There’s a lot of chatter about an interview that center-left Democratic economist Brad DeLong just gave to Vox, in which DeLong argues that it’s time for centrists like him to make peace with the left. The core insight that DeLong offers is that the animating idea driving many centrist Democrats for years has proved to be a failure, and as a result, it’s time for them to rethink their approach to both politics and policy in accordance with this new reality.
As DeLong puts it, on one issue after another — from health care to climate change — centrist-minded Democrats have modulated the party’s priorities in hopes of striking a political deal with the center-right. But that deal has never been forthcoming, because there is no functional center-right in U.S. politics.
DeLong notes that centrist Democrats like himself have been driven by a genuine belief in the superiority of market-oriented or (as they’re sometimes called) “neoliberal” policies, but also a theory of political change. That theory held that striking broad bipartisan deals on policy might be worth doing, even if the result is somewhat less progressive, because it would result in them being “more strongly entrenched in America and much better implemented than if it were implemented by a narrow, largely partisan majority.”
But as DeLong points out, this hasn’t paid off:
Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.
And [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and company say we’ve got to build bridges to the Republicans. We’ve got to let Republicans amend cap and trade up the wazoo, we’ve got to let Republicans amend the [Affordable Care Act] up the wazoo before it comes up to a final vote, we’ve got to tread very lightly with finance on Dodd-Frank, we have to do a very premature pivot away from recession recovery to “entitlement reform.”
All of these with the idea that you would then collect a broad political coalition behind what is, indeed, Mitt Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.
And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?
No, they f--king did not. … Today, there’s literally nobody on the right between those frantically accommodating Donald Trump, on the one hand, and us on the other.
Instead, once Republicans took total control for two years, we saw the rewards granted to Democrats for trying to be compromising. The reward for adopting Mitt Romney’s health-care plan in hopes of getting bipartisan support for it was unremitting scorched-earth opposition to Obamacare, including a failed effort to repeal it entirely, which Republicans undertook while pretending they were maintaining people’s protections.
The reward for Obama and Democrats reaching deals to cut spending and treading lightly in response to the worst economic crisis in 70 years, and keeping full-blown economic populism at bay, was President Trump’s massive deficit-exploding corporate tax cut that showered enormous benefits on top earners, which Republicans passed while pretending their plan was pro-worker.
The reward for Obama and Democrats embracing market-oriented “cap and trade” climate policy was that Republicans blocked it with a wall of intransigence and fossil-fuel-industry-funded climate change denialism. Now Republicans are all-in with Trump’s even more explicit climate denialism and a full-scale effort to roll back everything Obama did to combat global warming, including Trump pulling us out of a painstakingly negotiated international deal in a manner that is enraging our allies.
I would add one more to this list: immigration. As I’ve noted, on immigration, the Democratic Party for many years embraced the idea that supporting maximal enforcement would lure Republicans into supporting legalizing undocumented immigrants. But GOP intransigence has revealed this as a fantasy. After Democrats passed comprehensive immigration reform embodying that bargain through the Senate in 2013 by a broad bipartisan majority, the GOP-controlled House simply refused to vote on it. Now Republicans have gone all-in with an even more virulent form of xenophobic anti-immigrant nationalism, as well as with imaginary solutions like mass deportations and Trump’s wall.
So now we’re seeing an increasingly emboldened left making the case for much more progressive taxation and much more aggressive efforts to rewrite the rules of the market, for dramatically ambitious health care and climate policies in the form of various iterations of Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, and for a move away from an enforcement-for-legalization paradigm on immigration, and toward a much more pro-immigration stance as a matter of basic values. And the party as a whole is much more open to these aggressive postures.
It’s important to stress that the party has been pushed toward these positions by grass-roots movements and by the changing nature of the Democratic base, which is more diverse, younger and better educated than it was the last time Democrats held a House majority. But another thing driving these changes is that in many of these areas — from soaring economic inequality to climate change to the need for reforms to our immigration system that don’t retreat on our humanitarian commitments — there’s an increased recognition that the Republican Party is basically going to sit out the process of addressing these major challenges of our time, as most Democrats understand them.
This, combined with the fact that some of these challenges are simultaneously growing more urgent, is pushing Democrats toward more ambitious solutions and away from a futile, accommodationist effort to chase the mirage of consensus with the center-right.