At this side-blog, I tend to focus on the state of the conservative movement and the GOP, but today I want to write briefly on the Congressional Democrats’ so-called “Better Deal” agenda.
I tend to agree with the conventional wisdom that messaging documents like this tend to not matter in midterm elections, especially 1 1/2 years out. But that doesn’t mean that the effort isn’t instructive.
The two most notable things about the “Better Deal” are what’s in the document and what is not.
Others have already highlighted that the “Better Deal” is comprised largely of Bernie Sanders-esque “populist” planks, which is to say fairly far left stuff that has the few “moderate” Dems left in Congress sounding nervous.
But the “Better Deal” is also notable for how narrow it is. For example, Sen. Minority Ldr. Chuck Schumer went on TV right before the unveiling and talked up the possibility of big expansions of Medicare and Medicaid. But the “Better Deal” refers only to lowering the cost of prescription drugs and to protecting Medicare (and Social Security). Similarly, on trade — a 2016 hot-button — the “Better Deal” vaguely refers to aggressively cracking down on unfair foreign trade and fighting back against outsourcing, without specifics. The “Better Deal” also mentions breaking up monopolies, but lacks the traditional Democratic/populist rhetoric about making the wealthy pay their fair share (in this regard the Cong Dems are to the right of Stephen bannon and even the stray comment from Pres. Trump).
Indeed, to underscore how narrow and small-bore the “Better Deal” is by the typical progressive standards, it’s worth remembering that this is a essentially a Congressional product, unloved by outside groups and not endorsed by the DNC (quite unlike the Contract With America in this regard).
The “Better Deal” may be viewed as a marginal victory for the progressives in the Dem caucuses. If Dems don’t develop their platform and win big in 2018, it could even give them a marginal advantage in actual legislation. (As the conservatives should have learned from 2016, these intraparty fights can be important.)
However, the omissions from the “Better Deal” may be more interesting. The document is arguably more an exercise in downplaying the direct socialist/neoliberal conflict that played out in the 2016 primaries between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Similarly, the exclusion of hot-button issues like immigration, gun control, abortion, and LGBTQ rights avoids the left-wing identity politics that neither Sanders nor Clinton mastered in 2016. Despite the grumbling from the Dems’ myriad interest groups and concerns that the omission of such issues will demoralize their base voters, it’s not necessarily a bad move. As I’ve previously noted, the Contract With America avoided social issues.
Of course, the reason the Contract excluded such issues was the perception (and the data) suggesting they were divisive and off-putting to swing voters in 1994. The “Better Deal” suggests that Congressional Dems have concluded (for now) that Trump’s appeal to white working class voters — including many former Obama voters — was more cultural than economic and that they do not want to compete along that axis in 2018. It’s quite the role reversal, regardless of whether the Dems’ perception here is correct.
As a corollary, it may also suggest that Cong Dems think they are better off not offering red meat positions that would motivate GOPers to turn out against them. The gambit may be to bet on the business cycle bringing a recession sooner rather than later, or simply to bet on the Trump-led GOP to continue its current dysfunction. As bets go, doing the bare minimum may not be a bad wager for Dems in this cycle, even if they made it only as the least bad option.
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