How Democrats can be progressive without being irresponsible
How can Democrats best reply to the Trump agenda?
Since the rise of the tea party, the Democratic response that seems to have resonated most with voters has been to promise more stuff to more people.
You want to slow the growth of Social Security benefits for the upper income? We’ll increase Social Security. For everybody.
You want to abolish Obamacare? We will push Medicare for all.
Are people having trouble paying off their student loans? We will make college free — for everyone, regardless of income.
It makes sense that these big ideas would appeal. You might think that self-styled progressives would target their programs to the needy, but the middle class feels put upon and wants help from government, too.
And when Republicans don’t seem to care about deficits — certainly, Donald Trump did not during his presidential campaign — why should Democrats be the eat-your-spinach party?
Trump won, and Bernie Sanders nearly outflanked Hillary Clinton, with big and bold. No one wants to be caught being incremental or, heaven forbid, responsible.
Here’s the problem: Even if More Stuff for More People might prove a winning slogan in 2020, it won’t be a viable governing strategy in 2021 or 2022 or 2023 or 2024. As the Congressional Budget Office reiterated recently, the federal budget is on track to be consumed by interest on the debt and by older people’s entitlements, leaving less and less for schools, national parks, scientific research and a lot of other activities that Democrats favor.
So here’s a question: Would it be possible to fashion a platform that is progressive in its values, big and bold in its appeal, and not entirely irresponsible?
Jason Furman, who was one of President Barack Obama’s top economic advisers, says he worries that “the path for the next election will just be lying more — that the lesson from this election won’t be so much moving left or right, but overpromising.”
That’s especially so because much of what government should be doing in response to automation and other forms of economic dislocation are things Obama proposed but the Republican Congress wouldn’t support — education and training, infrastructure, research. Those aren’t sexy, but the fact that Obama proposed them year after year doesn’t make them any less needed.
Still, I came away from a conversation with a freshman congressman last week with at least some hints that Democrats might be able to craft an appealing platform that does more than promise more benefits. Ro Khanna, an economics teacher and briefly an Obama administration official, was elected from the heart of Silicon Valley last year by defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent, Michael M. Honda.
Khanna supported Sanders in the presidential primary, and he told me he won by responding to people’s distrust of the system — he took no PAC money, and has introduced legislation saying no other congressional candidates should either — and to their desire for big policy advances. As a result, he said, his polls showed that, in California’s unusual two-Democrat November runoff, he led among both Trump voters and Sanders voters.
He didn’t adopt either of their approaches wholesale, though. Where Trump’s appeal is “muscular and insular,” Khanna said, he believes the United States has to remain open to the world — to immigration and exchange across borders — and to the potential benefits of technological advance.
And he is beginning to explore policy options, big but not pie in the sky, that he thinks could promote a more open America while still letting more people feel included. Where Sanders favored free college tuition for all, Khanna said he supports Robert Reich’s plan for debt-free community college and career training. Students would pay no tuition — and while in job training programs, they’d get paid. But once college grads went to work, they would repay some tuition with a fixed percentage of their income. In absolute dollars, schoolteachers might end up paying a lot less for their education than Silicon Valley engineers.
Which is only one way Khanna declines to coddle his high-tech constituency. He thinks it crucial that young people in Ohio or West Virginia feel as much chance to make it in the entrepreneurial world as people growing up in Palo Alto, Calif. That will take government programs — a “massive track of apprenticeship,” rethinking education to encourage going in and out of school throughout a career — but also deeper involvement from Silicon Valley companies themselves. He favors a vast (but paid-for) $1 trillion expansion of the earned income tax credit — a variation on the newly fashionable universal basic income, but one that Khanna would keep tethered to work.
“The hunger is still there for a politics of national identity,” Khanna said, and he worries that such a vision may still win out. “We have to articulate a bold, alternative economic vision, some entrepreneurial vision so people aren’t afraid of the future.”
Maybe it can even be honest, too.