It’s really tough these days for Democrats to break into the news cycle. Today, for instance, we had the president’s son-in-law testifying behind closed doors to a congressional committee, a new White House communications director staring his first full work week, and Senate Republicans desperately trying to figure out what particular bill they’re going to bring up for a vote this week on health care (the one that kicks 23 million off their insurance, or the one that kicks 32 million off their insurance?). Plus, as always, there is Donald Trump’s Twitter account ― which is always good for at least two or three distractions per day. So it’s tough to get noticed, with everything else that’s going on in Washington. But this maelstrom of Republican chaos isn’t likely to get any better any time soon, so Democrats have to forge ahead in their efforts to gain some political attention.
Which is why today, in coordinated fashion, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer both began the rollout of the Democratic Party’s 2018 campaign platform. Harking back to the sloganeering of F.D.R., Democrats announced they will be offering “A Better Deal” for Americans. The full title, according to Pelosi, is: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” This was either tweaked at the last minute, or the preparatory leak was wrong, since last Thursday it was reported to be: “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.” Last-minute change or not, I have to say “a better future” certainly sounds more all-inclusive (and less judgmental) than “better skills.”
Before I get into the specifics, a few general comments on the overall strategy are worth making. Both Pelosi and Schumer did a pretty good job of outlining why Democrats are launching this effort. Schumer’s article in the New York Times begins with:
Americans are clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy. They feel, rightfully, that both systems are rigged against them, and they made that clear in last year’s election. American families deserve a better deal so that this country works for everyone again, not just the elites and special interests. Today, Democrats will start presenting that better deal to the American people.
There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know ― I grew up in that America.
But things have changed.
Today’s working Americans and the young are justified in having greater doubts about the future than any generation since the Depression. Americans believe they’re getting a raw deal from both the economic and political systems in our country. And they are right. The wealthiest special interests can spend an unlimited, undisclosed amount of money to influence elections and protect their special deals in Washington. As a result, our system favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers.
Pelosi, writing in the Washington Post, was more succinct and to the point:
For the first time in a decade, the GOP had the White House, Congress and complete control of the legislative process to advance its agenda. But instead of creating good-paying jobs, or rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, or advancing tax reform, Republicans have spent six months trying to raise Americans’ health costs to fund tax breaks for billionaires.
It is no coincidence that both Schumer and Pelosi are loudly echoing many of the refrains from Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Democrats seem to have gotten the message that most Americans simply don’t pay that close attention to politics, because for the most part, it is exceedingly rare that anything that happens in Washington ever makes their lives better in any measurable way. Voters listen to politicians promising to “fight for them, every day,” but after the votes are counted, this meaningless phrase is retired until the next electoral cycle, no matter who wins.
The new agenda for the Democratic Party will, therefore, focus on economics and families. As Schumer puts it:
In the last two elections, Democrats, including in the Senate, failed to articulate a strong, bold economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there. We also 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. This is the start of a new vision for the party, one strongly supported by House and Senate Democrats.
Pelosi goes further, identifying some problems that need fixing:
Prescription drug prices are jacked up, and Americans have fewer options at increased costs. Large communications companies merge, and families see fewer options and higher bills. Agriculture giants consolidate, while farmers struggle and prices in Americans’ shopping carts rise. The price of gas goes down, but plane tickets become more expensive and airlines keep adding fees.
This is pretty specific, with not a single word of “identity politics” at all. Democrats are going after pocketbook issues and problems all American families have with their household budgets. Schumer identifies three previous Democratic priorities that will continue: a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and providing family and sick leave to all. Those are all indeed good places to start.
Three new initiatives were added for the rollout. First: strengthen antitrust laws so that huge corporate mergers don’t send costs “skyrocketing for everything from cable bills and airline tickets to food and health care.” Second: “fight for rules to stop prescription drug price gouging,” as well as allowing “Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices for older Americans.” Third: “We propose giving employers, particularly small businesses, a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs. This will have particular resonance in smaller cities and rural areas, which have experienced an exodus of young people who aren’t trained for the jobs in those areas.”
All three of these new ideas sound pretty good, I have to say. The first two send a clear signal that Democrats are going to stand with the little guy against Big Business. The third is a great idea which could incentivize new-industry employers to actually invest the time to train new workers from older industries that have disappeared. Just because a former factory worker doesn’t know how to operate a high-tech, computerized manufacturing machine doesn’t mean he or she can’t learn to do so in a few months. If tax breaks were available for such training in rural areas, it could spur investment in those areas, which could be a fantastic solution to an entrenched problem.
Already the new Democratic agenda is getting some complaints, but I am taking a longer view, personally. Pelosi and Schumer have both said that this isn’t the whole plan, it is just a beginning. More initiatives will be added to the platform in the coming weeks. But so far, I have to say it’s a pretty good start.
Disaffected Americans want one basic thing ― the restoration of what used to be the social contract. Instead of a rigged system, they want a country where if you work hard you can make a good life for your family and provide a good start in life for your children. Government handouts for people working full-time didn’t used to be necessary because your paycheck used to be enough to live on ― and even buy a house, a new car, and a vacation every so often. People want a living wage to become the norm once again, in other words.
Democrats need to show that they’re for this ideal too. Focusing on pocketbook issues helps everyone in America. It will even help corporate bottom lines, because if people had enough money to live on, they’d spend it on lots of things they can’t currently afford.
There is nothing in the Democrats’ new agenda that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown couldn’t forcefully advocate for, and strongly defend against Republican attacks. It is a progressive agenda for all.
Of course, some will complain that it doesn’t go far enough. They’re right ― it doesn’t. But it’s a healthy first step in the right direction, and it is not meant as any sort of final draft. These are but the first initiatives to build “A Better Deal” for working Americans, after all.
Importantly, this will also force Republicans into attempting to defend the indefensible. Who isn’t against cheaper drug prices and holding the profiteers in the industry accountable? Donald Trump even used to say he was for this, after all. Who in their right mind is going to try to defend the airlines’ customer service these days? And how could any Republican be against tax breaks for businesses that would result in more and better jobs in rural areas? By choosing issues with almost universal appeal, Democrats make it very hard indeed to make the case for the status quo.
So, all in all, I consider today’s Democratic Party agenda rollout to be a good start. Democrats need to start pushing these ideas every chance they can get, to try to break through all the GOP chaff in the news. As Pelosi pointed out, Republicans have wasted six months in a gigantic effort to take hundreds of billions away from poor and sick people and give it to billionaires. That’s all they’ve got, apparently. That’s a pretty raw deal for tens of millions of American voters. Maybe they’re ready to listen to someone offering them a better deal instead.
Follow Chris on Twitter: