After George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential election, the Democratic Party was defeated and dismayed. Hopes had been high among those on the left that the victories of the Civil Rights era was going to swing the country in their direction. After the contentious Jimmy Carter years and the election of Ronald Reagan, arguably the most conservative President in U.S. history, hope turned into fear as the country turned right instead of left. Reagan and his successor, Mr. Bush, ushered in a new era of deregulation as corporate profits soared and inequality widened.
Democratic officials and activists began feeling as if they needed to move to the right in order to win back power in Washington, and thus the so called ‘New Democrats’ were born. Led in large part by Bill Clinton, who would go on to defeat George H.W. Bush in 1992 and bring in a wave of Democratic led governance, the New Democrats had two premises to their agenda.
First, they would run for office as moderates. Sure, they were relatively socially liberal and wanted to expand access to healthcare, but they were also friendly to corporations and banks. Their economic policies across the board, from regulation to trade to taxes, were largely center right.
Second, they would govern as dealmakers. Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House was, in many ways, what Trump campaigned on. He wasn’t interested in pursuing progressive policies for the left faction of his party, he was out to get things accomplished by cutting deals with Republicans. This governing strategy was called triangulation, meaning taking political ideas from both the right and left and coming to a consensus (i.e. the point of the triangle). Clinton’s triangulation gave the United States NAFTA and the ‘tough on crime’ wave of policing that continues to reverberate in urban areas of the country today.
The New Democrats have been losing steam since the election of Barack Obama who, facing unprecedented opposition from Republicans, quickly gave up on his dreams of uniting America and coming to bipartisan policy solutions. That said, it still had hold of those at the very top of the Democratic Party, even though the base was largely weary.
Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election marked the beginning of the end for these New Democrats, and last week they breathed their last breath.
A Better Deal
Last week, Democratic leadership rolled out their policy agenda for the coming years as a counter to the Trump presidency and Republican control of Congress, which the unfortunate title “A Better Deal”. While largely underreported due to the constant focus on the Republicans failed attempt at Obamacare Repeal, the roll out represented an astonishing moment in the recent history of the Democratic Party.
Here are some of the things that the “Better Deal” document calls for: a $15 minimum wage, a $1 trillion public investment in rebuilding American infrastructure, paid family and sick leave, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices to stop drug companies from price gouging, and a comprehensive initiative to break up corporate monopolies through antitrust legislation.
If these proposals sound familiar to you, it’s because they served as some of the core tenants of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Hillary Clinton essentially tried to split support between New Democrats and the progressive wing, offering a $12 minimum wage, a $275 billion infrastructure investment, and weaker reforms on Medicare drug price negotiation. That the Democratic Party picked Sanders plans is extremely notable. Senator Sanders has not only won the heart of the progressive base, he’s won the policy debate of the Democratic Party.
Economic Populism is the Golden Ticket
With their so called “Better Deal,” Democrats seem to finally understand two things.
First, identity politics is a losing hand. Clinton’s attempt at being an economic moderate and a social liberal failed miserably, as evidenced by the buffoon in the White House. As unfortunate as it may be, no one is winning the White House because they’re pro LGBT or welcoming to Muslims.
Second, economic populism is the way to win elections in an era of rapaciously rising inequality. Voters had a choice in 2016 and they chose the candidate who said he was going to break up big banks, pull us out of costly wars, invest in infrastructure, and bring back American jobs over the one who represented Wall Street, regime change, and the free trade that decimated Midwest labor in the 1990’s. It goes without saying that Trump has done nothing to fulfill any of these promises, but he understood what the American people were hungry for and served it, as disingenuous as it has turned out to have been.
There was a lot made about the infighting between progressive Sanders supporters and the moderate Clinton faction. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are far closer to the Clinton wing than the Sanders wing. To their credit, however, they put their own politics aside and crafted in the “Better Deal” an agenda built for electoral success. Leadership should expand the document to include things like Single Payer and free college tuition, but it’s impossible to deny the Democratic Party is finally moving in the right (left) direction, a development that was anything but given following Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Democrats could have again done what Bill Clinton and New Democrats did in the 1990’s, shifting to the right in response to Republican electoral success. Instead, they’re following Bernie Sanders lead, and it might just save the party. With our current administration, that could also mean saving the country.