Wayne O'Leary

Chuck Schumer’s New New Deal

The Republican Party, conventional wisdom has it, is coming apart at the seams, riven by factionalism and contention, while Democrats are more unified than they’ve ever been, united in their contempt for Donald Trump and all his works. As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong or, at least, only partly right.

True, the GOP couldn’t coalesce sufficiently to repeal Obamacare, but it voted pretty much en masse against the Democratic health-care program except for a tiny handful of “moderate” holdouts; well over 90% of the Republican House and Senate caucuses were in lockstep on repeal. The same was true on various votes to confirm controversial Trump appointments, and you can bet there will be similar GOP unanimity on the party’s pending tax-cut legislation.

Democrats, it will be argued, were just as uniform in defense of Obamacare, but the ACA was, after all, their party’s signature legislative accomplishment between 2009 and 2016, a litmus test of support for President Obama’s legacy. On other recent GOP initiatives, Democratic unity was less in evidence. Right-winger Neil Gorsuch reached the Supreme Court with the votes of several Democrats, and most of Trump’s cabinet appointees enjoyed more-than-token Democratic help in overcoming the progressive “resistance.” Then, there’s the ideological leadership fight currently roiling the California Democracy. So, it could be the loyal opposition that’s betraying internal divisions.

Ample evidence to this effect appeared over the summer. In early July, a voice from the forgettable past appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Corporate Democrat Mark Penn, senior advisor to the Clinton camp from 1995 to 2008 — he strategized for Hillary’s first presidential run against Obama — took on the Sanders-Warren wing of Democratic progressivism with a slashing attack that blamed the party’s 2016 loss and lingering woes on “socialist ideas,” “leftward drift,” “class warfare,” “disdain for religion,” and a host of other sins.

Co-authored with New York Democrat Andrew Stein, the Penn diatribe (“Back to the Center, Democrats”) called for abandoning so-called big-government solutions, cultivating moderate and conservative voters, seeking bipartisanship with the rabid GOP, and emphasizing “fiscal responsibility” and balanced budgets. Identity politics was dutifully condemned, but it was disingenuously identified with Sanders, Warren, and the party’s left wing (it was actually a feature of the 2016 Clinton campaign). Single-payer health care was, of course, dismissed as a government handout, the contrasting Penn-Stein ideal being Bill Clinton’s pared-down, incrementalist approach of the late 1990s.

It’s entirely possible that Democrats like Penn and Stein, both New Yorkers, are stalking-horses for the ambitions of Andrew Cuomo, the Empire State’s incumbent governor. Cuomo, whose recent career has consisted mostly of disrespecting progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and stressing his desire to get along with Donald Trump, appears ready to make a centrist run for the White House in four years. While cozying up to the Donald, the better to ingratiate himself with New York Republicans, Cuomo has stockpiled $26 million for his 2018 gubernatorial reelection, in order to discourage progressive challengers to his renomination. The resistance is obviously not his thing.

There are other Democratic politicians out there who are anxious as well to shift their party back to the right and break the momentum of the Sanders-Warren forces presently energizing its rank and file. Some of the prominent names, all governors, are Steve Bullock of Montana, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island.

Being against Sanders and his influence on the party seems to be what distinguishes and motivates this group. Bullock and Raimondo disparage the Sanders plan for free college tuition, Bullock dislikes the Sanders single-payer, and McAuliffe is an unreconstructed free trader who still backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. All three emphasize their market-friendly liberalism in contrast to Sanders’ democratic socialism.

In the midst of the simmering face-off between old-line pragmatic centrists and new-wave progressive leftists stands Senate Minority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer of New York, the ring master of the shrunken Democratic act in Congress. Attempting to accommodate his party to the wishes and demands of an activist base newly inspired by the populist upheaval of the 2016 Sanders campaign, Schumer has undertaken a laudable and ambitious effort to forge a common Democratic front against Trumpism and the Ryan-McConnell Congress.

It may be a thankless task. The Democratic party’s establishment mostly thinks it’s not to blame for 2016, pointing instead to unforeseen circumstances, bad luck, or maybe (they don’t say this out loud) the wrong candidate at the wrong time. But certainly, a political revolution is not the answer. The Bernie-crats on the outside looking in have a different perspective; they see institutional corruption and organizational neglect at the heart of the matter, and a totally new agenda as the obvious solution. Chuck Schumer wants to split the difference.

The Schumer approach is something borrowed, something blue (as in traditional Democratic). There are borrowings from Sanders and occasionally even Trump with an emphasis on economic populism, as well as old party bromides that have been around awhile.

As outlined in his own Times op-ed of late July (“A Better Deal for American Workers”) and a follow-up press conference featuring supportive party leaders, Schumer’s declaration highlighted the following legislative objectives: a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, lower prescription drug costs achieved by empowering Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, and an anti-monopoly crusade led by an antitrust czar called a “consumer competition advocate” — to review mergers the way Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) polices banks.

Other, less dramatic items on the agenda included paid family and medical leave, a $1 trillion infrastructure program, and expanded job-training and apprenticeship programs funded by business tax credits. A second installment in early August on trade and employment added such goals as renegotiating NAFTA, using the tax code to penalize US companies offshoring American jobs, and creating an American Jobs Security Council to review foreign investments in the US for harmful impacts — in sum, a leftish variation on the Trumpian theme of economic nationalism.

Two glaring omissions from Schumer’s Gingrich-like contract with voters were (1) endorsement of a single-payer health plan and (2) any mention of encouraging labor unions. These lapses make it at best a work in progress, but nevertheless it’s a start.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017


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