How the liberal wish list could bite Democrats
A Trump-inspired resurgence on the left has even many centrist Democrats embracing an outspokenly liberal wish list as their party hopes to capture one or both chambers of Congress in November.
Just don’t count on any of it happening soon.
Even symbolic votes on the growing roster of progressive expectations could create political headaches for Democrats seeking the White House in 2020. That means Medicare for all, debt-free college and a $15 minimum wage will remain more the subject of liberal aspirations than a real shift in the nation’s policies.
President Donald Trump is already trying to tar progressive ideas as ballot-box poison, denouncing single-payer health care as Venezuela-style “socialism” (never mind that he endorsed it in 2000) and saying Democrats who want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement must have a “death wish.” Democrats may have trouble uniting even on repeal of Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut, which received not a single Democratic vote in either chamber when it passed last year.
At the same time, the party’s left flank warns that the biggest political mistake Democrats could make is to deflate their base’s enthusiasm — and that timid moves will not motivate progressives to flock to the polls in 2020.
The Democrats’ predicament after November may mirror the difficulties Republicans faced after their tea-party-fueled House sweep eight years ago, which forced GOP leaders to put down repeated insurrections from the conservative Freedom Caucus on fights like the debt limit.
Here is POLITICO’s guide to some of the most ambitious liberal causes Democrats will have to navigate amid widespread expectations that they will at least capture the House:
More than half the House Democratic conference and several of the party’s most prominent potential presidential candidates have endorsed some form of universally available government-funded health insurance, including indepenent Vermot Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal to make all Americans eligible for Medicare. But House Democratic leaders prefer starting with a more interim step — repairing the damage they say Republicans have done to the Affordable Care Act.
How aggressively to push on health care will be one of the Democrats’ defining internal debates in advance of the 2020 election.
“All of us feel very strongly that health care is one of the major issues in the [midterm] election, and that Democrats are for affordable health care for all,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the Medicare For All bill. “There may not be total agreement on how to do that.”
Even lawmakers who favor offering government-funded health insurance to everybody are split on how to do it. Some Democrats favor creating a government-funded “public option” within Obamacare to compete with private insurers, a plan Republicans warn would eventually compel private insurers to withdraw. Others would work outside Obamacare, allowing people to buy into Medicare or herding everyone into a single government-funded system.
Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to wield Medicare For All as a wedge issue to drive elderly voters away from Democrats. “Democrats would gut Medicare with their planned government takeover of American health care,” Trump warned in an Oct. 10 op-ed. If this tactic enjoys any success in the midterms, a Democratic House might hesitate to press single-payer.
“I tell some of these young activists, before you were born I was for universal health care,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “I am all for moving as fast as we can toward doing that, but there are things we can do right away.”
Two years ago, Sanders found few Democrats willing to support his call for raising the hourly minimum wage to $15, up from the current $7.25. Now it’s hard to find any congressional Democrat who opposes it — bills that would phase in such an increase over several years have drawn the support of nearly two-thirds of the Senate Democratic caucus and more than 170 House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Polls consistently show that Republican and Democratic voters alike tend to favor raising the minimum wage. Still, Republican opposition in the Senate would likely doom a $15 wage minimum — unless Trump supported it to shore up his image as a champion of the working class. Candidate Trump said he favored a minimum wage increase to $10, though only after a series of messy flip-flops on the subject that included a suggestion that there shouldn’t be a national wage minimum at all.
Another obstacle: Minimum-wage workers tend to vote Democratic; it’s their white blue-collar counterparts, who pull down bigger salaries, who favor Trump. “It’s an easy vote for the Democrats to push in the House,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “because nobody who has to worry about it thinks it will go anywhere.”
Although a faction of liberal Democrats wants to shut down the agency tasked with arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants, it seems doubtful a Democratic House will even attempt it.
The “abolish ICE” mantra acquired momentum as a result of Trump’s family separation policy, which split thousands of children from their parents between April and June. The message was amplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of Democratic stalwart Joe Crowley in his Queens congressional district.
But the movement never went mainstream, and Democratic leaders don’t want to touch it. In a recent interview with POLITICO, Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest-ranking Democratic senator, called it an overly simplistic “campaign slogan.”
ICE “should be changed, of course,” Durbin said. “Abolished? We will need some agency to do what it does.”
An abolish-ICE bill introduced in the House in July by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), counts only eight co-sponsors — with half of them from immigrant-friendly New York City.
If Democrats take the House, they won’t have a shortage of immigration issues to tackle, and dismantling a federal agency probably won’t be the first order of business. Approximately 700,000 undocumented Dreamers brought to the U.S. as children have only tenuous protection from deportation since Trump moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And roughly 400,000 people with Temporary Protected Status also could face removal as the president seeks to phase out their ability live and work in the U.S.
“I think all of those will take priority,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.
The reality of that became clear in July, when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy cornered Democrats with a resolution to stand in solidarity with ICE officers, a sort of counter-move to the “abolish” movement. A majority of Democrats refused to take a stand and simply voted “present.”
Not One Penny, a coalition that includes unions, MoveOn.org and other liberal interests, is pressuring Democrats to revoke the tax cut that Republicans enacted last December. “If Democrats want to prove that they’re ready to wrench power away from the wealthy elites, then they should repeal the law,” said spokesman Tim Hogan.
But even a Democrat-led House would probably flinch from repealing the tax cuts in their entirety, because they wouldn’t want to raise taxes on middle-class Democratic constituents.
More likely, the House would follow former President Barack Obama’s example in 2013 when he made George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent, except for high earners, on whom he raised rates. That’s the playbook that House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Richard Neal (D-Mass.) followed in a recent proposal to restore the top individual tax rate to 39.6 percent, where it stood before the GOP overhaul lowered it to 37 percent.
One way to improve the chances for a full or partial repeal would be to make public Trump’s own tax returns, something Congress has the legal authority to do. Democrats renewed that call after a recent New York Times investigation alleged that decades’ worth of documents show a long-running pattern of tax fraud by members of the Trump family, including the president. With tangible evidence in hand that the rich man who sits in the White House evaded paying taxes, a tax hike on the rich might become a much easier sell.
Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student loans, a staggering debt that helped fuel momentum for Sanders’ idea of “debt-free” college during the 2016 Democratic primaries.
This year, Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Democratic congressional candidates such as Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan are campaigning on the idea of free or debt-free college. In July, Pelosi joined Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, in proposing a bill that, among many other provisions, would provide federal grant aid to states that make an associate’s degree at public two-year colleges free for every student.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California— all three possible presidential candidates — have signed onto the Debt-Free College Act of 2018 by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). The bill “provides a dollar-for-dollar federal match to state higher education appropriations in exchange for a commitment to help students pay for the full cost of attendance without having to take on debt,” Schatz’s office says.
The sticking point is cost. The Tax Policy Center estimated that Sanders’ free college plan would cost $800 billion over a decade. That was in a year when the federal budget deficit was $587 billion. Today, thanks in large part to Trump’s tax cuts, the Congressional Budget Office projects the 2018 budget deficit will be $793 billion.
In addition, Democrats are divided about whether free college programs help wealthier young people more than less-wealthy ones, who might not attend college at all. “There are more targeted ways we could be spending this type of money,” said Tamara Hiler, deputy director of education at the center-left think tank Third Way.
Liberal activists cried foul in 2017 when Trump’s Federal Communications Commission revoked the Obama administration’s net neutrality rule, which barred providers like Verizon and Comcast from blocking or throttling certain web traffic or creating higher-priced fast lanes.
“I’m determined to bring back a free and open internet and to make sure we go back to net neutrality as the national standard,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who’s set to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee if Democrats win back the House. Pallone said he would hold FCC oversight hearings on net neutrality and “try to pass some legislation.”
But 17 House Democrats aligned with the telecommunications industry declined to sign onto a resolution to reverse the FCC’s 2017 revocation, a sign that the party isn’t unified on the issue. And anyway, by next year the legislative window will have closed for reversing the revocation under the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that allows lawmakers to block regulatory actions on an expedited basis.
“I know at one time the Democrats really thought that this was going to be an issue that they could run on, but I don’t see any campaign talking about it,” said Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t see any evidence that they’re getting much traction.”
House Democrats have made enacting a “historic” $1 trillion infrastructure plan a centerpiece of their midterm election platform, seizing on Trump’s failure to gain any headway in the Republican Congress this year for his own $1.5 trillion proposal to rebuild roads, bridges, airports and other transportation features.
But the Democrats would face the same problem Trump’s plan could not overcome — that money must come from somewhere, and the obvious options all face steep political obstacles. Trump’s proposal called for cutting other federal programs, selling off government assets and making cities and states pay more, none of which appealed to Democrats. The preferred Democratic option is to reverse or roll back the 2017 tax cut, but good luck getting Republicans to go along. The traditional avenue, hiking the federal gasoline tax, has been a non-starter for both parties — and would be especially risky just before a presidential election.
Liberal Democrats have complained for years that the Pentagon budget, which now exceeds $716 billion and represents more than half of all discretionary spending, is bloated. Progressive lawmakers in the House drafted a budget plan this year to cut more than $800 billion from the Pentagon over a decade “in a responsible manner” and redirect the money to medical research, environmental cleanup and combating climate change.
This year’s marquee Democratic insurgent, Ocasio-Cortez, has noted that military spending increases under Trump have exceeded the Pentagon’s budget requests. “They’re, like, ‘We don’t want another fighter jet!’ They’re, like, ‘Don’t give us another nuclear bomb,’ you know? They didn’t even ask for it, and we gave it to them,” she said in July.
But in Congress, non-defense spending is held hostage to defense spending, leaving Democrats with virtually no chance of cutting the Pentagon’s funding. In every major budget deal over the past decade, leaders of both parties have agreed, in the interest of “parity,” to equal-sized increases to defense and domestic programs.
“On a practical level, it’s the only way you get a deal,” said Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding. For most Democrats, she noted, maintaining a substantial pot for domestic programs is “more important … than cutting military spending.”
Republicans have succeeded in rolling back key rules imposed on banks after the financial crisis — and progressive groups hope a Democratic-controlled House can turn the tide. The activists want to impose higher capital requirements on banks and tighten limits on executive compensation, among other moves to cut the nation’s megabanks down to size.
“Under Republican leadership, the House has become like a vending machine for K Street” lobbyists, said Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform. “We expect that to stop if people who call themselves progressive are in charge of the House, and it’s something we’re going to be keeping a close eye on.”
But many Democrats are as eager to collect campaign contributions from Wall Street as Republicans are. Even Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a progressive firebrand who would chair the Financial Services Committee if Democrats win back the House, collected almost $85,000 from the securities industry during the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Waters co-sponsored a House-passed package this year that would relax financial regulations to make it easier for young companies to raise capital.
The latest sobering United Nations report on the declining odds of averting a global climate catastrophe is increasing progressives’ impatience to confront Trump on his hostility to fight against global warming.
But environmental groups are divided on how to proceed. Some want to push for a carbon tax to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, while others see no political advantage in pressing for a vote given stiff Republican resistance. (The failures of Obama’s cap-and-trade bills in 2010 and Bill Clinton’s “BTU tax” in 1993, both times with a Democratic House and Senate, still haunt Capitol Hill.)
Both sides agree that capturing the White House from Trump in 2020 is essential to making progress on climate change. The liberals’ argument: Democrats need to move on bold policies to rev up the progressive movement that can get them there.
“If Democrats use the House to show the country what a well-run government can do — clean up the corruption and paint a vision of a better country — they’ll inspire voters,” said RL Miller, founder of the super-PAC Climate Hawks Vote, which seeks bold climate policies. “And I doubt that a focus on infrastructure, tax credits, and small ball will inspire people.”