With President Trump flailing and even Republicans panning the GOP-controlled Congress, Democrats have begun a long-overdue debate about the party’s platform and strategy. Citizen movements and progressive political leaders such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are driving this debate. United in opposition to Trump’s reactionary agenda, they are calling on Democrats to embrace a bolder agenda for change. While many Beltway pundits warn against Democratic division, the party’s congressional leaders — Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer — understand that this has been a long time coming.
The “Better Deal” platform put forth by Senate Minority Leader Schumer (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Pelosi (Calif.) received justified gibes on its framing and language. But its premise was exactly right. As Schumer put it in the New York Times, “In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program [and] failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people, not the special interests. We will not repeat the same mistake.”
The Better Deal essentially endorses the big debate about a reform agenda that has already begun inside and outside the Democratic Party. Democratic failure isn’t about Vladimir Putin or James B. Comey or Hillary Clinton’s emails. Since Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats have lost the White House, both houses of Congress and about 1,000 state legislative seats. Republicans now have total control in a record 26 states. Clearly, a major debate about the party’s agenda, strategy and leadership is sorely needed.
Pelosi and Schumer are trying to corral this debate. Progressives such as Sanders (I-Vt.) and Warren (D-Mass.) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus are trying to expand it. But citizen movements are the ones truly driving it.
The first priority of these groups has been to stiffen the spines of Democrats and enforce unity in opposition to the right-wing agenda of Trump and the Republican Congress. The mobilization against the Republican health-care plan, which would have stripped millions of health care to pay for tax cuts for the few, included virtually the entire activist base of the party — unions, senior groups, women’s and civil rights groups, online activists such as MoveOn.org, grass-roots groups such as People’s Action, and more. They enforced Democratic unity while challenging Republicans in their offices and town-hall meetings.
The second priority has been to push Democrats and their agenda. Fight for $15 has pushed the plight of low-wage workers onto the national agenda. Black Lives Matter demonstrations forced Democrats to address police brutality and sentencing reform. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice have led opposition to Republican efforts to roll back women’s right to control their bodies. The Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina provides a model of an interracial coalition fighting for political and economic reform. National Nurses United and former Sanders campaign activists have driven Medicare-for-all onto the national agenda.
The challenge hasn’t been limited to single-issue groups. The insurgent Sanders campaign has unleashed activist energy across the country. Sandernistas are running for party offices, challenging sitting legislators and pushing to rewrite state platforms. Warren, Sanders, Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) in the Senate and Keith Ellison (Minn.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus members in the House have challenged the limits of the Democratic agenda on everything from antitrust policy to money in politics to breaking up Wall Street.
Now a broad collection of groups, the Millions of Jobs Coalition, has begun pushing Democrats to unite on a set of principles, detailed in House Concurrent Resolution 63 on how to rebuild America the right way. They demand public investment, not corporate giveaways, prioritize 21st-century clean-energy programs and jobs, want guarantees for racial and gender equity, would put the needs of disadvantaged rural and urban communities first, and call for enforcing “buy-American” and basic labor agreements to ensure that good American jobs are created.
Of course, Trump and Republicans still set the national agenda, with tax cuts and infrastructure being two possibilities. A broad coalition of more than 400 groups called Americans for Tax Fairness champions progressive tax reform that helps make the rich and corporations pay their fair share — a stance that enjoys overwhelming public approval. Similarly, activists will challenge Trump’s infrastructure plan, which appears to feature the worst forms of crony capitalism: “public private partnerships” that privatize highways and bridges and impose tolls on users; tax giveaways to companies stowing profits abroad.
Pelosi and Schumer have already embraced the $15 minimum wage, a $1 trillion public infrastructure agenda, an aggressive antitrust agenda and a balanced trade agenda that begins to unpack the corporate trade policies championed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama. But these battles on economic issues — as well as the continuing debate over social issues such as choice and money and politics — will continue to roil Democrats. Activists will fight to put Medicare for all, progressive tax reform and public infrastructure investment on that agenda. The debate about strategy, about money in politics, about the Wall Street wing of the party will grow ever more fierce.
Already Beltway voices are fretting about division, about Democrats shooting at one another, about the need for unity in order to win in 2018. But a fierce debate is unavoidable. The party establishment won’t change on its own, despite its remarkable record of consistent failure. The money wing of the party won’t cede its hold without a fight. Democratic leaders won’t see the light unless they feel the heat.
Establishment Democrats count on Trump’s grotesqueries to unify and mobilize Democrats. But if Hillary Clinton’s campaign taught us anything, it is that simple opposition or “resistance” to Trump is not enough. Democrats can’t even mobilize their own base to vote — particularly in off-year elections — unless they champion a bold program that offers a credible promise of change to the vast majority of Americans. Pelosi and Schumer have recognized that. The resulting debate is not only long-overdue, it is also utterly necessary if Democrats are to begin winning elections again.
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