Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sun Expanded Coverage
- New media, new questions (8-26-2008)
- Reid's role may signal a subtle lowering or profile (8-26-2008)
- Deciding when a steak dinner is education, not lobbying (8-26-2008)
The most revealing moments at the Democratic National Convention aren’t happening in the hall or on the stage. They occur as activists, political operatives and thinkers gather at small forums around Denver to talk about the future.
Two panels Tuesday revealed potential fault lines among Democrats if they end up in control of the White House and Congress.
A morning panel sponsored by The American Prospect made clear that the more liberal wing of the party feels resurgent and wants sweeping change reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
An afternoon forum sponsored by the insider publication National Journal showed the liberal agenda could be frustrated by the deliberative temperament of Barack Obama and the measured approach of congressional leaders.
The left wing is still rooted in its traditional places — the labor movement and single-issue advocacy groups. But it is also now housed on the Web, which liberals have used to great effect for fundraising, organizing and communicating a tougher message.
Prospect panel members, including economists, writers and liberal elected officials, agreed they see opportunity in the current economic malaise, which combines a credit crunch, wage stagnation and inflation on key consumer items.
With this crisis-opportunity, they’re hoping — demanding, actually — that Obama will be the transformative figure he claims to be and fundamentally change the American economy in the way Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s, though in reverse.
They want the “Employee Free Choice Act,” which would make it easier to organize workers into a union by no longer requiring a secret ballot election to decide whether to unionize; more tightly regulated financial markets; a sharply more progressive tax code to move wealth down the income ladder; universal health care; more money for social programs, education and renewable energy; and big investments in infrastructure such as roads, rail, schools and bridges.
It’s pent-up lefty demand, an agenda on the books for decades but never before fully enacted, like the mirror image of the Republican issue list of 1995 right after the party took control of Congress.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the neo-Keynesian philosophy: “What we have is a distribution problem ... The only way out of this is to put more money in the hands of those consumers and have them lead us out of this.”
The business lobby is terrified, believing these proposed remedies would eat into corporate profits and shareholder returns — their reason for being.
But the liberals think they can get it done. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio populist, said Democrats can move beyond the internal battles that have long plagued the party. He called it “ideological convergence.”
Indeed, after losing many presidential races, some Democrats, led by the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, pushed the party to the center at the end of the 1980s. That was a movement Bill Clinton rode to the White House, where he balanced the budget, overhauled welfare and improved the image of the Democratic Party as an economic steward.
But the economic policies of President Bush have radicalized many Democrats, even centrists such as former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who favored balanced budgets and a friendly attitude toward Wall Street and financial deregulation. At the Prospect forum, Paul Krugman, a liberal Princeton economist and New York Times columnist, quipped: “Bob Rubin is no longer a Rubinite.”
Or as Bruce Reed, former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton and now president of the Democratic Leadership Council, said at the National Journal forum: “George W. Bush turned everyone into a populist.”
The Prospect liberal panelists hope this ideological convergence will produce a radical shift in American economic policy.
Robert Kuttner, founder of the Economic Policy Institute and The American Prospect magazine, argued that in times of national crisis, including the Civil War, the Great Depression and the struggle to end Jim Crow segregation laws, presidents supported agendas far more radical than conventional political wisdom dictated. They were compelled to do so by mass movements.
But the National Journal forum said, “Not so fast.” It featured Reed, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who is a key Obama adviser, and Obama’s domestic policy adviser, Heather Higginbottom.
Daschle predicted an Obama presidency would secure easy, bipartisan victories in health care and energy. “If we take it a piece at a time, there are things we can do reasonably quickly,” Daschle said.
Emanuel agreed. The man who ran the Democrats’ 2006 campaign committee and is often mentioned as a future House speaker said legislation Bush vetoed provides easy targets for Democrats. Those include children’s health insurance and stem cell research. Another major priority is a middle-class tax cut, he said.
Emanuel noted that important legislation, including civil rights, Medicare and the Social Security fix of the 1980s, has nearly always required bipartisan cooperation. This is in keeping with Obama’s promise of a more civil, cooperative tone in Washington. Obama is known to be temperamentally conservative, uncomfortable forcing big change on institutions, despite his rhetoric to the contrary.
Moreover, Higginbottom noted, Obama likes to consult a wide range of experts and think problems through. These facets of his personality could account for the promise to peel off easy victories rather than go for big change right away.
The Sun asked Emanuel whether the labor-left wing of the party, which was so confident and demanding at the morning forum, would be happy with an Obama presidency.
“Come back in four years,” he joked. “I don’t want to spoil the ending.”
He later returned to the subject, answering more seriously: “They’ll be happy if we’re successful in having an economic program that’s fundamentally different.”
But Emanuel is at root a political thinker with a simple rule his more liberal friends will need to heed: “Nothing in politics replaces winning.”