The biggest mistake Democrats could make would be to back away from bold ideas on health care, income inequality and climate change — believing that less compelling ideas can still rally voters while avoiding the “socialism” charge from the GOP. The party’s “realists” are unrealistic in thinking that any progressive policies will be spared the “socialism” label from the GOP, and wrong to worry that this label will do any more damage now than it has in the countless earlier failed efforts by Republicans to campaign on such fearmongering.
The experience of the Obama administration is illustrative. Consider President Barack Obama’s two most important domestic legislative achievements: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act. Both were carefully drafted by Clinton-era veterans working for Obama to gain bipartisan support. One-third of the Recovery Act was tax cuts, in part because Obama’s economic team recommended them but mostly because they believed it would bring the GOP on board. And inclusion of the high-speed rail plan in the act was pressed hard by Obama’s Republican transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, who thought it would appeal to his former GOP congressional colleagues.
Likewise, the Affordable Care Act was closely modeled on the health-care plan implemented by Republican Mitt Romney as Massachusetts governor. Like Romney’s plan, the ACA relied principally on private health insurance to expand coverage; in fact, Obama’s plan was developed in consultation with the experts who advised Romney. Additionally, the Obama White House held endless meetings with, and made key policy concessions to, major private-sector players such as the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. All of this was done with a central goal: mollify potential opponents and bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass it.
What happened? In the House, the Recovery Act and the ACA got a combined 465 Democratic votes — and zero Republicans. (In the Senate, the tally was 117 Democratic yesses and three Republican ayes.) All the policy compromises, all the outreach, all the careful pacing were rebuffed by a stone wall of GOP obstruction and partisanship.
Moreover, notwithstanding the extensive tax cuts in the Recovery A ct, and the vast reliance on private industry in the ACA, both were labeled “socialism” by critics. “Socialism” was what Fox News called the Recovery A ct. If the GOP is going to label as “socialism” legislation that largely uses private insurance to pay private providers to expand health coverage — and it did, and still does — why would any 2020 Democratic health-care proposal escape that attack?
Nor did the GOP’s assertion that any social legislation is “socialism” start in the Obama era. Democrats longing for the centrism of the Clinton administration should recall that in 1996, when I was Al Gore’s chief of staff, Jack Kemp stood on the vice presidential debate stage and called the Clinton-Gore empowerment zone program “socialism.”
This is as it always has been. In 1964, George H.W. Bush called Medicare “socialized medicine”; Barry Goldwater said it was like giving away free beer and vacations to pensioners. A generation before, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the New Deal and Social Security, congressional Republicans railed about “socialism.”
Democrats did not cower in the face of these attacks. They won great legislative — and political — gains by brushing them aside and fighting for health security and greater economic fairness.
This, of course, does not mean that the most sweeping proposals are the best proposals, either substantively or politically. The right path forward on health care, taxes and climate change should be the subject of robust (but constructive) discussion over the next two years. But Democrats should not back down for fear of the “socialism” label, or out of some illusion that more modest approaches will be spared that attack.
There’s a proverb that applies here. When the English authorities long ago imposed capital punishment for any theft of farm animals, no matter how small, the pilfering of the fattest, most valuable livestock went up. If taking any animal was going to get you hanged, “might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb,” the folk wisdom said.
Republicans and conservative media are going to call whatever Democrats propose “socialism.” They are going to fight these proposals tooth and nail, for as long as they can. Democrats might as well stand for policies that embrace their values and true perspective, and let the voters decide whose path forward is best for our country.