Now is the time to talk about how we can actually fix this economy
I was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong.
I didn’t think there would be a GOP wave. I especially didn’t think there would be a wave here in Michigan. I knew the map and electorate would be against Democrats, but I always suspected — nay, wished — that Democrats would mitigate that with a combination of GOTV efforts and not being the Republicans.
I was wrong.
There’s almost no end to how bad this election was for Democrats. Beyond losing the Senate, the GOP still controls the House, the majority of governorships and two-thirds of the state legislatures. Beyond that, John Kasich and Scott Walker, in their re-elections, along with Chris Christie, in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association, proved that their foibles and inability to live up to promises to improve their states economies and budget situations will not keep them from winning heavily contested elections in blue states. Meanwhile, admirable efforts from the Clintons and Elizabeth Warren proved to be little boost for a party that was chasing its own tail and hiding the president.
The result was an extremely depressed turnout, especially among young people. But even where the turnout wasn’t depressed, Republicans scored impressive victories.
So what happened?
Mitch McConnell led an insidiously excellent effort designed to blame the president for every problem in the world. And he was abetted, as always, by the conservative media. Unforced errors on HealthCare.gov and a volatile world fed this narrative. And Democrats’ unwillingness to defend the president or their policies only seemed to confirm it.
Of the many reasons Democrats lost, I think they’d be wise to focus on the one word that was mentioned by progressive pollsters to The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent over and over: The Economy.
It’s true that our economy is nearly the best in the world and we’re experiencing what may be the best year of job growth this century. But voters aren’t feeling it. This is primary because wages are lagging. Seriously lagging. And while voters tend to agree with all of the fixes Democrats are offering — minimum wage, equal pay, lower student loan rates — they aren’t substantial enough to motivate people.
Meanwhile, Republicans are campaigning on a huge vague promise: We will punish Obama and get rid of Obamacare (even if we have to keep some of Obamacare to do it). They have no problem making these vague empty promises because their voters love them. It matches exactly with the promise to cut taxes while “defending” Medicare and Social Security.
Actually canceling 28 million Americans’ health insurance and cutting taxes for the rich are extremely unpopular. But these promises dream big and put Democrats on the defensive.
Democrats offered no issues that put Republicans on the defensive this year. Republican Cory Gardner mostly neutralized his belief that some birth control should be considered abortifacients and criminalized by demanding that birth control be made available over the counter. Obamacare already covers this medication for nearly all women and what Gardner was offering would raise costs on that coverage for millions. But explaining that is hard.
The left needs the same kind of big issues would require tectonic shifts to become actual law that the right has offered. Promising to rebuild the Middle Class isn’t enough. Even promising to restore education cuts isn’t enough when America expects our schools to fix poverty.
Alan Binder offers a hint at some of these issues — but they’re not very sexy. Yes, we need to tilt the field for unions and increase the earned income tax credit. But governors who cut that credit, like Rick Snyder, were reelected. Binder also suggests universal pre-K, which is the kind of policy I’m talking about.
Here are my rough ideas for a new economic agenda:
Democrats have to recognize that for most Americans Obamacare just seems like nothing but a new burden to always have insurance. This burden may have even made their coverage more expensive. And they’ll feel this way until they lose their job, want to start a business or develop a pre-existing condition.
This is why the ACA isn’t popular even in the states it’s working best. And for seniors, it just seems to threaten the coverage they’ve earned. It’s time to lay out what improving the law would look like by tying it to America’s most popular program Medicare. It’s time to put Republicans back squarely on the side of private insurers.
Obamacare has made Medicare stronger and it’s time to merge the two with a Medicare-buy-in for all. We need studies that show how this will strengthen Medicare and possibly increase the number of providers. And we should point out that it will reduce the deficit. How much will it reduce the deficit? Enough to afford universal pre-K.
Democrats also need to get Republicans back on the side of defending tax breaks for the rich and the big banks. This is easy — at least for someone like me who doesn’t need to court millionaire donors. Democrats should back a new Glass-Steagall bill that restores the protections that kept us out of a crisis for 60 years. Also, Democrats need to demand a real end to trickle-down economics by demanding the end of tax breaks on investment income for the wealthy. Billionaires shouldn’t pay lower a lower tax rate for opening a mailbox than a nurse does for working 60 hours a week. While tax increases on the rich led to the best job growth of the last two centuries, cutting the capital gains tax preceded the Dot Com bust and then the greatest housing crisis in our history.
And with the money we’d save by taxing the rich like normal human beings, Democrats need to start fighting for universal free higher education. The richest country in the world can afford to give everyone a college or vocational education.
Make Republicans say that Americans don’t deserve Medicare or higher education. Make Republicans say that Mitt Romney deserves a lower tax rate than the nurses who treat Ebola.
These are big goals. However, they are no bigger or less probable than repealing Obamacare — but FAR MORE POPULAR.
We don’t need to be all that suicidal. Democrats have huge advantages in 2016 including the greatest reason to vote of all — the Supreme Court.
But we need to start staking out an economic agenda that recognizes the scope of people’s pain. And we need to do it now.