Politics is notoriously short-sighted, focused on the next vote, the next election cycle, the next news-day. So if you try to step back and take the long view, even for a second, one of the things that really jumps out at you is how full the agenda is for the next year or so. For the rest of 2009, we basically know that the agenda is going to be dominated by health care (whether or not the current bill passes), the climate change bill in the Senate, still-forthcoming financial regulation reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, and possibly immigration reform as well.
I’m of the firm belief that a packed agenda is good in politics – it’s a sign of confidence and enthusiasm, and a sign that there is a larger political ideology that can express itself in every area of public life, as it should. Yet at the same time, activists especially have to look forward to get ready for what’s next.
I would be the first to admit that my experience in grand campaign strategy isn’t that much, but what I have seen generally shows that successful campaigns are built around constructing good narratives. And when you’re the party in power, one of the most powerful ways you can shape and promote your narrative is to use a package of legislation to center attention – the Democratic Congress’s “Six in 06” or “Hundred Hours” program is a good example, but so was the use of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Bill, and the War Authorization by Republicans to divert attention away from Enron and other corporate scandals and re-frame the election around terrorism and war.
Before us are two elections, the 2010 midterm and the 2012 presidential elections. Both before and after each election, we need to construct a successful narrative in order to maintain political momentum. 2010 will largely focus around generating a successful record of legislative accomplishments (important for getting the base energized; a large part of the decline in Democratic approval of Congress and the President is largely because we’ve been stymied on our priority legislation) and prepping the general election by showing that we’re tackling the economy as recovery begins to take effect. By 2012, I half-suspect that the economy will have slipped from its current position at the top of the public’s focus, but regardless of what issue does take priority, I believe that both the run-up to and the follow-through of the 2012 elections will be defining for a generation what it means to wield power in a progressive way.
2010: Getting it Right
Regarding the 2010 election, I think it absolutely behooves the Democratic Congress, once it manages to get through the current crop of legislation, to establish a new mini-platform of bills to run on (Call it “10 for ’10” or the “Next Hundred Hours” or what you will). This will give the midterm elections a national focus, something that defines what it means to be running as a Democrat:
- Jobs Bill – obviously our first political and policy concern has to be bringing unemployment down sharply, preferably below 7% (which would require 4 million jobs, which in turn would cost $160 billion although this can be made deficit-neutral via Job Insurance). Politically, I think this has to be done to show that Democrats can take action to create jobs that Republicans couldn’t; policy-wise, I think we need to bring unemployment down to below 7% at least to forestall and side-step a jobless recovery.
- Housing Bill – this is an area where quite plainly the Democratic Congress screwed up badly and needs to visibly fix its mistake. If a real cramdown is impossible, establishing rent to own would be a good step. If it’s completely impossible to get anything past the banking lobby, then a new HOLC for underwater and foreclosed homes, possibly attached to a general housing assistance program would hardly arouse opposition – bankers generally don’t turn down money.
- Financial Regulation Bill – another area where we let down the ball. To be honest, I’ve had a few ideas about this, but I don’t really see a way forward to passage, given how badly progressives got beat up on the cramdown bill and the credit card regulation bill.
- Deficit Reduction Bill – it’s almost inevitable that budget hawk politics are going to be increasingly prevalent, given the size of the deficit incurred as a result of Bush administration policies, the bailouts, and the stimulus bill. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce a deficit. You can do it gradually, making sure that deficit reduction doesn’t cause a 1937 scenario where a recovery dependent on government spending reverts back to a recession, or you can do it all at once (if you, for example, want to “prove” that stimulus doesn’t work); you can work to ensure that spending cuts are distributed where they’ll do the most damage, or you can do a California-like raid on programs for the poor. The key here will be to try to balance the use of more progressive taxation with increased revenues from economic growth to protect social services as much as possible.
2012: Progressivism In Action
It seems odd to remember it now, but when Barack Obama began his campaign for the White House, dealing with the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression was not on the agenda. And while it’s true that a major economic crisis does create some opportunities for challenges to capitalism, one of the things that this recession has shown us is that such challenges are by no means automatically successful because they are just. If the track record of the last eight months has shown us anything, it is that this recession has not damaged the political standing of big business in any way, shape or form. By contrast, this recession has also caused huge problems for progressives – mass unemployment and increasing poverty means that any attempt at advancing social justice and economic equality have to start from a deficit and strain even harder to make gains against historical averages; economic growth and tight labor markets have historically been much more fruitful for labor unions and social movements to demand and win a more equitable distribution of wealth, the advance of the welfare state, and other socioeconomic reforms.
Given that the 2012 election probably will take place in conditions of an economic recovery that’s been going on for almost four years, the agenda for the election most likely will not revolve around the economy. However, I don’t think it will be sufficient to point to a (hopefully long) list of policy success and offer a contrast with a Republican party that’s increasingly looking more like a DSM-V list of symptoms than a political movement. My belief and my hope is that the 2012 election will be framed around the idea of forming a new social contract, in which everyone works for the benefit of the community, and in return everyone who works will be protected. To that end, focusing the campaign inside and outside of Congress on key issues where we can make the case:
- Poverty Bill – as I have stated before, I think a commitment to abolishing poverty in the United States is both a moral act but also, if done through the expansion of a universal social safety net, politically popular. For Democrats who may have felt burned by Obama’s cautious incrementalism, it would be a clear signal of his progressive intentions. For independents, a program focused on creating jobs and eliminating working poverty could put the Republicans in the doubly uncomfortable position of being against working families AND favoring welfare over work. From a policy basis, policies to abolish poverty would also continue the work of keeping the recovery going, and making the economy more stable by firming up consumer purchasing power.
- Health Care, Round 2 – regardless whether a bill passes or not, it’s likely that there will still be areas of health care reform that need to be addressed – the biggest in 2012 should be a drive to “open up the public option” to anyone who wants to buy it, although there are other areas where health care could be improved. However, this drive, like all further drives, should combine efforts to expand public coverage with expansions of the premium subsidies, forcing opponents to reform to literally vote against putting money in their constituents’ wallets.
- Making Social Security Work-While I don’t for a minute buy the argument that Social Security is in crisis, it is true that our Social Security system – by which I mean the entire Social Security system, including Unemployment Insurance, Disability, and so forth – does need to be improved and expanded in a progressive fashion. Politically, I think this fits in with the larger idea of a progressive social contract: we have to make the point a reality that everyone will taken care of, that there won’t be one system for full-time, well-paid living wage workers and nothing for temporary or part-time workers. And policy-wise, taking steps to improve Social Security by removing the cap on earnings or making the payroll tax progressive will simultaneously make the system more progressive and more financially secure.
- Apollo Initiative/Labor Market Policy -if fixing (not wrecking) Social Security sends a signal that we will protect people from economic insecurity, if abolishing poverty shows that we will not allow anyone to fall between the cracks, then establishing a system of Initiatives and an active labor market policy shows that we will act to prevent the next recession, by seeking to promote new industries and to maintain high rates of employment.
It is hard to look forward, and few make good soothsayers. But to look ahead politically is not merely to think about what may happen, but who and what we want to be as a political movement; it’s about defining ourselves for the future.