Is “Better” Good Enough for Congressional Democrats?
by John Lawrence
A dozen years ago, a bicameral group of Democrats labored for months to devise a compelling message to persuade voters to reject George W. Bush and the Republican congressional majority. Members of the House and Senate, as well as a wide range of consultants were consulted, from both the political and private sectors, in crafting a frame to highlight Democratic objectives that clearly differentiated the party from the GOP.
Some early enthusiasm built around the phrase, “Together, We Can Do Better,” but as Democratic Leader Pelosi’s staff member in the discussions, I was not persuaded. “It sounds like a ‘C’ grade,” I argued. Twenty years earlier, Jimmy Carter had sought the presidency asking, “Why not the best?” Did we really want to ask the American people to ratchet down their expectations to a vision that was merely “better?”
For the past several months, pundits and party activists have been clamoring for Democrats to move beyond confronting Donald Trump and articulate an pro-active policy vision. Trump won the presidency promising to “Make America Great Again.” The Democratic appeal, it was argued, should convey an inspiring alternative that could challenge Trump’s audacious vision of American supremacy.
This week, House and Senate Democrats are rolling out their plan, “A Better Deal — Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.” “Better” is back. Perhaps given the blundering and bumbling inaction and incompetence of Republicans – “better” is enough for right now.
Senate leader Chuck Schumer describes the Better Deal as “quite different than the Democratic Party you heard in the past,” although the details of the plan sound fairly familiar: creation of 10 million jobs over the next five years, a new tax credit to encourage employers to train and hire workers, an expanded paid apprenticeship program for non-college graduates, “cracking down” on corporate mergers that ill-serve consumers, and an end to “price-gouging” on prescription drugs. In addition, the plan promises “high-speed Internet to every community in America,” paid family leave and efforts to “encourage innovation.”
In fact, not much in the plan sounds much different from earlier agendas that included a major infrastructure/jobs plan, a $15 minimum wage and paid family and sick leave, plans that Schumer now characterizes as “too cautious … too namby-pamby.” In fact, when they were in the majority, they passed legislation that addressed many of these topics, which didn’t stop the pitchfork-and-torch-toting mob from ungratefully tossing Mrs. Pelosi out of the Speaker’s chair in 2010 (with Harry Reid following in 2014).
As with any Democratic wish list, every candidate embracing the “Better Deal” agenda is going to be grilled on how all this expensive policy will be paid for. The private sector? Spending cuts? Tax increases? The deficit? An inability to answer these legitimate inquiries, other than by falling back on the old “cutting waste, fraud and abuse” or “tax the 1%” bromides, can seriously undermine the marketability of the proposed policies. The Republicans’ fumbling of a health care replacement policy after years of articulating homilies about cheaper premiums and expanded service offer a cautionary note to Democrats: don’t set yourself up to fail if you are lucky enough to catch the bus. Figure out the “pay-fors” now, even if you don’t broadcast them.
Democrats seem to have learned to echo the applause lines of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that energized the Democratic base. The “Better Deal” agenda, Nancy Pelosi states, contrasts with “the toxic special-interest priorities at the core of the Republican agenda.” The message team assembled by Pelosi to develop the plan similarly pledged it would “make government responsive to all hardworking Americans, not just a select few.” That boilerplate progressivism may soothe Party hardliners who were holding out for single payer health care or other unachievable (and potentially divisive) planks, but it could prove tricky for candidates in swing districts who hold the key to reaching a House or Senate majority.
The impact of such exercises in congressional platform writing is far from determined. From Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to the Pelosi-Reid “New Direction: 6 for ’06,” such agendas are more successful at disciplining the messaging of the rambunctious caucus than on exciting the public. With rare exceptions, the political environment owned by the majority has greater impact on the election outcome. Indeed, for all the sound policy included in the “New Direction/6 for ‘06” agenda in 2006, public anger towards George W. Bush over the war in Iraq and towards congressional Republicans embroiled in the Jack Abramoff-Mark Foley corruption scandals likely had greater influence on the Democrats’ regaining the majority.
Congressional platforms like the “Better Deal” can help to keep the Caucus in line, and that is a valuable achievement. Working with the party’s many factions to fashion and promote such a program helps to enforce messaging discipline that often challenges House and Senate leaders. The “Better Deal,” like its predecessor programs, allows Pelosi, Schumer and others to urge their members to stick with the agreed upon program rather than careening off in the advocacy of issues that might alienate the more centrist voters who will determine whose hand holds the Speaker’s gavel in 2019.