The silly season is upon us, when every Washington conversation hinges on an election that's still a year and a half away, and no issue, great or small, is discussed without reference to its impact on fill-in-the-blank's White House chances.
But the mounting blizzard of presidential gossip is masking a shift in the emerging agenda Democrats are presenting to the public. Less than six months after a disastrous federal election for Democrats, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), astonishingly has reemerged as a potent force.
Arguably, people with left-of-center positions on key domestic issues have more power on Capitol Hill this year than they've had since the Great Society era of the 1960s. That still leaves them a long way from changing the direction of American government, and some powerful forces are working against them. But the shift is as real as it is dramatic. Long ignored by the well-moneyed members of the Democratic center-right, progressives now seem to be leading their party in directions it hasn't wanted to go in years.
Consider how the landscape is shifting on these important issues.
1. Social Security: Progressives have been arguing for several years that the country's primary program for the elderly, disabled and survivors needs to be expanded, not cut back. At least within their own party, they are suddenly winning the argument. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, introduced an amendment to the Senate budget resolution this month, offering a series of steps to improve Social Security benefits, only two Democrats opposed it. In the House, a bill by Rep. John Larson, D-CN, that would, among other things, provide a benefit bump-up for every current and future recipient has an unexpected 57 co-sponsors.
2. Financial reform: In January, the House Democratic leadership took a swipe at Wall Street with a proposal for a financial transactions tax, a step progressives have long advocated to rein in the financial sector's manic trading culture. Democrats have introduced similar measures previously, but this one came from a party centrist who is running for Senate in 2016.
3. Jobs and wages: For the last five years, the CPC has introduced a People's Budget as an ideological counterweight to the draconian budget cuts and tax giveaways in the Republican leadership's proposals. Last month for the first time, a majority of House Democrats voted for the 2015 edition of the People's Budget, 96 to 86. It promises to raise government spending and create 8.8 million new jobs over two years.
4. Immigration: When House Republicans tied a repeal of President Obama's executive order shielding some 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation to refunding of the Department of Homeland Security, Democrats killed a motion to open debate on the measure in the Senate with four consecutive filibusters.
5. Climate change: In January, Senate Democrats filibustered a measure to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, forcing an indefinite delay in Republicans' plans to facilitate transport of tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast.
6. Unions: Obama himself got into the act earlier this month, when he vetoed a bill blocking the National Labor Relations Board's new rules speeding up union elections. Not a single Democrat had voted for the bill.
A Different Democratic Agenda?
The political dynamic behind these developments has the potential to change the Democratic Party, because they force the party's establishment to move not just faster, but in a different direction. Instead of seeking a deal with the GOP to cut Social Security, Democrats will be working to expand it. Instead of distancing themselves from organized labor, they are looking for more ways to increase its leverage in the workplace. Instead of tacitly accepting Wall Street's dominance of the private-sector economy, they may be seeking to end it. If they continue to build momentum—a big if—what's possible in national politics could be transformed.
The Republicans still control both houses, of course, and progressives haven't gotten as far as they have within their own party all by themselves. Instead of showing America they could govern, the GOP congressional leadership has turned into the Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight, bungling one routine legislative chore after another. And Obama, after years of talking over his own party's lawmakers in vain attempts to cut deals with Republicans who hate his guts, finally seems inclined to work with Democrats—most of the time, anyway (more on that in a minute).
What's really remarkable about the new political dynamic in Washington is the lack of push-back within the Democratic Party itself. One of the sponsors of the House bill expanding Social Security benefits was Maryland's Chris Van Hollen, who in the past has supported efforts to “reform” the program by cutting benefits and raising the retirement age. The New Democrat Coalition, the once powerful center-right caucus that helped propel Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's careers in decades past, has backed off from issuing a detailed manifesto this year, calling for “long-term, pro-growth fiscal reform” rather than any specific action on Social Security or other programs.
The numbers tell part of the story. The November debacle left the New Dems with only 46 House members, compared with 69 members of the CPC. Over half the 15 Democratic freshmen in the House this year joined the CPC. Close up, however, the defeat that center-right Democrats suffered was much worse. Their backers poured boatloads of cash into the 2014 elections, only to suffer some severe setbacks.
Last fall, many Democrats running for the Senate taking GOP-lite positions lost. Patrician Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu outspent her Republican opponent, $20 million to $15 million, and lost. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former senator and quintessential right-wing Democrat Sam Nunn, spent more than $16 million to win a Georgia Senate seat, far more than her Republican rival, and still lost. Incumbent Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor stayed in the center and lost to Tom Cotton, who ran as more purist Tea Partier. Whether progressive candidates would have won is debatable, but running from the center wasn't a winning strategy.
Virginia's Sen. Mark Warner, perhaps the most prominent member of the Democratic center-right in Congress today, spent $17 million in a reelection race he was supposed to walk away with, and came dangerously close to losing. After the election, rumors burbled up that two prominent centrists, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, were considering running for governor of their states in 2016 rather than standing for reelection two years later.
The center-right campaigns floundered. Nunn campaigned as a deficit hawk, touting her close working relationships with Republicans. “She ran as nothing except a nice person,” says an aide to a prominent progressive House member. Warner, too, made deficit reduction and tax reform—i.e., lowering taxes on business—the centerpiece of his reelection race.
In today's economy, with voters deeply worried about everything from wage stagnation to student loans to retirement insecurity, deficit anxiety doesn't generate much enthusiasm. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken just after the election found that well below half of Americans felt lowering corporate taxes and raising the retirement age for Social Security were steps the next Congress should take, while more than 80% favored reducing the cost of student loans and 65% supported raising the minimum wage.
As this suggests, the secret of the progressives' success is simple, said Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the CPC with Rep. Raul Grijalva: “Our positions are popular.” Congressional progressives' strategy has been threefold, Ellison said: “We work together, we engage with our progressive partners, and we create an environment where the candidates have to take a position on our issues”—for example, global trade agreements.
Ellison emphasized the second point. “We don't just make this up ourselves. We act as conveners,” he said, listening to labor, environmentalists, African Americans opposed to police violence, and other parts of their coalition, not to mention newer CPC members, and incorporating their ideas into the caucus' positions. Listening includes joining with members of immigration reform groups in an act of civil disobedience at the White House in 2013, which got Ellison and seven other CPC members arrested.
“Being on the picket line is as important as anything we do,” Ellison said. “It's an important symbol.” He also saw it as a potent way to engage more potential progressive voters in the political process. “If you engage with people and clue them in, you will get more participation.”
Along the way, the CPC has found some clever ways to win victories on issues that might not have risen above the roar in Congress a few years ago. Last year, Ellison noted, the CPC successfully inserted amendments into four House appropriations bills, including for the Department of Defense, stipulating that the funds must not be used to pay contractors who had wage-theft violations in the last five years.
Post-election, the power shift started even before the new Congress was seated, with the so-called “Cromnibus” fight. In December, after the White House and the Republican and Democratic Senate leaderships concluded a deal for the $1 trillion spending bill—so called because it was packaged with a continuing budget resolution (CR)—Pelosi responded to opposition from her progressive members by staging a revolt in the House, urging Democrats to vote against it. The bill was larded with items from the Wall Street wish list, weakening the Dodd-Frank law's restrictions on banks' investing in risky derivatives and loosening the McCain-Feingold act's limits on campaign donations.
The Cromnibus passed anyway, but not without some desperate last-minute lobbying by Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden, and a barrier had been breached: for the first time since his election, Pelosi had openly defied the president. Since then, she and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid have courted further confrontation by discouraging the White House from pursuing fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP promises a sweeping rewrite of laws and regulations that affect multinational corporations, including creating a no-recourse arbitration panel in cases where companies choose to challenge rules that limit their ability to operate in a particular country. Nevertheless, Obama, who once upon a time promised voters he would renegotiate portions of the damaging North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has made the TPP a foreign policy priority.
Over 150 Democratic House members out of 188 have announced they will vote against fast track. It's always possible that just enough will switch for the White House and Speaker John Boehner to push for a vote, but that's unlikely, because opposing the deal is too good a fight for progressives. “They have the messaging and the politics on their side,” says the House aide. “They get a way to talk about wages, opportunity, and the middle-class squeeze.”
New Risks for Progressives
Therein lies the risk for progressives, especially as they prepare for the 2016 elections. Part of their success in changing their public perception from weakness to strength has been Obama's sudden show of firmness. After issuing fewer veto threats in his first six years in office than any president since Reagan, he has issued eight in the new congressional term and made good on all of them. Should Democrats hold firm against fast track, and the GOP leadership fail to turn around enough of its Tea Party members to compensate, Obama will fail to deliver on a major promise to some of his wealthiest supporters. Next year's Democratic presidential candidates will likely be faced with a new party line against corporate-sponsored trade deals.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee recently began pressuring presidential hopefuls on other fronts as well. They've persuaded over 5,000 current and former lawmakers to sign a statement calling for candidates to support “big, bold, economic populist ideas” in 2016. These include debt-free college at all public colleges and universities, expanded Social Security benefits, reducing big-money influence in politics, and breaking up the too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks. The signatories include the expected, like Warren, and the less-expected, notably retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, an inconsistent but often crucial ally of progressives.
But fast track could well be the biggest test of the progressives' new leverage. Not only do they have the opportunity to change the country's economic direction by turning aside TPP, but fast track pits them directly against the New Democrats, whose wealthy backers have dominated the party for more than 30 years. At least for the present, the party's congressional leadership is trying to perform a balancing act between the two factions. Immediately after the November election, Warren was given a newly created position in the party leadership, as strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, in which capacity she's the committee's liaison with progressive groups—although why it needs a go-between to communicate with them was not explained.
On the other end of the spectrum, Warner, despite the fact that he had voted to eject Reid as Democratic leader, was named policy development advisor for the Democratic Policy and Communications Center. The choice of Warner was announced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has built a power base on generous contributions from the financial services industry, and who is now Reid's expected successor as Senate Democratic leader.
The elevation of Warner, a wealthy venture capitalist, and Schumer underscores the extent to which money drives Democratic as well as Republican politics, despite the center-right's failures at the polls. Leadership in the party is at least as much a reward for access to money as for popularity with voters. The New Democrats have some strong allies in the mainstream media, but even they cannot ignore the emerging progressive agenda. The Washington Post has editorialized against Warren's Social Security reforms but recently acknowledged that she has changed the debate, writing, “Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) staged a vote on a 'sustainable expansion' resolution in the Senate, garnering 42 'yeas' and laying down a new orthodoxy from which only two members of her party’s caucus deviated.”
Progressives, so often ignored by the Washington media for so long, suddenly have a new agenda, discipline and clout in the Democratic Party. They are teaching the Democrats once again to be an effective opposition party, as they were during the second George W. Bush administration. If they are not silenced by mainstream media critics and the party's corporate fund raisers, they are positioning themselves to have an unexpectedly influential role in shaping the debate in the 2016 election.