What Do the Democrats Stand For?
Sunday, Governor Kasich (R-OH) was interviewed on CNN. I missed the interview, but read the highlights online. The headline was, “If GOP can’t be ‘fixed,’ I can’t support it.” I appreciate Governor Kasich. While I do not agree with his positions on anything, I do respect his approach to governing. Having served in Congress from 1983 – 2001 before going home to Ohio to run for governor, Kasich sees himself fighting for the soul of the Republican Party. He has opposed Donald Trump from the day he announced and continues to call out the President’s bombastic language and governance. In the interview, he cited voters dissatisfaction with the GOP and the Democrats and refers to greater interest in independent and third parties. He also noted that both major political organizations needed to address the forces pulling them away from their ideological center. And he finished with, “I do not even know what the Democrats are for!”
First, John Kasich is well aware of the Democratic platform. As my friend Samantha says, “He is playing ‘dumb bunny.'” Kasich is a Republican. He knows exactly when and where the GOP and Democrats differ on policy. But it does seem that voters were confused by what the Democratic Party “stood for” in 2016 and there continues to be conversations about the Democratic platform going into 2018 and 2020. Media pundits, after spending most of their time discussing the GOP’s most recent failure on health care reform or President Trump’s latest Tweet, will circle back almost as an afterthought to inquire, “what about the Democrats? What is their message?”
So I thought I would try to answer some of those questions.
Why Aren’t the Democrats Proposing an Alternative?
This is tricky. As an American, I would have preferred that the Democratic Party leadership step up with an alternative to Obamacare repeal. Meaning, as the GOP repeatedly attempted to pass a partisan only repeal that had very little popular support, the citizen in me wanted to see the Democratic alternative. My party kept saying, “Obamacare needs to be fixed, let’s fix it.” I agreed. Let’s tell the voters how we would fix it.
But strategically, the Democratic leadership would never have introduced alternative proposals even if those measures were simple fixes to the existing law. Why? Because any diversion from the GOP bill and its unpopularity would have risked its successful passage. Had the Democrats offered even a small fix to the insurance markets, the Republicans would have used the idea as a “this and that” option, just as the GOP attempted to with Graham-Cassidy versus Single-Payer. As long as the GOP shut out the Democrats from the negotiations, the Dems were not going to offer suggestions. Unfortunately, that is just the way it works.
The same will be true for tax reform. If the GOP pushes their bill through on a partisan basis, then the Democrats will act as the opposition party, rather than proposing an alternative. That is just the way it works.
Additionally, there is something to be said for “getting out of the way when the opposition is imploding.” The Democratic Party leadership, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer do know how to legislate and they know how to govern. Perhaps most importantly, they know how and when to make a deal.
I bring all of this up not to say that the Democratic Party has it together; rather, that there is nothing happening to indicate that the party does not have it together. It is simply too soon to worry about it. Therefore, the news media can talk about what the Democrats need to do and what they are not doing all day long. At this point, the party simply needs to call out poor governance and management by the GOP when we see it and cut a good deal for their base when it makes sense.
What is the Democratic Party’s Brand?
This is where we can be a little critical. Let’s start with some history. The Democrat’s tagline is the “Party of the People.” We trace our roots all the way back to Jefferson, but the organization was created during the Jacksonian Era. Andrew Jackson gets the credit, but it was really his vice-president Martin Van Buren and several Jacksonian newspapers that pulled together the original party apparatus (yes, back then political leaders had their own newspapers). During the 1830s and 40s, “the people” were farmers and the small working class that existed in the cities. But the party also extended to the plantation owners of the south; the Democrats supported a small central government, low tariffs and opposed merchants and big banks. And yes, the Democratic Party was the party of slavery.
Fast forward. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and Segregation. The Democratic Party remained primarily a southern entity, but as the urban centers mushroomed after the Civil War through the turn of the century, the working classes also grew. Moreover, as Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy came over in droves, they tended to align with the Democratic Party. Certainly, I am cramming a lot of history into a few short sentences – the timeline and the events are much more complex. One of the most significant historical phenomena that shifted the Democratic Party platform was the mass migration of blacks from the south to the northern cities in the last decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. Millions of African-Americans left the segregated and violent south for the industrial north. Working conditions were not much better and certainly, northern whites were not any more welcoming; but in time, blacks secured suffrage. Once African Americans gained access to the ballot box, it would only be a matter of time before civil rights became part of the platform.
But we cannot skip the New Deal, Roosevelt’s coalition included the northern unions, farmers of the west and traditional southern Democrats. Given the Great Depression, New Deal programs were attractive to each of these constituencies. It was not until the 60s and 70s that the New Deal coalition began to break down and again, I am fast forwarding at warp speed. Conservatives came back with a viable governing philosophy of small government, low taxes, and low regulation (this was before the fiscal conservatives and anti-Communists decided to co-opt religion, and certainly before the conservative movement usurped the Republican Party, driving it off the far right ledge).
From my perspective, there were two crippling events in the 20th century that redefined the Democratic Party and left it wobbling in the wilderness. First was the civil rights movement. Truman integrated the military and Johnson signed both the civil rights and voting rights acts. These key events and everything that they entailed, including the protests (peaceful and violent), broke the Democratic Party wide open. Southern Democrats, who frankly were racists, left the party and moved to the GOP. While most of the overt racists have long since passed, now those southern Republicans cling to ideas of “federal overreach” rather than white supremacy. But the sentiments come from the same place.
The second crippling event was Vietnam. If you have watched any of the later episodes of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novak’s PBS series Vietnam, or read or watched anything about the war, you will know exactly what I mean. But even if you watched the series, if you are in your mid-30s or younger, you may not fully appreciate the significance of the American foray in Southeast Asia. That war instigated the breakdown of civil society, the destruction of the Democratic Party and perhaps most significantly, ushered in the division of Americans that we continue to see today. America went from total victory (World War II) to a nation that lost its way a mere 30 years later. Both parties were to blame, but it was a Democratic administration that led the country and the military down a long, dark quagmire. All you need to do is watch video from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That will tell you everything you need to know.
Jimmy Carter was a bit of a fluke and likely a response to Watergate. To the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton was our step back to national leadership. But Clinton rode a wave of centrist politics, in fact, if one looked at his platform, it looked a lot like an Eisenhower Republican’s and at the time, it was not a lot different than Bush’s. Clinton was an excellent communicator and Democrats had been shut out of the White House for 12 years. Upon victory, President Clinton governed as a progressive for a couple of years and then after getting hammered in the 1994 midterms, governed as a fairly conservative Blue Dog Democrat. In reviewing his policies, including welfare reform and the crime bill, progressives have a lot about which to complain. It was during the Clinton years that the Democratic Party became cozy with Wall Street investors. (Of course, the Republican Party was always cozy with Wall Street and Obama had no problem regulating the big banks, despite the donors).
President Obama was much more progressive than Clinton and as it turned out, Hillary Clinton would have governed in a much more progressive way, thanks to Bernie Sanders. Again, really brief history – I did not do it justice.
Okay. So if all of this background was meant to explain why the Democratic Party is no longer the “working class party” of the New Deal and that the brand is “Party of the People,” then who is the Democratic coalition?
Who Makes Up the Democratic Party’s Coalition?
Who votes for the Democrats? Truth is, the Democrats are trying to figure this out. It seems that the party wants to win back some of the white working class voters in the rust belt that decided to vote for Trump. Some in leadership believe that with the right message, the party can “win them back.” Maybe. But a more likely coalition and one that will last for decades would be single women (any color), communities of color, millennials, bi-coastal and urban voters. If this is our demographic, then the Democrats must focus on issues that matter to these very large constituencies.
So what are the Democratic positions on key issues?
I always laugh during campaigns, especially presidential ones, when I hear, “What is the Democratic message? What is Hillary’s position on taxes?” My response is always, “Well did you read the platform? How about her policy or position white paper?” Can you guess the answer? You are right. No one ever reads. I usually get a blank stare.
Here is the thing folks. I’m not going to regurgitate what you can read for yourself. In fact, voters need to be held accountable for what they know and do not know. Granted, in this last election cycle, the number of minutes spent on policy each night (during the nightly news) was down dramatically from four years ago. I hope that was just a Trump factor and not a sign of election coverage to come. But still, we live in an information age. There is no excuse for not Googling.
In 2016, the Democratic Party put together a 50-page document describing (in detail) key issues and the party’s position on each. Funding mechanisms were included. It was all right there. The Republican Party did the same. Every voter could have gone online, read each party platform and come to a decision as to which set of policies you found yourself in agreement. Interestingly, I believe that if Republicans actually read the Democratic platform, they would likely find that they agree with it on key economic points.
In addition to the party platform, Hillary Clinton had dozens of position papers available on her campaign website. I wonder how many voters who said, “I do not know what the Democratic Party stands for” read any of those white papers?
Think of the time everyone could have saved. Carve out say 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon or Friday night. Download the pdf from both the RNC and the DNC. Print it out if you want, or just read from your phone. I bet you could finish in less than 3 hours. From there, you could make a decision, not just about the president, but for the entire ticket. You would regain weeks!!
But alas, few would have taken my advice. On to October 2017. Congressional Democrats released A Better Deal, a 3 point policy objective which I believe was created to help those running for Congress in 2018 focus on key issues. First, can I just say that we could use a good ad agency? I suspect that Schumer and Pelosi were trying to stick with the “Deal” theme, as that is a continuum in the Democratic tradition. But this is the best we have?
Between the two documents, let me highlight some of the key issues that I find important.
Universal Health Care
The Democratic Party is committed to guaranteeing health care access to every American. The question is, “how do we pay for it.” More and more party members are coming around to single payer or a “Medicare for All” option. Democrats are also committed to lowering costs, particularly prescription drug costs as these are the most inflationary of the entire industry.
It is pretty simple. Here is what Democrats believe:
- It is real.
- Fossil fuels are a problem.
- Clean energy is the solution.
- Ergo, we must be very aggressive in promoting clean energy and not promoting fossil fuels.
Clear as mud?
Taxes and Economy
Democrats will not support the Trump and GOP tax plan because it is not tax reform; it lowers taxes on the highest earners, raises taxes on the middle classes and lower earners, and sets up a structure resembling failed tax systems of the past. The GOP continues to align itself to supply-side economics, which has not worked since the Reagan years and has been debunked many times.
Democrats tend to support tax cuts for the middle class and working poor. The definition of “middle class” is tricky. Is it a combined $150,000 per year? $250,000 per year? $75,000 per year? Both parties throw out “middle class” but that can mean a lot of different income levels. Democrats will not support cutting taxes at the top rate, nor will they support cutting the Alternative Minimum Tax. The AMT, I admit, is a ridiculous formula that is used to recalculate a tax return “just to make sure that high earners have paid enough tax.” But to abolish it would require huge cuts in spending OR debt financing. The estate tax is another one that benefits the higher earners. The GOP likes to tout farmers as being the primary beneficiaries, but they know that the current law will exempt an almost $5.5 million estate. I know a lot of farms and small businesses that will be inherited tax-free without any changes to the law. But nice try.
Democrats support tax reform that closes the loophole on profits held overseas. We all know it happens. Large companies park billions of dollars in profits in offshore bank accounts in order to avoid taxes. Democrats say they favor closing those loopholes. Additionally, Dems call out companies that ship jobs overseas. I am not entirely sure how that can be controlled via tax policy, but in reviewing the platform, there does seem to be a few ideas.
The Democratic Party has called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They have also called for debt-free college. New York State is piloting a program that, if successful could very well be something that other states may pick up or could be rolled out nationally.
I would highly encourage you to review the party platform. Yes, it will take time. But if you have a pre-conceived notion about what a Democrat is, this may change your opinion.
One additional note: our current tax policy favors debt. Without getting into a lot of the details, whether it is at the individual or corporate, we get tax breaks for leverage. Tax policy should promote certain behaviors. When we grant exemptions or deductions for “debt” (even if it is mortgage interest), it encourages the wrong behavior. At the corporate level, companies borrow billions of dollars in order to buy back preferred stock thus, giving preferred stockholders a huge bonus. Interest payments on the leverage can then be deducted from profits.
Democrats are not going to throw people out of the country unless they have committed a crime. A real crime. Full stop. They are also interested in actually reforming the immigration system so that it meets the needs of the 21st century. I have posted on this many times. We are dangerously close to reducing legal immigration to a level that would be catastrophic to our economic future. Democrats get this. Oh – and Democrats are not going to put up with xenophobia and racism.
Criminal Justice Reform and Mass Incarceration
The United States is unique. We incarcerate a larger percentage of our population than any other country in the world. Thanks to the Crime Bill that was signed in the 1990s, judges have very little latitude in sentencing federal crimes and thus, defendants convicted of nonviolent offenses may lose decades of their lives behind bars. Mass incarceration affects men of color more than any other ethnicity, which leads to disenfranchisement and cyclical poverty. Democrats are committed to reforming our criminal justice system including investigating police departments that demonstrate institutional racism and violence against communities of color.
Campaign Finance Reform
Citizens United and the court cases that followed have had the most detrimental impact on our electoral process than another court case in our history. Democrats support a constitutional amendment that will give the federal and state governments the power to regulate campaign contributions and spend. This is the only way we get dark money out of politics (or at least control it) and put guardrails around lobbyists.
Individual vs. Corporate Rights
Democrats favor judicial appointees with a history of supporting individual rights over that of the corporation. Conservative justices have historically sided with corporations. They may be against abortion and gay marriage, but they also side with big business. Democrats tend to favor justices who understand the real-life implications of their decisions and the impact of those decisions on people’s lives.
It really seems that the Democrats are just against Trump and not FOR anything
In any other world, I would agree that if the opposition party stood up every day, all day and complained and criticized the other side, I would suggest that they go “write a platform.” In fact, I think I did say that to Mitch McConnell via my living room several times during the Obama presidency.
But we do not live in normal times. We live at a time in which the President insults the mayor of an American territory that has just been hammered by a category 5 hurricane. We live at a time in which the President compares white supremacists and neo-nazis with non-white supremacists and non-neo-nazis. We live at a time in which the majority party attempts to pass a bill that would restructure one-sixth of the economy without debate or discussion, and within a process not designed for sweeping legislation. We live at a time in which Congress has an approval rating lower than “having a root canal,” and lower than the Obamacare repeal bills.
So in this world, I am actually comfortable in saying that my party is not Trump. What do the Democrats stand for? Well, that’s easy. Go listen to the orange guy for a few minutes. Did you hear him? Did you take notes? We do not agree with any of that. We stand for the opposite of that.
But if you are expecting a bumper sticker platform, you will be sadly disappointed. The Democrats are not a bumper sticker party. You are going to have to read.
Honestly, if that is not enough to get your vote, then there is something desperately wrong. Read the platform, watch the real news, and pay attention. 2018 is right around the corner.