WASHINGTON ― Leading progressives praised the new message unveiled by top congressional Democrats on Monday that stresses economic policy, suggesting the party is moving on from the internecine finger-pointing that has dogged it since November’s election.
Under the slogan “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” House and Senate Democratic leaders laid out a three-pronged platform with ideas for creating decent-paying jobs; lowering household expenses, chief among them prescriptions drugs; and improving access to the education and training Americans need to compete in the job market.
The proposals represent the party’s first major attempt to recalibrate its central themes ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and restore its historic reputation as the party of ordinary working people following Republican Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016′s presidential race. In a symbolic bid to emphasize their desire to reach a wider swath of Americans, party leaders announced the new agenda in Berryville, Virginia ― some 65 miles from the halls of power in Washington.
Prominent liberals, who have been nudging the party in this direction for years, mostly welcomed the rebranding effort.
“This is a very refreshing message ― it doesn’t sound like poll-tested messaging. It sounds authentic and passionate and bold,” said Tamara Draut, vice president for policy and research at Demos, a progressive think tank and advocacy group.
“A ‘Better Deal,’ and more importantly, what [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer and [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi are saying about their new focus, is extremely strong,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a nonprofit fighting to expand Social Security and Medicare. “It’s not perfect, it’s not exactly what the grassroots is demanding. But as a starting point it is very, very strong.”
All of Us, a pressure group that has threatened to help challenges in primaries against Democratic lawmakers deemed insufficiently progressive, mixed praise with demands for greater action.
The group termed the agenda “a step toward embracing progressive populism” that “doesn’t go far enough.”
The plan from the leading Democrats “is still unclear about where the party stands on tackling climate change, health care, rising racism, and free higher education, and if they’re willing to force the billionaire class to finally pay their fair share,” All of Us said in a statement
Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, a group formed to carry on the legacy of the Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, also noted the omission of climate change and racial justice policies, as well as a plan to provide free college education. She credited the party for acknowledging major deficiencies, but said the real proof would be in efforts to follow through on the agenda’s lofty goals.
“I hope this is not just a cute way to try to appease folks by forming another committee. We don’t need a committee ― we need a commitment to real policy changes,” she said.
A Senate Democratic aide who requested anonymity to comment said the new message was focused exclusively on economic policy, which did not indicate any less of a commitment to combatting climate change, fighting for racial justice and other matters.
Efforts by Turner and her allies to hold Democrats to their populist facelift began almost immediately. Groups including Our Revolution, All of Us, Democracy for America and the National Nurses United debuted their “People’s Platform” initiative on Tuesday, calling on Democratic congressional leaders and candidates to get behind eight progressive bills. All but one of the bills, which range from single-payer health care legislation to automatic voter registration, have already been introduced in the House.
After an unveiling press conference in Washington, D.C. ― featuring Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, and other progressive lawmakers ― several dozen activists went to the Democratic National Committee building to drop off more than 115,000 online petition signatures in support of the platform.
At the latter event, there were once again signs of the strained relations between the most progressive elements of the party’s progressive base and the establishment. Activists were surprised to see that the DNC, apprised of the event in advance, had erected barriers preventing them from speaking on the steps.
The DNC told HuffPost that it puts up protective barriers whenever there is a demonstration, friendly or not, and noted that it offered activists water and doughnuts.
Turner, who was allowed to address the crowd from the steps, acknowledged the security justification, but nonetheless cried foul.
“I’m feelin’ some kind of way right now,” she said. “Because if something like this, can happen to somebody like me, then imagine how other people are treated!”
Even with the criticism, the response is a far cry from the mockery elicited by an earlier, leaked draft of the Democratic slogan last week: “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.”
The phrase’s similarity to the tagline of ads for Papa John’s pizza chain and prominent placement of “Better Skills” ― an apparent nod to a much-maligned economic theory that blames joblessness on a dearth of skilled workers ― drew scorn from all corners of the political world.
The details of the proposal and removal of the offending “Better Skills” clause quieted much of the criticism.
“Absolutely, we need to help people get the skills they need,” said Draut. “But it is not the first thing we need to do and it is definitely not the first thing people want to hear. Even people with the right skills are having a hard time getting ahead.”
A senior aide to a House Democrat credited Schumer’s political instincts for the party’s populist pivot.
“Chuck Schumer knows which way the wind is blowing. Can’t say that for other members of leadership,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to comment.
“A Better Deal” combines several well-known, albeit recent additions to the Democratic canon ― a nationwide $15 minimum wage; a $1 trillion infrastructure package; 12 weeks of paid family leave; protecting Social Security and Medicare ― with new ideas, including a small-business tax credit for job training and apprenticeship programs. These latter proposals are likely to find favor with the party’s pro-business wing.
In presenting ways to lower families’ costs of living, however, Schumer, Pelosi and their deputies embraced an anti-monopoly, economic populism that bears little resemblance to the centrist triangulation of former President Bill Clinton, or even the free-trade-friendly technocracy of former President Barack Obama.
“You have seen a shift away from the centrist politics and policies of the Democratic Party toward bold ideas that meet the challenges facing working people today,” Draut said. “It is a progression under way for some time now that has solidified.”
Specifically, Democrats want to empower the Medicare program to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, create a new federal agency to investigate and enforce action against prescription drug “price gouging,” and demand that drug companies explain significant price increases.
The party is also taking on the issue of corporate consolidation, promising tougher antitrust rules aimed at curbing mega-mergers and having a federal watchdog ― a “21st century trust buster” ― enforce the new regulations even after a merger takes place.
The growing size and reach of a handful of corporations ― from banks to airlines to tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook ― has been a subject of growing interest among progressive intellectuals who blame new monopoly power for problems ranging from the 2008 financial crisis to wage stagnation and the decline of rural America.
Top proponents of bold antitrust action, which elected Democrats have sometimes been slower to get behind than policy gurus, were enthusiastic about the new platform and the rhetoric used to promote it.
The Democratic leaders also promised to follow up with additional proposals aimed at making child care more affordable; cracking down on foreign trade abuses; ensuring high-speed internet access; and improving retirement security.
Signs have emerged that the party is eager to emulate the fiery tone and economic message of Sanders, one of a small number of elected officials who can pack arenas on short notice and, according to at least one poll, the nation’s most popular politician. In a Sunday New York Times op-ed previewing the new agenda, Schumer echoed Sanders’ populist themes, promising a “better deal so that this country works for everyone again, not just the elites and special interests.”
“Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on … misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” he wrote.
Sanders, now a member of Senate Democratic leadership despite maintaining his voter registration as an independent, was among those plugging “A Better Deal” in a 3-minute promotional video accompanying the rollout in Berryville.
Of course, the party has not embraced all of the Vermont senator’s policy preferences ― steering clear of single-payer health insurance and free college tuition plans that were the cornerstones of his presidential campaign.
The decision not to stick uniformly to the slate of proposals favored by the left won the approval of some Democratic moderates.
“There’s something in there for all wings of the party,” said Ladan Ahmadi, a spokeswoman for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Ahmadi cited the inclusion of job training tax credits as an example of the type of policies more accommodating to the likes of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a fiscal conservative.
Yet in a Sunday appearance on ABC’s “This Week” Schumer went further than either he or Pelosi have ever gone toward endorsing government-run health insurance ― i.e., a single-payer system. That idea is gaining traction with the Affordable Care Act, a public-private patchwork, on the chopping block.
Predicting that Republicans would fail to repeal Obamacare and that the two parties would then come together to stabilize the marketplaces created by the law, Schumer said, “we’re going to look at broader things ― single payer is one of them.”
Other options “on the table,” he added, include lowering Medicare’s age eligibility to 55 and allowing consumers to buy into Medicare or Medicaid.
Those weary of the party’s attempts to pin the blame for Trump’s election on the interference of either the Russian government or former FBI director James Comey expressed relief that Schumer was willing to take a hard look in the mirror.
“It’s about time! It only took them about 8 months to realize that the Russia narrative ain’t working,” said Turner, who is also a former Ohio state senator.
In the aftermath of the election, Democrats have been plagued by feuds between warring factions of the party with competing explanations for recent electoral failures.
The disagreements over the party’s message and focus remain real, but the largely positive reactions to “A Better Deal” suggest a fragile detente has taken hold.
“I’m not interested in replaying the past,” said Lawson, who backed Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democrats’ 2016 presidential primary race. “I’m interested in moving forward and winning and taking on the billionaire class and putting in place policies that work for the American people. The way you do it is making clear whose side you’re on.”
This article has been updated with details about the People’s Platform initiative and events on Tuesday.