Was Democrats’ Big Midterm Defeat Really A Good Thing For Progressives?

January 15, 2015 6:00 a.m.

The Democrats’ progressive wing is enjoying a renaissance since the party’s crushing defeat in the 2014 midterm election, chalking up victories and capturing the attention of congressional leaders on causes near and dear to their hearts.

Some of the change is structural. The election wiped out red state senators and House members in less progressive districts, reducing the new minority party to a more ideologically cohesive unit. The loss of the Democrats’ Senate majority also breaks a four-year holding pattern in which leaders had to cut deals with the conservative-dominated House, making it somewhat easier for them to stand or fall on principle.

“It’s very, very liberating,” said one Democratic Senate leadership aide.

The left’s determination to take the reins of the party is having an impact. Here are five prominent examples since the election.

House Democrats’ new plan to cut taxes on workers and soak the rich

Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer, Steve Israel, Chris Van Hollen, James Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi. (Rex Features via AP Images)

The most dramatic reflection of the party’s shift came in a new plan unveiled on Monday by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, to transfer billions of dollars from the rich to middle class.

The cornerstone of the plan is a “paycheck bonus tax credit” of $1,000 for every worker making up to $100,000 — a flat $1,000 tax cut for every worker at that income level (and $2,000 for two-earner married couples making up to $200,000) — along with a $250 reward for those who save $500 annually. It is paid for by curbing tax expenditures to the top 1 percent of earning households — a massive revenue windfall of $1.5 trillion over a decade — and a “high roller” fee on financial transactions that Wall Street-friendly Democrats have resisted.

The plan was quickly praised by progressive activists, who have argued that Democrats’ policy prescriptions — like Obamacare and ending the high-end Bush tax cuts — have been woefully inadequate at reversing ever-increasing income inequality. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it “a major moment in progressive leadership that brings bold ideas to the forefront.”

Progressives scuttle a Treasury nominee with Wall Street ties

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

The progressive flank of the party openly celebrated on Monday when Antonio Weiss dropped out of consideration to be undersecretary for domestic policy at the Treasury Department, the No. 3 position. The nomination faced fierce opposition from progressive darlings, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who assailed Weiss, a banker at Lazard, for his Wall Street ties.

“I do not believe the Treasury Department would be well served by the lengthy confirmation process my renomination would likely entail,” Weiss wrote to President Barack Obama.

In response, the White House told reporters, “We strongly believe that the opposition to his nomination was not justified.”

Progressives tank a judicial nominee over abortion and the Confederate flag

President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In perhaps the most prominent intra-party thwarting of a judicial nominee since Harriet Miers, progressive activists quashed Obama nominee Michael Boggs to serve as a federal trial court judge in Georgia. A coalition of advocates, led by the abortion-rights group NARAL, attacked him for past votes as a state legislator against abortion and same-sex marriage, and in favor of keeping the state’s Confederate flag. Senate Democrats defected, and in late December, the White House announced it would not renominate Boggs in the new Republican-led Senate, even though he would be a relatively safe bet for confirmation.

The White House had defended the nomination as part of a deal with GOP senators to fill vacancies, arguing that Boggs should be seen not for his votes as a legislator but rather his rulings as a Georgia Court of Appeals judge since then. But the progressive campaign stirred up plenty of animosity — more than the White House was ultimately willing to contend with.

“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,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue told TPM.

Warren’s crusade to protect financial reform spooks Democrats

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Maxine Waters (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Warren is in many ways the face of the rising left. Last month Democrats were expected to broadly support a bill to fund most of the federal government and avert a shutdown — until Warren marched onto the Senate floor and fumed about a provision tucked in the bill that would weaken rules on derivatives trading on Wall Street. Suddenly Democrats scrambled, defecting in serious numbers and endangering the bill’s prospects in the House.

In the end, Warren lost the battle — the bill squeaked — but she arguably won the fight within the Democratic Party, with 70 percent of House Democrats voting against it and an unusually large 20 Senate Democrats bucking their leaders.

In the weeks since, Warren’s rise has inspired the activist groups MoveOn.org and Democracy For America to kick up a ruckus and push her to run for president in 2016. Despite palpable support and energy within the progressive base, the freshman senator has repeatedly rejected calls for a White House bid — but “Run Warren Run” serves as a warning shot across the bow of Hillary Clinton, who is generally less trusted among the core liberal base.

Progressive stalwarts win coveted committee and leadership positions

Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

In a sign of the shifting center of gravity within the party, the dejected Senate Democrats invited Sen. Warren to join the ranks of their leadership after the election — as strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, run by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

In addition, vacated seats atop the powerful Budget and Banking committees went to liberal stalwarts: Sens. Sanders and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), respectively, who will serve as ranking members in the Republican-led Senate.

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