At some point, Democrats are going to be back in political power. Watching the struggles of the contemporary Republican Party should firmly impart this message to them: Be ready.
Operationally, that means along with playing hard defense and picking off a “Chuck-and-Nancy win” when possible, be ready to launch thoughtful, vetted, well-understood and well-articulated plans in key policy areas.
Obviously, the anti-role models that motivate this advice are contemporary Republicans, who are all hat and no cattle when it comes to policy. They’re good at getting elected, lousy at governance. Health care is Exhibit A, but beyond “Cut them!” they don’t yet have a tax plan either, which is remarkable when you consider that cutting taxes is their brand.
Watching them scramble in real time to come up with a plan for our complex health-care system — 18 percent of the GDP! — should be instructive. And remember, they had seven years to craft an alternative.
With such a chaotic, dysfunctional president and ungovernable congressional majority, Democrats must not be lulled into facile arguments of “we’re not them,” full stop. They must use their time in the political diaspora to build a policy agenda in (at least) the areas of health care, taxes, jobs and inequality/poverty. Here are some frameworks to give the process a friendly nudge.
Health care: In the near term, people don’t want to lose coverage, and they don’t want spikes in premiums. That means shoring up the ACA, defending the essential benefit package and sharing costs with insurer participants providing expensive care, as promised. It means making sure the premium subsidies are adequate for low- and moderate-income participants in the non-group markets. In the longer term, Democrats must forge a path to universal coverage, an idea that exists at the corner of good politics and good policy. They cannot ignore the constraints of path dependencies, meaning they can’t immediately leapfrog over stakeholders like private insurers and hospitals. But plotting a path to universal coverage, say, by adding a public option to the exchanges and “Medicare for More” (lower Medicare’s eligibility age), may well be the right place to start.
Taxes: The goal of progressive tax reform is simple: reduce pretax inequality and raise ample revenue to meet the known challenges faced by the public sector, including our aging demographics, climate change, geopolitics, rising health costs and helping those left behind even at low unemployment. This implies raising more revenue, and not solely from the top 1 percent, though that’s the right place to start. It means introducing a carbon tax and a small tax on financial transactions (the politics on the latter is very strong, and not just for progressives; I’m less confident about the broad political appeal of a carbon tax, though there are Republicans who support it). It also implies a significant expansion of the refundable credits that help low- and moderate-income working families, most notably the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Jobs: The Democrats need to come out swinging with a guaranteed jobs program. Clearly, Trump garnered votes by promising to help people left behind, even at full employment, and just as clearly, he’s going to shaft those people. So, there’s an opening. Rather than the usual centrist approach — tax credits for firms that hire some targeted group — Democrats need to promote policies that are more direct. There’s a continuum of interventions here, from subsidized employment for the most marginally attached workers to a public jobs program paying living wages to all comers.
Inequality/poverty: Along with direct jobs and expanded tax credits, pushing back on structural poverty will mean helping people undo residential segregation by moving to opportunity. It means lifting the minimum wage to $15 and raising the salary threshold beneath which workers must get overtime pay. Democrats should also look closely at two ways to help give kids a fair start: a child allowance (a stipend for families with kids, and an idea that, believe it or not, has some bipartisan support) and early-childhood education.
Democrats must start huddling around these issues. That means working with progressive think tanks to help design and cost out the ideas, working with messaging firms to figure out the best way to sell them (and to push back on the predictable opposition), and getting their donor base on board. Believe me, I know how busy everyone is, but it means weekend retreats or regular study sessions to develop ideas like those above.
Though it ain’t over til it’s over, their experience with health care thus far suggests that Republicans refuse to learn the old lesson that there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. But for everyone else who’s sick of getting kicked in the head, it’s past time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.