It’s 20-20 hindsight time for pols and pundits, so naturally we are hearing a lot of woulda-shoulda-coulda about the Democratic Party. Never mind that the last election was a second-term midterm with a crazy-positive landscape for the GOP: The defeat was totally avoidable, we are asked to believe, if only Barack Obama and/or the Democratic Party had behaved differently!
Interestingly enough, both “centrist” and progressive critics of Obama and the Democrats seem to agree that they blew it by failing to pay enough attention to the economy, thereby alienating white working class (i.e., non-college educated) voters. Beyond that, accounts begin to differ.
In a much-discussed National Press Club speech last week, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York argued that by prioritizing health care reform, Democrats had elevated the interests of “a small percentage of the electorate”—the uninsured—at the expense of the interests of middle class voters who wanted economic magic. Schumer did not identify exactly what sort of proposals Democrats might have embraced to meet that demand, leading one to suspect he thinks agitating the air on behalf of the desired constituency and its demands might be enough, particularly if combined with a conspicuous decision to abandon the decades-long progressive project of health care reform as a sort of propitiatory sacrifice.
In support of Schumer’s complaint, super-pundit Charlie Cook goes further, arguing that the entire Democratic agenda after the auto industry bailout was a big mistake:
In 2008, we faced the Great Recession, and like other financial meltdowns, it was deep and painful. At the tail end of the George W. Bush administration and in the early Obama years, financial markets were stabilized (the overwhelming majority of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds have been repaid, with many of the investments yielding profits for Uncle Sam), and the Obama administration should be applauded for rescuing the automobile industry. But while those actions can be legitimately seen as a good start, we then saw a grand pivot to the environment and health care, with grave consequences for the party. At another time and in different fashion, both are important priorities, but the focus on these issues has effectively decimated the Democratic Party in specific areas and among specific voter blocs.
The “rescuing of the automobile industry” both preceded and succeeded the economic stimulus package of 2009, so it’s not clear whether Cook thinks the stimulus legislation is part of the “good” work prior to the “grand pivot,” or not significant enough to be mentioned. In any event, the struggle over the stimulus bill effectively showed the limits of what Democrats could accomplish on the middle-class-economic rescue front even with the swollen congressional majorities they earned in 2008. So again, you have to wonder if the argument is that Democrats should have abandoned their health care and their environmental agendas—both of them longstanding parts of the party’s game plan for governance—in order to “focus on the economy.” But how? Cook’s no clearer on that little detail than is Schumer.
Some left-bent critics of Obama and the Democratic Party do have a specific parallel economic agenda in mind, mostly involving the financial sector: breaking up the largest banks, for example, and perhaps jailing some bankers for their role in the pain and suffering of the Great Recession. That may well represent good policy. And yes, this sort of agenda may have exerted some political appeal. But would financial shock-treatment have had any immediate effect on middle-class incomes? Would it have reduced inequality? And would it have sped up the recovery from the Great Recession? That’s all unlikely. The most-discussed positive policy prescription among progressives, an expansion of Social Security benefits, had less than a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted by Congress even before, much less after, 2010. And it, too, like the much-derided minimum wage increase proposals of Democrats in the 2014 cycle, and like Obamacare, would have appealed to a relatively small share of voters.
If the point is simply that Democrats would have benefited from a more “populist” political message, that’s easy to agree upon, though it’s not so easy to agree on the components of such a message. You can certainly make a strong case that Democrats were incompetent in conveying their actual accomplishments in economic policy, and the threat Republicans pose to their preservation and extension. For example: how often or well did Democrats explain the Affordable Care Act as an economic initiative? When did they focus on the economic calamities risked by excessive reliance of fossil fuel energy? And in discussing poll-tested policy proposals like a minimum wage increase, to what extent did Democrats nestle these commitments in a broader agenda–that most certainly did exist–of measures aimed at boosting wages and real incomes?
In sum, there are too many variables involved, many of them having nothing to do with policy, to conclude with any degree of precision that a different economic agenda or subordinating health care and the environment to “jobs” would have made a big difference in 2014. And this entire debate is a distraction from what Democrats can do to win in 2016 when they will be in a much better position to hold a comparative “two futures” debate over economic policies instead of a “referendum” on hard times.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.