A Better Deal?

The newly-announced Democratic strategy for 2018 will be neither good for progressives nor for centrist Democrats. A terminally ill party has chosen to forego a direction that might save it. It has chosen a strategy that justifiably skeptical voters will reject in the midterms, one sure to alienate progressives and Republicans alike, in the earnest conviction that walking straight down the middle of the road at midnight is the safest way to move forward. The new strategy also demonstrates that a marriage between party centrists and progressives is untenable.

Yesterday Senate minority leader Charles Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi stood in the sun in rural Virginia and announced the Democratic Party’s “Better Deal” for Americans. Their message was completely economic: “First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.”

The Democratic campaign was crafted by Madison Avenue but symbolically launched in Berryville, Virginia, population 4,185, 85% white, a Southern town where Hillary Clinton led in the 2016 election. The slogan actually reads: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future” but GOP hecklers noted similarities with the Papa John’s slogan “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” and brought their own pizza boxes ridiculing the Democrats. THEWEEK echoed skepticism of the campaign’s ham-handedness: “Congrats on getting a new slogan, Democrats. It might just be dumb enough to work.”

The Democrats’ new strategy seems to embrace the ideas of Clinton strategists Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, whose piece in the July 6th New York Times advised “Back to the Center, Democrats.” POLITICO noted that the new strategy “sidesteps” social issues, appearing to further reject so-called “identity politics,” a direction recommended to the DNC in a November 2016 op-ed in the New York Times by Mark Lilla, a Libertarian. Furthermore, the DNC now seems to be chasing rural white voters, a strategy Amanda Marcotte sees as doomed.

But the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune saw the launch as a smashing success, calming a “restive left” in the party’s ranks. David Atkins at Washington Monthly sounded a “mission accomplished” note by declaring that the party had learned its lessons and now the “healing” could begin. John Stoehr saw the party learning how to be “populists” again. McClatchy News claimed the announcement made progressives delirious with joy at the “left-leaning” agenda. Centrists, wrote the friendly pundits, had moved as far to the left as possible, and now love was in the air.

But when one parses the new economic strategy, it reads exactly like the old economic strategy: economic and wage adjustments, public-private partnerships, and training for the New Economy du jour. But, this time, with tax credits for employers doing the training. The New Republic argues that the DNC emphasis on worker retraining will resonate as poorly with those like the Carrier worker in Elkhart whom Obama lectured during a town hall last June. CUNY Political Scientist Corey Robin points out that public-private worker training schemes are rarely successes and observes that, if this is the best the DNC can come up with, it must have a death wish:

“It’s true that Schumer offers other proposals, including a $15 minimum wage, but for anyone with a memory, the devotion of one sentence, much less a paragraph, of precious column space to this synecdoche of the bipartisan political economy of the last four decades—well, it’s enough to make you think this is a party that wants to die but can’t pull the plug.”

Liberal WaPo columnist Eugene Robinson sees the new Democratic strategy as timid and uninspiring. “I’m still waiting to hear the “bold solutions” that Democrats promise. I can think of one possibility: Why not propose some version of truly universal single-payer health care?”

Writing on Bill Moyers & Company, UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez wrote that the new Democratic strategy is everything that’s wrong with the party: Wall Street connections; an over-emphasis on marketing; a party turning its back on minorities by focusing now on whites; and a “boring party with limited ambitions.”

A list of twenty organizations including Our Revolution, Democracy for America, and Progressive Democrats of America wants Democrats to support seven pieces of progressive legislation. It’s been a remarkable litmus test for the party’s willingness to actually move in a progressive direction. Not surprisingly, Democrats have rejected the progressive agenda. Forget the Blue Dogs and Red State Democrats for a moment and look at the Massachusetts Congressional delegation.

Not one in the entire delegation supports the Massachusetts Democratic platform’s call for free college education. Only two are willing to tax investment income. Only two are willing to get rid of private prisons. Only three support healthcare as a human need and not a profit center. Only three support automatic voter registration (Democratic Secretary of State William F. Galvin is even appealing a State Judicial Court ruling that bars the state from forbidding people from voting unless they registered 20 days prior to an election).

It seems clear where all this is headed. Does anyone really expect hundreds of midnight conversions to progressive politics from Bay State Democrats? This is a party that has learned nothing from its loss in 2016. Democrats, both centrist and progressive, need to admit that efforts to reform the DNC have failed. There will be no new direction, no recalibration — only a further slide to the right as Democrats try even harder to play the Republican game.

2018 Midterms

Midterm elections will be here in fifteen months. Every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and a third of all Senate seats will be up for grabs. The state Democratic primaries will be here long before that, but nobody seems to be worried — except maybe the worry-warts and Cassandras who see disaster unfolding.

Democrats are divided on moving right or moving left, so instead the party has chosen “we’re against Trump” as its anthem. Massachusetts Democrats heard a five-hour preview of this song at the June 3rd convention in Worcester. But merely opposing Trump has limited appeal to Republicans, unenrolled voters, and progressives. Instead, voters are asking: What have you done for me lately? And: What do you really stand for?

Democratic leaders say they are working on something great (sounds like Trump) but they’re in no rush to let American voters in on their secret. When Democrats finally do come up with a new platform, as POLITICO points out, even if it is progressive, centrist Democrats say they’ll chart their own political course. Words are cheap. Platforms apparently are even cheaper.

Democrats face not only apathy and division but a demographic crisis. According to the non-partisan Voter Participation Center at Lake Research, the “Rising American Electorate” (millennials, unmarried women, and people of color) are more likely to stay home for 2018 midterm elections or remain unenrolled than in 2012. In Massachusetts the net loss is expected to be 12.7%, while in states like New Mexico it may be as high as 29.6%. A total of 40 million Americans will drop out of the electoral process. And unfortunately they won’t be Trump voters.

If Democrats cannot agree on a platform, they should at least make voting rights and voter registration a major effort. But so far it’s been radio silence from both the DNC and MassDems.

Among the races coming up in Massachusetts and our slice of the SouthCoast:

  • Elizabeth Warren is up for re-election but her victory is far from assured.
  • All nine U.S. Congressmen seem likely to run unopposed in the primaries as they did two years ago, although in 2012 Sam Sutter challenged Bill Keating (9th Congressional district) in the Democratic primary and got a surprising 40% of the vote.
  • Republican Governor Charlie Baker is up for re-election and any Democrat who wants to take on the telegenic and personable (but nevertheless Republican) governor really needs to emerge as a strong challenger long before the March primaries.
  • William Francis Galvin ran unopposed for Secretary of the Commonwealth in the 2014 primaries, and we’ll probably see a repeat of this in 2018.
  • Popular Attorney General Maura Healey is clearly running an aggressive re-election campaign, taking no chances.
  • Treasurer Deb Goldberg had two primary challengers in 2014 and squeaked by with 55% of the vote in the 2014 general election. Republicans will be gunning for her job again this year.
  • Auditor Suzanne Bump won with 57% in the 2014 general election and ran unopposed in the primaries.
  • Governor’s Council member Joseph C. Ferreira (1st district), who ran unopposed in both the 2014 and 2016 primaries and also unopposed in both general elections, will likely run for his campaigning-free $36K a year job.
  • State Senator Mark Montigny (2nd Bristol and Plymouth), who has generally run unopposed in both primaries and general elections since 1992, will be up for re-election.
  • State Representative Christopher Markey (9th Bristol) is up for re-election. Markey has had periodic challengers (Alan Garcia, Patrick Curran, Joe Michaud, Russel Protentis, Robert Tavares, Raymond Medeiros) but the conservative Democrat has somehow clung to his $75K part-time job.
  • In 2014 Bristol County Commissioner John Saunders was challenged in the primaries by Daniel Dermody but ran unopposed in the general election.
  • In 2014 Sam Sutter ran for Bristol County District Attorney and had no challengers in either the primary or the general election.
  • In 2016 Thomas M. Quinn ran for Bristol County District Attorney and had no challengers in either the primary or the general election.
  • A couple of bland part-time positions offer six-year terms, nice salaries, and generally few challengers:
  • Mark J. Santos has run unopposed for the last 18 years as Bristol County Clerk of Courts. There have been no primary or general election challengers in all this time for his $110K job.
  • In announcing his retirement last March, Mark Treadup, a former school board member, former city councilman, former state representative, former county treasurer, former county commissioner, and former member of the Governor’s Council, bequeathed his most recent job as Career Democrat to Susan A. Morris, but it was given instead to fomer New Bedford mayor Fred Kalisz to finish out Treadup’s term.

At this late date Democrats are unlikely to get their act together. Careerism, apathy, and division can’t be cured overnight. And voter trust remains the critical issue. A party’s actions will always speak louder than platforms and promises.