Democrats Need a New Message. How About "Economic Justice for All"?

12/07/2017 04:13 pm ET

It’s high time---we’re more than a year from President Donald Trump’s earthquake election, we’re less than a year from the 2018 midterms---that the Democrats come up with a new and compelling message. “Organize, organize, organize”---signing up more voters to vote, the chant from the Democratic National Committee chair, Tom Perez---is only a procedural step (and a request for money). A battle cry, it is not.

Now that we know the sum and substance of the Republicans’ tax reform bill, the House and Senate versions---basically, it is a massive and permanent tax cut for the wealthy and for corporations, a small and temporary tax cut for the middle class and the poor, which small and temporary cuts expire in 2027, all this boondoggle adding 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt---we have our battle cry.

To counter the Republicans’ colossally unjust and one-sided plans---on taxes and just about everything else---Democrats should stress justice and the common good. Our new battle cry practically writes itself: “Economic justice for all.”

How unjust and one-sided is the proposed tax reform bill? Among liberal observers, Nobel economist Paul Krugman declares flatly the public is “being scammed, bigly.” Jonathan Chait, commentator at New York magazine, calls the plan a “cash grab.” Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, writes, “If your income derives from your stock portfolio or your rich parent, this plan loves you. Otherwise, tough luck.” John Cassidy of The New Yorker calls it “a travesty” and an act illuminating the “broader atrophy of the American system of governance.” The New York Times states flatly the bill, if enacted, will “reshape major areas of American life.” All done, by the way, with scant debate and no hearings---none.

Even some Republicans, the principled kind, inveigh against this bill becoming law. Steve Schmidt, Republican consultant and frequent talking head, puts it bluntly: “Every single Gen-X’er should be outraged as we watch a bunch of septuagenarians and octogenarians load another $1.5 trillion in debt on the backs of our preteen and teenage kids. The beggaring of the country for special-interest donations is immoral.”

Republicans, the unprincipled kind behind this bill, defend it thus: Those tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations will create jobs---after all, the bill is titled “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” As for those temporary cuts to the middle class and the poor expiring in 2027: Hopefully they’ll be extended by future Congresses. But hope is not a strategy and nothing like law. Meantime, in the coming midterms Republicans can tout the tax cuts they just handed a hurting public---which Democrats will have to point out again and again are temporary. And when the federal deficit explodes, as it must with such massive loss of revenue, Republicans can go into cutting mode---on “the welfare state.” Neat.

This nefarious plan is spelled out by another rare principled Republican, Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Pres. Ronald Reagan, in a must-read op-ed for The Washington Post. As Bartlett writes, the whole point of this Republican tax “reform” is to set up an all-out effort to “starve the beast”---government---and attack “the welfare state.”

Longtime Congress-watchers Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, in another must-read op-ed, for The New York Times, writing of “possibly the worst tax bill in American history,” said: “Republican leaders have been blunt about their motivation: to deliver on their promises to wealthy donors, and down the road, to use the leverage of huge deficits to cut and privatize Medicare and Social Security.”

In fact, right on schedule, Trump and Congressional Republicans have already announced their next target: reform of (read: cuts to) “the welfare state”---Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (also here). And expect another attack on Obamacare---to repeal, forget replace. As it is, the GOP Senate bill revokes the individual mandate, the mechanism making Obamacare work---or not. If this revocation remains and the law is passed, 13 million Americans could lose their health insurance.

Dear Democrats: The lines and allegiances are clear. This script writes itself---from the heart. “My fellow Americans: Republicans say ‘welfare state,’ we Democrats say ‘social safety net.’ They say Main Street but mean Wall Street and their rich donors, we say Main Street and we mean Main Street and you hard-working citizens struggling to make ends meet with paychecks that never grow. And remember how Republicans used to scream, so righteously, about Democratic spending adding to the deficit and debt? Not any more. Do you hear any Republican of conscience lamenting the $1.5 trillion they loaded onto your children and grandchildren over the next decade so some rich guy can buy a second yacht? Economic justice for all!”

And Democrats could go on: about income inequality now gone completely out of whack, about needing to give turbo-capitalism a human face, about Republicans scrapping principles and selling out to the huckster Trump, who outright lies when he says as a businessman he will not benefit at all from the new tax bill (also here). And, Democrats: Get passionate, get Sherrod Brown passionate, as when the Democratic senator tangled with Republican senator Orrin Hatch over the bill (video here).

“Economic justice for all”: Every word of this battle cry works. Breaking it down:

“Economic”: Focusing on the economic takes us away from the minefield of identity politics, which is where much Democratic attention is now directed, and back to pocketbook concerns---which is where elections historically are won. Trump’s evil genius advisor Stephen Bannon has famously declared, “If the left is focused on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats”---and he’s right. But instead of resurrecting candidate Bill Clinton’s slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” we should take it one resonant step further, to “economic justice.”

“Justice”: For Americans, isn’t it always---ultimately---about justice? A fair shake?

“For all”: Sooner or later sensible Republicans (Trump’s true-believer base aside) will realize Trump is a faux populist, that he pitched populist as a candidate but once in office he pivoted to the categorical opposite, his plutocratic peers. With our new slogan, Democrats can capture those Republicans, sooner rather than later, in time for next year’s midterms. They can also recapture Obama voters who went Trump.

Importantly, a refocus of “economic justice for all” would bring Democrats back to their constituent origins—to the middle and working classes---which honorable origins have been forsaken since the Clinton era swerved toward the plutocracy. This refocus would also reconnect Democrats with their proud legislative history---to Franklin Roosevelt’s rescue of a suffering nation in the Great Depression with his New Deal policies including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; to Harry Truman’s Fair Deal; to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and his enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, to Barack Obama’s achieving the longtime Democratic dream of universal health insurance---a legislative history, by the way, of providing economic justice for all.

Getting to economic justice again, however, will require a reset of the balance of power between moneyed interests and the citizen. To get us there, recall Franklin Roosevelt, who confronted the central problem: We “know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.” And let us recall FDR’s courage as he took on those moneyed interests: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me---and I welcome their hatred.”

For his vision and courage, FDR reaped more than 60% of the popular vote in the 1936 presidential election, a historic landslide. If Democrats do like FDR, they could retake the House and perhaps the Senate in 2018---and the White House in 2020.

Whatever happens to the Republican tax reform bill (it’s likely to pass, but Trump, useful idiot that he is, could interfere): We know where Republican hearts lie---and they’re with the fat cat, not with the little guy. And if Democrats can’t make electoral hay of this crucial distinction, one must ask why they are in politics. Politics in a democracy is about doing right by the little guy. The rich take care of themselves, always.

Upon FDR’s death, the famous story goes, a man was seen weeping uncontrollably at the news. Asked why he was weeping, did he know the President, the man said: “No, but he knew me.” FDR knew the little guy and got him economic justice in a troubled 20th century. In the 21st century Democrats are charged with the same mission. So, Democrats: Channel FDR and start chanting---“Economic justice for all.”

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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