But that’s simply not true to history: Since the New Deal, Democrats have thrived when championing ideas moored in the belief that rights come with responsibilities and that benefits are earned through work. If we fail to return to that agenda ahead of the 2020 election, we risk squandering a rare opportunity. Fortunately, we now have a chance to shift the narrative.
Amid all the talk about programs designed to redistribute America’s wealth, the phrase most glaringly absent from the 2020 campaign to this point is “inclusive growth.” With former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entering the race last week and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg emerging as another late entrant, we can begin to have an ideas primary in earnest. We’re stronger as a party when we debate substantive proposals for how to expand prosperity and opportunity. But to meet the far left’s big ideas, traditional liberals need to show up with bold ideas of their own.
Admittedly, I’ve been critical of those trying to the steer the Democratic Party further to the left. I think Medicare-for-all is a pipe dream, though I support efforts to expand coverage and control costs. And much as I agree that concentrated power is a threat to American prosperity, I believe a universal basic income runs counter to America’s deep-seated belief that people should earn their living by working hard and playing by the rules. As power and money have flowed away from the working and middle classes — a change driven as much by technology and globalization as by a rigged system — government has too frequently turned the other cheek. Since we have consensus on the nature of the problem, the question then is how to level the playing field.
Traditional liberals need to begin offering their own bold ideas for three principle reasons. The first and most important centers on history. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, and Barack Obama’s belief that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America. There’s the United States of America,” all appealed to voters by tapping into the nation’s firmly established belief that people should earn their prosperity through hard work. Social Security and Medicare aren’t handouts; they’re financed by what workers pay through a payroll tax. The GI Bill and AmeriCorps both offer tuition assistance in return for national service. The earned-income tax credit is designed to boost families working their way out of poverty.
By tying benefits to work, the programs that remain the central pillars of the Democratic Party’s legacy stand apart from the agenda the far left has embraced in this campaign. Our most sweeping successes fighting poverty have emerged when we’ve offered the American people a core bargain: If you work through the course of your life, the government will help you climb into the middle class. When our party has nominated candidates banging the drum for redistribution — such as George McGovern or Walter Mondale — we’ve lost. Hopefully, bids from Bloomberg and Patrick will serve as a wake-up call.
Second, if you want to help America’s middle class (and those trying to enter the middle class), it is much more effective to give breadwinners the tools to succeed than it is to hand them a bevy of unearned entitlements. Washington needs to invest in the nation’s education system, infrastructure, and research and development. But those priorities get lost when voters hear our candidates speak almost exclusively about how they intend to hand out additional entitlements no questions asked.
Third, Democrats need to be clear on the politics. President Trump’s reelection hopes hinge on his ability to scare suburban voters, a key constituency within our Metropolitan Majority, into believing they can’t trust Democrats with their hard-earned money. Let’s not be politically short-sighted or give Republicans opportunities to frame us as irresponsible tax-and-spenders by championing, for example, proposals to give free health care to new undocumented immigrants. Beyond harnessing Trump’s abysmal approval rating, we can use this moment to establish a governing majority that lasts well past 2020. Let’s not squander our advantage.
Good on Warren and Sanders for bringing their “A-game” to the debate — but let’s be clear: Big ideas aren’t necessarily good. With any luck, Bloomberg and Patrick will spur traditional liberals to re-animate the bold Democratic creed centered on work, responsibility, shared prosperity and equal access to opportunity. If the new contenders inspire a new wave of progressive thinking, we’ll not only prevail next November, but for years to come.