberal insurgents say it’s time to upend the Democratic Party.
By BILL SCHER
Progressive America Rising via Politico
Dec 08, 2014 - Even as they publicly condemn Tea Party Republicans as hostage-taking legislative thugs, the truth is that some Democrats are quietly jealous of them. Think of it: The Tea Party gang gets to intimidate party leaders, threaten legislation, block nominees, shut down the government and default on the debt if they don’t get their way. They cause major trouble.
Boy, does that sound good.
The extreme right has power, and that’s something the left hasn’t had much of for a long time. But in the aftermath of the party’s disastrous midterm performance, it’s very possible that the Democratic Party leadership will be facing its own Tea Party-style insurgency from the other side of the spectrum. “You’re going to get a fight within the Democratic Party. There is a substantial disagreement coming up,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, an outspoken Congressional Progressive Caucus member, recently told the Wall Street Journal.
The only question is, how serious a fight will it be? Will it be a polite spat that results in what has happened most often before—the fast marginalization of the left, with the best elements of the various critiques being stitched together by a centrist Hillary Clinton, or whoever is the nominee in 2016? Or are the populists ready to stage their own grass-roots rebellion, setting their sights on eradicating all corporate influence from the Democrats and undermining any attempt by President Barack Obama to compromise with Republicans by any means necessary?
Progressive activists such as the feisty Progressive Change Campaign Committee would love to be able to instill some of their own intraparty fear, sharpen their populist pitchforks and prod Democratic leaders leftward. And there is reason to believe this could be their moment.
The rebels offer a message about the chronic unfairness of the system so potent that even the Koch brothers aren’t above poaching it (a recent ad from the Kochs’ political arm chastised newly deposed Sen. Mary Landrieu for flying in private jets, even though the brothers have a few of their own). The new liberal insurgency is savvy enough to stress issues that poll well and relate to the economic anxieties gripping the electorate, such as increasing Social Security benefits and shrinking the size of Wall Street, instead of chasing stale leftist pipe dreams like nationalizing the health insurance industry. And they have the good fortune of going up against rivals unable to match the intensity of their focus, with a sitting president managing a never-ending list of crises, a 2016 Democratic front-runner who is congenitally cautious, and an incoming Republican majority distracted with figuring out how to keep a government open.
With progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ascension to the Senate Democratic leadership, momentum would appear to be with the populists, and they will likely have multiple opportunities in the next Congress to plant their flag. Already Warren—who often refrains from personal attacks against leaders of the Democratic establishment—is turning opposition to Obama’s Treasury undersecretary nomination of Wall Street investment banker Antonio Weiss into a populist rallying cry.
And despite the recent jousting between the White House and the Republican leadership (not to mention the White House and the Senate Democratic leadership), there are several policy matters on the horizon where the interests of Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could converge. But since most areas of potential compromise will likely fail to unify the Republican caucus, congressional Democrats will have leverage to shape deals, or sabotage them.
Another potential flashpoint for populists is a budget deal. Any bill passed this month to keep the government open will only run as long as the end of the fiscal year in September, if not earlier. (Also of note, last year’s debt ceiling suspension is up in three months.) At some point in 2015, Obama and the Republican majority are going to have to reach agreements on spending levels if government agencies are to stay open. With discretionary social spending already cut by 15 percent since Republicans took over the House in 2011, any additional cuts will be hard for Democrats to swallow. If Obama chooses to trade additional cuts to win something else, congressional Democrats could opt to play their own shutdown card.
Also on tap is surveillance reform, an issue that animates liberals as much as civil libertarians of the Tea Party. If no bill is passed by June 1, the PATRIOT Act sections that provide the legal basis for the controversial metadata collection program and the “roving” wiretap program will expire. As libertarian-minded Republicans have already balked at the mild NSA reform that passed the House (but failed to clear the Senate) earlier this year, Democratic votes will likely be needed, and could be withheld.
If a Tea Party of the left rises, it will be something that we haven’t experienced on the national scene for a long time. Ever since Bill Clinton moved the Democratic Party to the center in the early 1990s, and certainly through much of the Obama era, most elected Democrats were reluctant to play hardball.
For example, in March 2010 the Congressional Progressive Caucus chose not to follow through on its 2009 threat to vote against any health care bill that didn’t give consumers the choice of a government-run health insurance plan, supporting an Affordable Care Act that saved private insurers from competing with the federal government. Immediately after the 2010 midterms, the House Democratic caucus initially supported a nonbinding resolution declaring opposition to Obama’s deal with the Republicans to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi still put it on the floor, and a majority of her caucus voted for it.
By 2011, with Obama now trying to work with a Republican majority in the House, Democratic willingness to buck the president increased, yet was still limited. House Democrats split evenly over the bipartisan deal that swapped spending cuts for a higher federal debt limit. But few Democrats were serious about risking a debt default; the 95 “no” votes surely would have been fewer if passage wasn’t already assured. And the split did not cause a deeper rift and did not hamper Obama’s 2012 reelection bid.
However, once Obama’s days on the ballot were over, and Democratic fates were no longer intertwined with his, populists began to feel out opportunities to more openly oppose any presidential rightward leanings. Warren led a pressure campaign to prevent Obama from nominating Larry Summers to the Federal Reserve. Immigration advocates antagonized Obama as “deporter-in-chief” instead of taking Obama’s advice and training their fire on obstructionist Republicans.
Still, Democrats stopped short of a scorched-earth, Tea Party-style insurgency. Some progressives wanted Democrats to thwart the December 2013 post-shutdown budget deal over its exclusion of long-term unemployment benefits, in effect threatening their own shutdown. But in the end, only 32 House Democrats broke ranks. And despite their unease over the president’s offer to swap higher tax revenues for reducing Social Security benefits by rejiggering the cost-of-living formula, only 40 Democratic House members signed a pledge to vote against any such deal.
Moreover, there were no Tea Party-style populist primary challenges of incumbent Democrats of any significance in 2014, prompting Brookings Institution’s Walter Shapiro to declare, “the Democrats appear to have swapped their rambunctious heritage for a hefty dose of Xanax.”
The same could be said for Democrats’ approach to the November election. They did not embrace the proud Obama message bragging on how the gross domestic product, private-sector job creation and corporate profits all have grown during the past six years. After crediting the Democrats’ “new foundation” of public “investments,” health care reforms and Wall Street “rules,” Obama contended we should build on his record of activist government to tackle the remaining problem of stagnant wages. Nor did Democrats go all-in on the combative Warren message that eschewed praise of the incrementally improved system, bypassing the Obama record to excoriate a fundamentally broken system: “The game is rigged.”
Democrats by and large passed on any pointed, overarching vision and instead ran on a “populist lite” platform of higher minimum wages, equal pay, birth control access, lower student-loan rates and closing corporate tax loopholes, with some paeans to bipartisanship and fiscal restraint thrown in the mix.
But now, since no single big-picture approach was fully tested in 2014, Democrats of all stripes are free to insist their preferred narrative lights the path to a successful 2016 and beyond. The race to define the Democratic Party of the future is on.
There will be several testing points along the way. Beyond those issues with hard deadlines in 2015 is the higher-hanging fruit of corporate tax reform. Obama and Republican leaders expressed interest in finding common ground after the midterms—with Obama linking the issue to a priority nearer to his heart, job-creating infrastructure spending. There are several factors that suggest such a grand bargain could happen. Bipartisan legislation already exists that would set up a public-private infrastructure loan fund with money collected from corporate profits now stashed in offshore bank accounts, via “repatriation” of the cash with a one-time discount tax rate. The concept has been backed by strange bedfellows such as former President Clinton and Sen. Rand Paul.
But there is a reason this deal wasn’t struck already. Any corporate tax reform acceptable to Obama involves offsetting the cost of lower rates by closing loopholes, sparking a myriad of fights between corporations that has yet to be resolved. And Warren’s populists see the president’s supposed “repatriation” gambit—if corporations bring back money from overseas, they’ll get tax breaks—as a perfect example of how “the game is rigged.” Progressives see it as a giant handout to corporations leavened only by the few crumbs of infrastructure they will reportedly be obligated to invest in. Even if Obama, Boehner and McConnell could pull off this deal, a Democratic Tea Party could partner with Republicans and scotch Obama’s hope to add to his legacy a literal concrete achievement.
In the populists’ wildest dreams, Democrats would band together with Republicans steamed at Obama’s executive actions to derail legislation giving the president “fast-track” trade negotiation authority. The bill would allow trade agreements signed by Obama to be submitted to Congress without any opportunity for amendments or filibusters. Trade proponents see fast-track as a critical precursor to securing economically beneficial regional agreements with Asia and Europe, whereas Warren sees another case of how the game is rigged to serve “Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters [and] outsourcers.”
However, for Democrats to have leverage on trade, Republicans have to be divided. To date, Republican support for Obama’s trade deals has been strong, with near unanimous support for the South Korea, Panama and Colombia agreements. This month, Republican leaders have been striving to keep the executive action controversy separate from their fast-track push, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—which significantly funded the Republican midterm victories—will be lobbying their clients heavily. Republicans would have to snub their own patrons for a Democratic Tea Party to stymie Obama’s trade agenda.
While trade may be too big a reach, the other issues appear to give the populists strong opportunities to make their mark. But with opportunities come risks.
Populists can make the case that the public is with them on reining in Wall Street, demanding corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and opposing unfair trade deals. But last year Tea Party Republicans thought they could win a shutdown showdown because polls showed opposition to Obamacare. They were wrong. Republicans suffered major public opinion damage for instigating the shutdown and were forced to cave in the subsequent budget agreement.
Furthermore, the Democratic base is far more open to compromise than the Republican base. In a post-election Pew poll, only 32 percent of Republican voters wanted the new Congress to work with Obama. But 52 percent of Democratic voters wanted Obama to work with the incoming Republican majority. Democrats are more inclined to see compromise itself as a public good, a fealty to the cult of bipartisanship that drives progressive activists nuts. If Democratic base voters get squeamish over reflexively oppositional tactics, the attempt to launch a progressive populist uprising could fizzle.
The lesson is: There are limits to how much confrontation the public will tolerate, a fact of political life that Tea Party Republicans still have difficulty accepting—witness the conservative rationalizations that the shutdown helped Republicans win the midterms, leaving out the fact that Republicans prudently refused an opportunity to shut it down again one month prior to Election Day. Fighting on principle can earn respect, but putting gamesmanship ahead of governing will not.
If copying the Tea Party handbook is fraught with danger, where does that leave the Warrens and the Nadlers? One alternative to maximum congressional confrontation is maximum public communication. Selling the populist worldview and winning the argument in the court of public opinion is more important than fighting each and every legislative skirmish to the bitterest of ends. If a Democratic Tea Party is going to improve upon the Republican version, more strategic thinking will have to be applied regarding what battles to pick and when it’s time to stand down.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently recoiled at the recent friction within Democratic ranks. Noting the difficulties the Republican majority will have resolving its fissures, he argued, “Democrats should be exploiting those, not rehashing old fights [and] thwarting themselves.” But Milbank ignores the fact that tussles between populists and centrists inside the Democratic big tent have proven constructive, leading to compromises that form the heart of Obama’s liberal legacy: the Recovery Act, Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank bank reform. Tension over proposed centrist reforms that the populists helped stall, such as with Social Security and trade, have yet to tear the party apart.
One of the oddities of the past six years is that the Democrats have carried the burden of managing the broader ideological spectrum within their rank and file, yet Republicans are the ones who have suffered the most from intraparty warfare. The greater acceptance among Democratic base voters for compromise and diversity of opinion are the poles that have kept up their tent.
That acceptance will give the populists plenty of running room when seeking to win the debate with voters but will also constrain them from employing the most confrontational tactics inside Congress. Populists need not muzzle their vision or surrender their votes, but neither do they need to read Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor to move the Democratic Party in their preferred direction.
Bill Scher is the senior writer at the Campaign for America’s Future, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ” along with the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis.