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Can Democrats Go Long?

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For more than 30 years, the right has been throwing long passes. The Democrats, with some fine individual exceptions in the Senate and House, have been playing an incremental game, eking out gains of a few yards at a time and often being thrown for big losses.

Guess which side has been winning.

Four decades ago, supply side economics was a joke. The idea that cutting taxes on the very rich was the key to prosperity had been laughed out of the debate as "trickle down economics." Now low taxes on the rich -- even the dead rich -- are national policy.

Forty years ago, Richard Nixon was fighting mostly on territory defined by Democrats. He had a universal health proposal somewhat to the left of the Affordable Care Act. Nixon was even for a guaranteed annual income, and that was before Watergate.

In the 1970s, both parties were environmentalist. Epic laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were approved with large, bipartisan majorities. Now, regulation is a dirty word.

Meanwhile, Democrats have made nice incremental progress on laws like the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy to industry that allows corporations to pay their workers less and have government make up the difference) while the distribution of wage and salary income becomes steadily more unequal.

The Office of Management and Budget, under a Democratic president, waters down environmental regulations even before the Republican House of Representatives adds further obstacles.

The Democrats have made incremental gains at insuring more people, as the entire health system is so dominated by commercial players that it is becoming generally unaffordable, and more and more people are under-insured.

We've reformed a corrupted financial system with millions of pages of Dodd-Frank regulations to the point where the very complexity invites more corruption. Meanwhile, high-frequency traders and hedge fund operators are taking more and more of the total investment gains at the expense of regular people.

So why not take a leaf from the right's playbook. Why not say what we're really for, and have a long-term plan to lead public opinion there?

How about giving the financial system the drastic simplification that it deserves. No high frequency trading (which adds nothing except profits to insiders). No hedge funds exempt from the usual disclosure rules. No mega-banks that add only risk to the rest of the system?

How about national health insurance, pure and simple?

How about a minimum wage that's a true living wage?

How about a massive public investment program in deferred infrastructure and a green transition, to provide good domestic jobs along the way?

How about a "universal, portable pension" -- not the small-bore savings incentives offered by centrist policy wonks but an easy-to-grasp general expansion of Social Security.

How about planting a flag?

I know, I know, Congress won't vote for this stuff. But Congress isn't voting for the small-bore stuff either.

At first, Congress did not vote for the policies the right was offering, but the right kept pounding away. They eventually managed to get policies enacted and ideologies entrenched that harm most people.

Progressives, by contrast, begin with one big advantage. Public opinion is mostly on our side.

The voters actually support Medicare for All, and expanded Social Security, and higher minimum wages, controls on Wall Street, higher taxes on millionaires, and increased investment in infrastructure. It's only elites who oppose them. How about leadership that validates what voters want?

It's a thankless task for Democrats to run and govern as centrists. The policies do not solve large national problems. Voters see only more bureaucracy, and voters give up on politics.

Who, after all, promotes "third way" policies? Financial elites wearing their Democrat hat, that's who. It's a great strategy for neutering the people's party and scaring away voters.

Look at progressive causes that actually won big -- LGBT rights, disability rights, equal treatment in the workplace for women. They did not begin by asking for meager incremental gains. They began by making demands far outside the mainstream, and changing the mainstream.

So let's say what we're really for, and bring public opinion to it. It may take a decade or two. It may require a genuine progressive to get nominated for president, backed by a mass movement.

But if Democrats stick to the course they are on, they are likely to lose both the politics and the policies. It would be liberating, and energizing, to plant that flag.

Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.

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