A Progressive Governing Agenda in 2021? Progressives Had One in 2009.
A new essay makes the case that given Republicans’ inextricable commitment to “bad faith” politics, Democrats should proceed apace with reforms that allow them to govern responsibly.
But what year is this? Many of the same arguments were raised by progressives during the first months of the Obama administration, and they were largely overruled by the people in charge of Democratic decision-making.
First, I think many people online during 2009–2010 would agree that the Republicans abandoned any project of responsible federal governing with the rise of the white nationalist Tea Party in response to President Obama’s election. Further discussions of how awfully Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have damaged the country are on a difference in kind, not in type.
With no hope of reaching McConnell’s caucus with economic reason or moral appeals, the discussion should indeed focus on steps that Democrats can take. Yet over the last decade, popular progressive positions and pro-grassroots party reforms were discounted by political leaders in the Democratic Party, often as being supposedly infeasible for voters in swing districts.
Since 2009, on fronts from a public option for health insurance to an adequately-sized green jobs program to criminal justice reforms to Keynesian economics, the progressive policy position has proved a better description of reality than the neoliberal ones typically favored by Democratic party leaders.
Many liberals have been belatedly joining progressives and leftists in coming around to the necessity of, for example, providing a robust public option for Medicare in health insurance markets. These decade-late conversions have come after tremendous damage to the country’s faith in government and public trust in representative democracy, after years of stagnant wage growth and intense corporate consolidation.
A decade after the Great Recession, I think there is consensus that Obama’s record — handed many challenges — with the then-Democratically-controlled 111th U.S. Congress was insufficiently progressive and bold. Yet the holdouts of corporate-indebted conservative veto power in the Democratic caucus, especially the Blue Dogs who bear large responsibility for Obama’s shortcomings, have not been fully criticized by liberals who want to preserve the illusion of a big blue tent.
For examples of commentary at the time, as it was clear what Obama was facing: Max Fisher wrote a bullet-point overview in Nov. 2009, linking to Steven Pearlstein writing in the Post that month calling for reforms to Senate rules that empower simple majorities rather than the 60-vote threshold.
My background for this history comes first from my experience with my non-profit team covering Congress every day from 2007 through 2012 on the website OpenCongress, through the TARP bailouts and Obamacare and Dodd-Frank and SOPA/PIPA and annual omnibus bonanzas of the farm and defense bills. Recent history of intra-Democratic-Party debates during the Obama administration can also be read in Ryan Grim’s We’ve Got People (and Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men and others), and recently I’ve written a reporting series on conflicts of interest among DNC leadership on Sludge, coming out of a months-long investigation of non-public party information.
Many of the same DNC officers and congressional leaders hold the same position now as they did in 2009, without real challenges or effective mechanisms for pushback: in the House, Reps. Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn; in the Senate, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, whose former leader Harry Reid last year joined calls to abolish the filibuster. Barack Obama installed Tom Perez as DNC chair after 2016, the top party gatekeeper to protect corporate lobbyists and insulate industries that profit from vast public subsidies. Even after the 2018 midterm wave, there are more self-described moderate New Democrats in the House than members of the Progressive Caucus.
The failures of Democratic leaders to have stood for the right position, at the time when it mattered, fueled the widespread belief in the party’s Beltway-elite corruption and inability to deliver tangible benefits that enabled first the Tea Party, and then FOX News and Donald Trump, to take Congress away from Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 elections, and then with 2016 crack the seal of fascism in the American republic.
A brief overview of some of the major progressive vs. liberal fronts in the past decade-plus:
- 2009 stimulus size: Ryan Grim writes on Feb. 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was estimated at $787 billion over 10 years and then pegged at a total of $831 billion: “Rep. Jerry Nadler told me that losing Congress was ‘baked in the cake’ from the moment Congress passed a stimulus that wasn’t big enough to fill in the hole” (p. 101). Christina Romer had proposed $1.8 trillion in response to the Great Recession, but in the Obama White House, the artificially-low ceiling of $800 billion was pushed by Larry Summers & Rahm Emanuel, driven lower by the conservative Blue Dogs caucus for no solid economic evidence. Summers did not show the Romer memo to President Obama. The national un- and under-employment crisis persisted, as did home foreclosures from inadequate ARRA, ushering in the Tea Party wave in the midterms.
- Facing the global climate crisis, where U.S. emissions must be halved by 2030 to stay within the range of international climate accords in order to preserve sustainable ecosystems, moderate Senate Democrats backed away from even an inadequate cap-and-trade system in Dec. 2009, faced with total Republican obstruction from McConnell’s caucus. The authors of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Oct. 2018 report on climate have said that carbon tax mechanisms will be insufficient to address the scale of the devastation. The DNC recently flip-flopped on fossil fuel industry subsidies in its platform.
- On the need for a public option for health insurance, 10 Democratic candidates supported the plan as an alternative to single-payer healthcare, which other advanced democracies largely pursue and would save trillions by 2030 while reducing poverty by 22%. Sen. Joe Lieberman and moderate Senate Democrats blocked a public option compromise in Dec. 2009, and the resulting shortcomings of Obamacare have been described as “10 years of distress and disappointment.” The House Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus stuck it out as long as they could, threatening not to vote for a reform bill without a public option, but most of their ‘aye’ votes were forced in the end to pass the ACA. Over half a million families have undergone medical bankruptcy every year under Obamacare, while tens of millions remain uninsured, and public faith in government to provide care for people has been severely undercut amid the confusion over the law’s positive effects.
- Even during this year’s pandemic, the majority of House Democrats voted against a 10% re-allocation from the Pentagon’s budget to health care and state & local assistance. The U.S. continues to perpetuate unproductive and immoral foreign wars that have killed and displaced at least hundreds of thousands of people, and cost over $5.2 trillion since 2001.
- The Department of Homeland Security spends billions annually on contracts with ICE, which keep immigrants in unsanitary conditions and separate children from families. Progressives argued this summer to pull DHS funding for humane uses and health care and aid during pandemic; House Democratic leaders sought to expand its powers.
- More disagreements between progressives and party leaders abound, not just on reforming the filibuster and expanding the Senate, but on having the party platform endorse legalizing marijuana or revising the party charter to ban corporate lobbyists from serving on the DNC.
The stuck-ness of the Pelosi & Hoyer and Schumer & Durbin leadership in each chamber continued through even in the past Congress, after the historic midterms wave:
- After re-taking the House in the midterms, progressives urged the House Democratic leadership to conduct vigorous oversight in 2019. For example, a call from as early as March 1, 2019: “Richard Neal’s announcement of a plan to issue a request letter for Trump’s tax returns comes distressingly late — and projects to be vastly too modest in scope.” Pelosi declined to change House rules to strengthen Congress’ contempt powers and issue subpoenas to administration officials.
- See also Pelosi’s decisions to not keep the House in session this spring and summer for coronavirus bailout oversight, a lack of energy and responsiveness which contributed to Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses often being unable to access PPP aid. The result of the CARES Act’s complexities, instead of a program of direct wage support and automatic stabilizers, has been increased corporate consolidation.
- After the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett, NARAL Pro-Choice America called for Sen. Dianne Feinstein to lose her spot atop the Judiciary Committee, after endorsing her against a progressive primary opponent in May 2018.
Crucially, the way that liberals squashed progressives over the past decade were often outside of a fair public debate, where social democratic policies like single-payer health care and a federally-guaranteed green jobs program poll with popularity. The party leadership’s record is crushingly dismal: under President Obama, the Democratic Party lost a net total of 12 U.S. Senate seats, 64 U.S. House seats, 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats, the most of either party in some 50 years.
The stronger argument for how Democrats should govern over the next decade, I believe, is to call clearly to replace party leadership and congressional leadership that has steered the left-of-center into such a powerless position and has failed to improve on wage growth or guarantee universal health care coverage or deliver infrastructure for rural broadband. Is there not widespread agreement that Democrats always start their negotiations from a position of political deficit that’s greater than McConnell’s obstructionism alone?
There are progressive leaders with sizable following who are calling for these wholesale reforms now, doing the hard work of naming names of people within party structures who can blacklist them, and now is the time to support their analysis of what needs to be done, so that progressive policies can be a floor and not a ceiling for what the Democrats stand for in the 117th U.S. Congress. On climate policy, for example, the planet’s sustainability does not have another decade to squander without implementing vast decarbonization.
Commentators may choose to not take sides for various reasons, but there can be only one House Speaker and one Senate Majority Leader, one DCCC chair and one DSCC fundraising head, etc., and Democratic party members should be able to replace them next year. For the past decades, that basic accountability has been lacking within a closed-off Democratic Party.
Some liberal political commentators writing about Trump share my statement that from experience in covering the shocking right-wing Tea Party, they weren’t surprised that the only thing McConnell deigned to pass in the Senate was a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and large corporations (as well as confirming conservative and right-wing federal judges).
But without naming the Democratic leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that failed to effectively push back against this plundering, Democrats are failing to adequately examine how things could have been different, and how proactive advancement of popular policies forces the right-wing opposition into a more reactive stance. They’re failing to examine how the Democratic nominee, backed by the majority of the party apparatus, lost the Electoral College in 2016 to a white nationalist criminal autocrat in Donald Trump.
We’ll all see what happens over the next few months after the election, but in some sense January’s 117th U.S. Congress will offer a fresh start for large liberal advocacy groups and media outlets to join progressive groups in calling explicitly for new, revitalized Democratic party leadership. The old guard may find themselves well-suited to retirement.