As Republicans take control of Congress for the first time since 2006, the Democrats’ crushing midterm defeat and the rise of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have empowered the progressive wing to step up their fight for the soul of the party ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Their message: Stop catering to big business. Listen to populists like Warren on how to rebuild the tarnished brand. Champion transformative ideas that will improve the lives of middle class Americans. If not, Democrats are toast in 2016.
“I can tell you, if Democrats try to adopt a Third Way, Democratic Leadership Council-type philosophy where we abandon average working Americans, we’re not going to be successful [in 2016] or in general,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told TPM. “This is a time where people talking about raising wages, fair trade bills that do not offshore our jobs, strengthening the right to organized labor unions. This is that moment to grab those issues in order to be successful. And if we abandon those issues and we sort of become Republican-lite, we’re not going to be successful.”
With Democrats’ popularity at a record low and the party now in the minority in the House and Senate, the progressive caucus and outside activists say the party is now free to stop cutting bad deals with Republicans and must draw red lines against legislation designed to help narrow, wealthy interests.
“Democrats lost in 2014 because the brand was not associated with big, bold ideas that would be game-changing for peoples’ lives,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said.
Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy For America, said, “Without the trappings of leadership it’s a lot easier to get focused on what’s really important.”
The Republican Party’s lurch to the right has kept Democrats largely united in recent years to play defense against conservatives. But that may be about to change — Warren’s fight against weakening Wall Street reform in the lame duck session jolted the left even though she lost. It could be sign of more internal Democratic feuds to come, and progressives welcome it.
“I think there will be divisions,” Dean said. “We’re at our best when we’re competing for the best ideas, even though a lot of folks on the inside don’t particularly like that.”
Progressive advocates see the next two years through the prism of the coming 2016 race. They want Democrats to use their minority to lay down a sweeping populist agenda for the country ahead of the election, which could include breaking up the big banks, a major clean energy jobs bill or investments in education to let college students graduate debt free.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. joins low-wage workers at a rally outside the Capitol in Washington (AP Photo)
“Things like that will inspire people to vote,” Green said. “So the question is, what do we do in 2015 and 2016 toward that north star vision?”
Even as the economy gradually improves, voters increasingly place greater trust in Republicans to handle it. In late September, Gallup found an 11-point advantage for Republicans on which party voters trust to deal with the economy. In late April, they had a 5-point advantage.
Dean said Democrats should go against President Barack Obama on ideas like a free-trade agreement, which Republicans also support.
There is some convergence between progressive advocates and top Democrats. Party leaders want to protect Obama’s initiatives — including Obamacare and his executive actions on immigration — but they also want to work with the GOP where possible.
“Leadership’s main goal will be putting forward a Democratic message that makes clear we are focused on improving the lives of middle-class Americans,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “We’ll be pursuing policies that grow middle-class incomes and make expenses in everyday life less expensive. If Republican leadership is willing to stare down Ted Cruz and the Tea Party and put forth moderate proposals that actually help the middle class, they’ll find Democrats eager to work with them.”
DFA and MoveOn.org have launched a “Draft Warren” campaign for president, even though the Massachusetts senator has repeatedly resisted calls for a White House bid. They’ve dispatched organizers to Iowa and New Hampshire to bolster her agenda. The goal is also to pressure Hillary Clinton, whom progressive advocates are wary of, to adopt the Warren vision.
“I would love to see Elizabeth Warren in this race. It would be fantastic,” Ellison told liberal activists on a conference call last month. “I think that it would help the quality of the debate and she may win, but even if she doesn’t, I think she’d make Hillary Clinton a better candidate.”
The left flank of the party scored a rare and significant year-end victory against President Barack Obama when he revealed that he won’t renominate Michael Boggs to be a federal district court judge. Progressives fought to thwart the nomination over Boggs’ past votes as a Georgia state legislator against abortion and in favor of maintaining the state’s Confederate battle flag.
“One of the big lessons of the Boggs fight is that we, as progressives, have to stand up and fight for what we believe in. Even when the odds look long and even when we are opposing our usual allies – in this case the Administration,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL. “We can’t win progressive victories if we don’t fight for them publicly. … I think the lead up to 2016 will be an active and exciting time.”
For progressives, who feel the party has lost touch with its core identity, the next two years in the minority provide an opportunity to rediscover it.
“Most people voting Democrat don’t know what they’re voting for right now,” Dean said. “They don’t know who we are or what we’re for. If we don’t have [Warren’s] kind of leadership in the presidential debates, the Democrats will not be in the White House in January 2017.”