How Democrats Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Class Struggle

Playing it safe just isn't safe anymore.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) are still centrists. But they and other Democrats with an eye on 2020 are now aiming their ideas at working people.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) are still centrists. But they and other Democrats with an eye on 2020 are now aiming their ideas at working people.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

It seems quaint today, but back in November 2014, Democrats in Washington were genuinely alarmed about their party’s electoral situation. They’d been stomped in the midterm elections, lost control of the Senate, and Republicans had secured their largest House majority since 1931. In response, the Center for American Progress ― an organ of the Clinton dynasty that, at the time, carried tremendous influence within the party ― convened a meeting of the best and brightest Democratic leaders from around the country, hoping to shine a light on big, new ideas that could help Democrats avert a political calamity.

The event was packed with rising stars: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Attorney General Kamala Harris. And it was a debacle. Granted an audience of Washington power-brokers amid an acknowledged political crisis, the bold, exciting leaders of tomorrow just smiled and shrugged.

Hickenlooper suggested that Democrats stop running negative ads in political campaigns. These, he said, were “depressing the product category of democracy” in the political marketplace. Booker praised the innovative Republican mayors and governors who recognized the budgetary burden of mass incarceration, and said he looked forward to working with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on criminal justice reform. Of the day’s speakers, only Warren offered a serious diagnosis of the party’s decline ― it had broken the faith with New Deal liberalism in the 1980s, turning over the financial security of American workers to the whims of Wall Street. But even Warren presented an agenda that seems, in retrospect, modest: infrastructure spending, college affordability and actually prosecuting white-collar crime.

Most baffling of all was Harris. Over the course of 35 minutes, she rambled about “a commitment to adoption of technology,” her liberal family’s disappointment with her career choice to be a prosecutor, and … elementary school truancy.

“Some would say, ‘What’s the top cop of the biggest state doing talking about elementary school truancy?’” And indeed, many did.

It wasn’t that the Democrats assembled at CAP didn’t get what was going wrong in the country. That part was obvious: Far too many Americans were either broke or in jail. But nobody had a plan to do very much about it.

So, for all the recent furor surrounding democratic socialism and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the most dramatic change currently taking place within the Democratic Party is among politicians who built their political careers by playing it safe. They have accepted the critique of the Democratic Party that Elizabeth Warren has been trumpeting for years, converting the cautious center into a bastion of New Deal rhetoric.

Consider the video Harris released over the weekend about how freaking hard it is for working people to make ends meet in America. “In 99 percent of counties in America,” Harris said, “a person working a full-time job at the minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment.”

“Even if you’re making $50,000 a year,” she continued, “it’s still not enough to pay rent on that one-bedroom apartment in California without being stretched to the limit.”

The plan Harris put forward in a new bill accompanying the video isn’t great. It’s a narrow, targeted tax break that amounts to just one month of rent, and the value of that tax break would likely be eroded by landlords raising rents.

But those wonk-gripes don’t really matter. Everybody knows the bill isn’t going anywhere under President Donald Trump. The legislation exists to give Harris an excuse to talk about housing costs. What matters is that Harris wants to make videos and give speeches about how miserable and annoying it is to be broke. And she’s going out of her way to court housing experts from beyond the D.C. establishment, getting rhetorical support from Matthew Desmond, whose book Evicted: Poverty And Profit In The American City is a lefty masterpiece. “The rent is too damn high,” isn’t the message of fringe third-party candidates anymore. It’s the new rallying cry for moderates positioning themselves for 2020.

Other Democrats who have spent their careers meticulously calculating the precise ideological center of the political spectrum are now targeting their ideas toward working people. Booker has put forward legislation to create a federal job guarantee, along with a bill that would require companies to pay a ”workers dividend when they buy back stock, and legislation to end ”noncompete clauses that prevent low-wage workers from taking other low-wage jobs if they quit.

Even Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a Big Law alum who spent the 1990s courting the NRA and opposing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, has introduced some pretty radical banking legislation. She recruited University of Georgia law professor Mehrsa Baradaran and Duke University economist Mark Paul, two brilliant minds from the progressive hinterlands beyond Clintonia, to write a bill that would create a Postal Service-based public option for consumer banking. If Gillibrand’s bill were to become law, the payday lending business would be decimated as cash-strapped households turned to low-cost alternatives at the post office.

Gillibrand, Booker and Harris are all still centrists, of course. They’re struggling to square Warren’s back-to-FDR critique with the policy instincts that have been stamped into them since law school. Booker’s jobs guarantee is just a pilot program. It’s not clear why he doesn’t just call to ban stock buybacks and raise the minimum wage, or why he still makes endless, superfluous references to the deficit. But cautious Democrats with their eyes on 2020 have figured out that the political playbook from the 1990s isn’t safe anymore. Now if only they could convince the Senate majority leader.

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