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11/07/2014 08:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- A Democratic Economic Platform for Next Time

Not a fun week to be a Democrat, was it?

President Obama called the 2010 midterms a "shellacking." He demurred on providing a label for the 2014 midterms, but others sprang into the void. The most notable label so far (the one seemingly most repeated, at any rate) is that Democrats suffered an "ass-kicking" this past Tuesday night. At this point, I won't quibble over terms. Democrats got beat, and they got beat pretty badly.

Some called this election "the Seinfeld election," since it was essentially "an election about nothing." This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but it does point out how the two parties pretty much had a handshake agreement that they weren't going to lay out any sort of economic agenda for average Americans at all, they were just going to fling mud for the entire cycle. Republicans have always been better at flinging mud, and so they won. But they didn't beat any sort of shining Democratic agenda, because it largely didn't exist. If I had to use a television metaphor from Seinfeld, I think I'd have to call it "the Soup Nazi election," because it was mostly anger and pique that drove the voters ("No elected office for you!") than anything else.

Democrats need a coherent message on helping the middle class in today's economy, and they need to all be singing from the same songbook next time around. Many have pointed this out, but what I'm going to do in the talking points section of today's column is to take the idea one step further and lay out what I think Democrats should consider running on next time around. The 2016 election will have a presidential contest, so it should be easier for Democrats to rally around one platform (assuming the Democratic nominee articulates this platform, of course). This is the platform I'd humbly suggest they use. But more on that in a bit.

The inside-the-Beltway punditocracy is doing what it always does after an election (these days, at least), proclaiming that a spirit of "gettin' stuff done" now prevails across Washington, with wide-eyed predictions that Congress and the president will now start working together for the betterment of all. Insert your own "What are they smoking now that weed's legal in DC, and how can I get some?" joke here, as it would be entirely appropriate.

My prediction of what will get done in Washington in the next year is: not much. Or maybe: the barest of minimums. Other than a few minor issues that Republicans and Obama already agree upon, my guess is that there will be no grand bargains struck. There's a very simple reason why I feel this is true, and it is that the Republicans don't have a whole lot of motivation to get a lot of things done. For better or for worse, any large changes are going to be laid at the feet of President Obama (as President Clinton is still held responsible for welfare reform, for instance), and included as part of his "legacy." Are Republicans really all that eager to add to the Obama legacy? Probably not.

That's the big picture, but the smaller picture shows the same thing. Republicans in Congress just won a smashing electoral success by essentially doing nothing but mercilessly block Obama's agenda. That, to put it another way, is a winning formula for them with their base voters. Many Republicans -- including many who will be running for president in 2016 -- are going to be goading the Republican Party to just coast for two more years on absolute obstructionism, after which (they will say) Republicans will capture the White House and hold onto both houses of Congress. Why mess with a good thing?

Republicans don't really have much of an agenda, other than being against stuff. Obamacare? They're against it. What do they want done instead? Nobody knows, because the House has not acted, despite Republicans holding the majority for the last four years. Immigration reform? They're against that, too. What would they do instead? Again, no bill from the House. On issue after issue, Republicans have skated on being against everything Democrats are for, without ever having to put on the table what they'd do instead. This is because they know that the minute they do propose something, a large portion of their own party is going to be obsessively against it.

The House is the place to look if you want to see how things are going to work in the next two years. John Boehner can't get anything done not because President Obama won't compromise with him, but because his own Tea Partiers won't compromise with him -- not one tiny bit. So why should we expect Mitch McConnell to have any better luck over in the Senate? McConnell is not only going to have to attempt to corral unruly Tea Partiers (as Boehner has been doing), but with the added complication that a number of them will be actively running for the presidency next year (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, to name just three off the top of my head). Each potential candidate will be trying to stake out their own absolutist position on every single issue, and you can bet that they're not going to be interested in compromising with President Obama, Senate Democrats -- or even Mitch McConnell. Their campaign theme -- for all of them -- will be: "Why settle now for a compromise? If you just vote for me we can have all of what we want after 2016 -- no retreat, no compromise, no surrender!"

This dynamic will begin immediately, next January. But Democrats shouldn't become complacent, either. It is true that the in-party/out-party situation has flipped, and a good way for the out party to get in the news is to strongly fight against what the in party is trying to do. This is going to include filibusters and vetoes galore, one assumes, and I am certainly not advocating that Democrats fail to make as much political hay out of these fights as they possibly can (hey, it just worked pretty well for Republicans, didn't it?). But at the same time, Democrats have to be for things too, not just against everything the Tea Partiers are dreaming up.

President Obama, if he keeps his promise this time, is going to lead the way on this front. He will be announcing a new immigration and deportation policy in the next few weeks. This is going to enrage Republicans, which is actually all to the good. The more extreme things Republicans say about both Obama and immigrants, the better it will be for Democrats in 2016. Will the House finally fall into the impeachment trap? It's a distinct possibility, especially since John Boehner's "sue the president" idea is dying a slow death already. Will some Republican House members say some highly offensive things about Latinos? That's pretty much a certainty. Will the House pass immigration legislation? Highly doubtful, unless it is a "deport them all" bill to appease the Tea Partiers.

President Obama knows full well that the House Republicans are never going to act on their own. A bipartisan bill (which received a whopping 68 votes) passed the Senate -- a year and a half ago. John Boehner swore he wasn't going to bring the Senate version up for a vote, because the House was going to act on its own and force the Senate and the president to accept their plan for immigration reform. A year and a half went by, and nothing happened in the House. Nothing is precisely what is going to happen in the House on the issue in the lame-duck session. Absolutely nothing would have been what the House would have done on the issue for the next two years -- whether Obama acts or not. It's pretty funny to hear John Boehner threaten that "if Obama acts, the House will do nothing," since it is such an empty threat -- nobody in their right mind thinks the House is going to do anything anyway.

But Democrats who want to win back Congress and retain control of the White House in 2016 need more than just immigration reform to convince the American public that they have a bright vision for the future of America. Running on the bleakness of the Republican vision for the future is just not good enough. You've got to tell the people what you'd do to help them, and you've got to be extremely specific. It's refreshing to hear Democrats offer platitudes about income inequality, but then they rarely follow up this high-flown rhetoric with any actual concrete plans which will help a waitress, a firefighter, a teacher, or a blue-collar worker live a better life for themselves. The psychological economic malaise in the country is pretty deep right now, yet neither party even attempts to tap into this by offering people a vision for how their lives could be improved.

Democrats need to fill that vacuum with a few tempting ideas for the middle class. It's not that hard to do, as there are so many issues which bring widespread feelings of economic insecurity. After we quickly take care of this week's awards, our talking points this week show one possible path towards a platform Democrats should be able to easily embrace. The country is just waiting to hear a few good ideas, and they're tired of nobody even bothering to do so -- that's my own takeaway from this week's elections, at any rate.

 

There's really only one option for Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week: Senator Jeanne Shaheen from the great state of New Hampshire, who was pretty much the only Democrat in a tight race who prevailed at the voting booth this year. Shaheen was targeted early on because Republicans thought it'd be an easy seat for them to pick up. Fortunately for her, Republicans then nominated carpetbagger Scott Brown, fresh off being defeated in a Senate race in Massachusetts.

For winning a tough race when all other Democrats lost theirs, for keeping a New England Senate seat firmly in Democratic hands, for providing one bright spot on the map last Tuesday night, and -- most of all -- for the fact that we won't have to write the words "Senator Scott Brown" ever again, Jeanne Shaheen is the only possible winner of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. Congratulations!

[Congratulate Senator Jeanne Shaheen on her Senate contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]

 

Um... the Democratic voter base, who refuse to turn out for midterm elections?

Snark aside, there were certainly plenty of candidates to choose from in the "disappointing" category this week. Of these, the biggest standout was probably Senator Kay Hagen, because Democrats knew that if the news from either New Hampshire or North Carolina was bad on election night, the news for the rest of the states would also likely be pretty dismal. Hagen losing North Carolina was the bellwether for how the rest of the election played out, in other words.

But Hagen's race was always going to be close -- everyone knew that. Instead of giving the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to one of the candidates or incumbents who lost their Senate races this week, though, we're going to give it to a Democrat who actually won his race, after his challenger just conceded today. Because Senator Mark Warner's race in Virginia wasn't supposed to even be close. He was supposed to waltz to victory over a has-been Republican political consultant, Ed Gillespie. He didn't. The race turned into one of the closest (if not "the closest") of the night. It was today before the race was definitively called, in fact. And nobody saw it coming.

So even while we congratulate Senator Warner for squeaking out a win, we also have to award him the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, for how close he came to losing what was supposed to be an easy race for Democrats. We realize this is perhaps contradictory (and perhaps controversial), but Warner was the one who put the fear of double-digit Republican Senate gains into the picture on Tuesday night, so we're standing by this decision.

[Contact Senator Mark Warner on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]

 

Volume 326 (11/7/14)

This week's talking points are not going to be the usual septet of suggestions for Democrats to use to explain their political positions and explain their take on the news from last week. It's kind of pointless to do so, really, after the 2014 midterm elections.

Instead, this week's talking points are aspirational. This is, to put it another way, what I wish Democrats would say, and say soon. Democrats complain that Republicans didn't lay out much of an agenda in the election. True, but then Democrats didn't do much better, really. There was plenty of fearmongering on both sides, and very little positive vision for the future.

The most important issue of those going to the polls in 2014 was the economy. Democrats need to present their vision of how the American economy can work better for the middle class, because they are losing all hope of any positive change from either political party. Democratic politicians sometimes seem shocked to realize that the public doesn't realize that they are the ones who have fought for the middle class, but much of this fighting is rather remote from the average person's life. This is a polite way of saying the people are always interested in the "What have you done for me lately?" question. Liberals and progressives have won every improvement in the workingman's life for the past century? Fine and good -- but where do we go from here?

In this past election, for instance, raising the minimum wage should have been the defining issue of every single Democratic candidate out there. It should have been a national push by all Democrats to absolutely define the two parties by their stance on this issue alone. Would Democrats have been successful in pushing all other issues off the table? No, but they might have at least put the spotlight on one of theirs, instead of playing defense against all the Republican issues.

That's just one example. Democrats have been wringing their hands over "income equality" and the growing gap between the shrinking middle class and the one percent, but they have been notably silent when it comes to proposing any plans to solve the problem. Now, income equality is a big and complicated issue, so what I'm proposing is to set forth an agenda which at least gives the little guy a bit of help. Make the lives of the middle class a little easier, and you will reap political support as a direct result. Instead of "what have you done for me lately," lay out what Democrats will do in the future, if enough of them are elected.

There are dozens of economic policies to choose from that would make the lives of the middle class easier. I've picked seven, mostly for their wide appeal across party lines, but also for being directly connected to the average salary-earner's life. This avoids getting into the weeds of federal actions which might have a broad effect on the American economy, but which are not felt very much by average people. I should admit that the last one might not completely fit this description (because it does require some charts to show what is going on), but it's long been a bugaboo of mine so I tossed it in anyway.

So, here's my positive economic message for the future, presented as talking points (these need no individual introduction this week, I should mention). I heartily encourage all Democrats to consider running the next time around on just such a platform.

 

   Minimum wage hike, with COLA

"Democrats want to raise the federal minimum wage, Republicans fight to keep it below a living wage. Democrats believe that anyone working full time deserves not to be below the poverty line. This is really a form of corporate welfare, because a full-time worker at a major corporation's store can make so little that they need food stamps or other public assistance just to survive. This means the taxpayers are paying what the corporation should be paying that worker. I find that outrageous, personally. Why should the taxpayers have to subsidize someone who works hard and puts in a long day -- why shouldn't he or she be earning enough to put food on the table for their family? This is not even a partisan issue -- the voters are overwhelmingly supportive of raising the minimum wage, no matter where you go in America. In 2014 -- in the midst of a very Republican election -- four states voted to raise their minimum wage. Despite all four being deep red Republican states, all four measures easily passed -- by a vote of 55 percent in South Dakota all the way up to a whopping 69 percent in Alaska. Not only will Democrats fight to raise the minimum wage everywhere in this country, we demand that such a raise have a cost-of-living adjustment built in. If we add a so-called 'COLA' to the minimum wage -- the same way Congress did with their own pay a few decades ago -- then we will never have to have this political fight again. If the minimum wage rose gradually over time, then we wouldn't find ourselves in this situation every decade or so. If getting a yearly COLA is fine for congressmen, then it should also be fine for the hardest working Americans out there. Raise the minimum wage. And add a COLA on the side."

 

   Paid sick leave

"California and a few other states are showing what Democrats can do for working people, because paid sick leave is now mandatory there for employers. Democrats realize that hard-working American men and women are now sometimes forced into the agonizing choice of staying home to care for a sick child (and losing a day's pay), or going to work anyway because otherwise you won't be able to buy food (all while worrying about the sick child alone at home). This scenario happens every day for millions across this country, and it is wrong! Democrats will push for a federal law which mandates paid sick leave for every worker in the country. Every paycheck you get, you will earn a few more hours of paid sick leave which you can take in an emergency. This will benefit everyone, because who really wants someone making their lunch in a sandwich shop who is too sick to really be working? That counterperson now loses pay if they do the right thing by staying at home when they're sick. We think that's just flat-out wrong. Democrats will fight to make paid sick leave universal -- for both part-time and full-time workers."

 

   Paid vacation leave

"America is supposed to be an exceptional country, with our economy leading the rest of the world. But you know where we fall woefully short? We have no mandatory paid vacation leave for our workers. Pretty much every other industrialized country on the face of the planet mandates a certain amount of paid time off for every worker, every year. Democrats will fight for a federal law making paid vacation leave mandatory for all workers. Why should American workers not enjoy two weeks of paid time off every year? Even three weeks wouldn't be excessive. In some of Europe, five or six weeks is the law -- for every fast-food worker, for every janitor, for every receptionist. American workers are getting shafted, to put it bluntly. With corporate profits and Wall Street stocks at an all-time high, it's pretty hard for Big Business to argue that it'll hurt the bottom line. The 'one percent' might not be able to rake off such enormous profits if everyone got two weeks of paid vacation leave, but you know what? I'm actually OK with that."

 

   Cap credit card rates

"The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has already saved American consumers billions of dollars, but Congress needs to give it a stronger tool to protect average Americans. Democrats are in favor of a new usury law which would place a cap on the interest rate credit card companies could legally charge. Say, ten percentage points above the prime rate. We can quibble over the exact point to fix such a cap at, but what should be obvious is that this change is necessary. Credit card companies are currently charging rates that would make a loan shark blush. This is ripping off the American consumer, and it needs to be reined in. Credit card companies and the big banks will howl, but I am willing to bet that they'll continue making a big profit after the change -- I'm not too worried about their bottom line, instead I am worried about the bottom line of someone with a credit card with a 29 percent interest rate. That is simply too high, and it needs to be changed."

 

   College tuition fully deductible

"Democrats are proposing a major change in tax policy, one which every parent across this country will loudly applaud. We want to make every dollar spent on college tuition fully deductible on your income taxes. Middle class families struggle with college costs, which have risen at a mind-boggling rate. Even with financial aid, middle class parents are still expected to foot a whopping portion of the costs of college. We think that every dollar spent on a child's education should not be taxed on your income tax form. That is money invested in the future -- in your child's future and in the future of America. It is hard enough for parents to pay for college and this would make their lives a little bit easier. How could anyone be against making college tuition fully tax deductible?"

 

   Charity fully deductible

"Charity begins at home, and Democrats want to make it easier for Americans to give money to worthy charities. Charitable givings should be fully deductible on every American's income taxes -- and not just those who itemize their deductions, either. Money you donate to your local church or synagogue, donations to the Red Cross or disaster relief, to the A.S.P.C.A. or animal rescue organizations -- money donated to whatever non-profit causes each American chooses -- should all be tax deductible. All of it. If a waitress gives 25 bucks to Planned Parenthood or a suburbanite donates to a megachurch in Texas, they should be able to write such donations off in full. Democrats want to make one change to the income tax forms -- move charitable donations from Schedule A to Form 1040 -- which will mean all charity will be fully deductible for all American workers, because we think it's the right thing to do."

 

   Scrap the cap on earnings

[One note on this one: I created the charts below in 2012, so all figures quoted, including the actual cap amount, are slightly off (the cap has slowly been moving upwards each year) from where they will be for the 2014 income tax season -- but by such a minute amount that the difference would only even be visible on the first of these charts. In 2012, the cap was at $110,100, and it will be $117,000 for 2014. The basic concepts are the same, however.]

"Why should you pay ten times the tax rate a millionaire pays? How does that make sense? Democrats want to reduce the rate of payroll taxes for ninety-four percent of American workers, by making the other six percent pay the same as everyone else.

"This requires some explanation. Right now, Social Security taxes on earnings are 'capped.' This means that once you make a certain amount of money -- just over $100,000 -- you stop paying anything at all on the rest of your wages. So here is a chart of what this means, for people who make up to $150,000 a year:

"Everyone right up to the cap pays 6.2 percent. But you'll notice the dropoff at the cap -- someone making $150,000 a year is paying only 4.6 percent of their earnings as tax. This shouldn't seem fair to anyone, but it gets far, far worse when you expand the chart. Here is a chart of people making up to a million dollars a year:

"Someone making a cool million a year winds up paying only 0.7 percent tax. While firefighters and nurses are paying 6.2 percent. The chart gets truly obscene when you expand it into the real 'one percent' -- all the way up to a $100 million a year:

"At five million a year, you're paying less than 0.1 percent tax. At 75 million, you're paying less than one one-hundredth of a percent -- 0.009, to be exact. OK, now, everyone who thinks this is fair, please raise your hand. Nobody? That's what I thought.

"Democrats will save Social Security and we will not do so by cutting benefits or raising retirement ages. Not only will we make the trust fund solvent for the next 75 years by scrapping the cap on earnings, we can bring down the tax rate for 94 percent of American workers at the same time. We can guarantee that we will reduce the rate for everyone to at least a flat six percent, which will put some more money in a lot of people's pockets, every paycheck. Why should your CEO be paying a tiny fraction of the tax rate you must pay? It sounds insane, and it is. Democrats will fix this gross inequality by scrapping the cap altogether -- so your CEO is paying the same rate on earnings as you are."

 

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