It is time to start asking what are the issues that the Democrats and the Republicans will campaign on in the fall elections. Commentators who want to at least appear to be evenhanded, such as those on MSNBC, say the Democrats have no issues other than bashing Trump. If that were the case, then the Democrats are in bad shape in that Hillary pitched more about how unsuitable Trump was to be President than on what her own programs were-- though it should be said in her defense that the media was much more interested in her remarks about Trump than in her remarks on the economy. David Brooks, who bears the burden of being both a Conservative and honest, had a better take on the matter when he said in a recent column that Democrats are split between those who want to go with an economic platform and those who stress identity politics, which means minority issues and the #metoo movement. My hope is that the Democrats will stress their economic issues, extending one more time the path of progressive legislation that goes back to Woodrow Wilson (and TR before him) and that got sidetracked during the centrist years of Clinton and Obama.
Democrats have been interested, at least since FDR, in expanding the stock of rights that citizens have as those can be enforced by the federal government, and so are indeed guilty of what the Republicans characterize as “Big Government”. The Democrats wanted to have the government protect the rights of Negroes to vote and to have admission to public facilities, and that cause has been applied more recently to securing the rights of gays to go to the bake shop of their choice to buy a wedding cake. The Democrats want to make health care into a right and they basically succeeded in doing so by passing Obamacare. Even older, however, is the tradition of calling for economic rights, which means economic security, which means the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining and wages and hours laws to create minimum standards for the first and maximum standards for the latter. The last major push in this area was the Humphrey Hawkins Bill of 1971 which said that government should be the employer of last resort for the unemployed and we should go back to that as the standard of public policy even though it does not seem to have much bearing on our current situation, which is that we have a full employment economy where the problem is where to get more workers rather than how to employ those who are unemployed.
The first issue to take up for the latest iteration of the New Deal agenda is economic security. This means turning an income into a right in the same way that health care and education were turned into rights by Democratic administrations. A higher minimum wage is only a small part of that picture. What we should be aiming at is a guaranteed income, which would mean that people will be able to live even if they are just lazy and so not among “the deserving poor” who get support because of their disabilities or because they are raising children. Laziness is also a condition that is created over time by a social environment that does not give people the confidence to meet the demands of being bossed around or doing things that are not satisfying in themselves however much they give satisfaction in that they are contributions to an enterprise, whether that is cleaning up a street or putting clothes on a rack. Only a small number of people have this special kind of “disability” and, as George Bernard Shaw put it, even the undeserving poor need to eat. Such a program would help to liberate the entire population against their prejudice and malice towards the poor, deserving and undeserving alike, which is a leftover of the age of capitalism where freedom became identified with the free labor market, everyone sinking or swimming according to their own merits, whether or not that was actually the fact, people sinking instead because the wages they were paid were not enough to allow a family to survive.
The most important item on the domestic agenda for a New Deal inspired imagination is a grand public works project that will fix bridges and tunnels and highways and will also take on the long delayed project of modernizing America’s railroads. It follows from the New Deal idea that the government has to prime the pump so as to get the economy going after a turndown. The plan would require ripping up towns along America’s four coasts--the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf, and the Great Lakes-- so as to put in high speed rail that would cut the time from Boston to Washington, D. C., for example, by more than a half. It would require straight rather than curvy routes and entirely new rails and a broader right of way. It would make the country truly interconnected and so allow business trips to take a day rather than a stayover and would move goods more cheaply than is presently available through trucking on the interstates. It would provide non-exportable work for a generation for people across the economic spectrum: architects and engineers and laborers and hiring firms and accountants and lunch cart operators. It is the next new thing an economy needs to keep going, now that computers have had their day or will be having their potential fulfilled in the next generation. The money for this gigantic enterprise can come from raising taxes to pre-Trump levels.
The problem with the plan is that its primary purpose of providing speedy transportation within our major population centers is also its major consequence because its secondary purpose of furnishing a generation of jobs is not as pressing because of the aforementioned full employment economy which we are now enjoying. Yes, that may falter and this project would take up the slack, but it is also the case that we may have to resort to the tried and true American habit of importing foreign labor to do the job, something the United States can well absorb however much that would go against the sentiments of the present Administration.
I don't think that building a campaign on identity politics will take you very far. The #metoo movement has not been able to craft any legislative goals to accompany their outrage against sexual harassment. Such an effort might include reducing the requirements for proof of sexual assault or making more of what we would generally consider uncooth behavior to qualify as crimes. And the track record of the Black Lives Matter movement does not suggest that they have a grip on how to reduce the brutality of the police in their interactions with the black community but will only respond with more outrage when the next shooting occurs. We have to move on to fresh issues when old ones no longer are a way of gaining purchase on popular sentiment.
But whatever the merits of income programs and infrastructure programs, it may be best to delay them as issues until 2020 when the Obama expansion may have finally come to an end and the Republicans will have nominated a fresh face who can reclaim the GOP for its traditional values by having led a morally exemplary life and who manages not to be a total blowhard. Many names have already surfaced, including that of Nikki Haley, though it should not be forgotten that Trump has himself simply followed the traditional Republican outlook on domestic affairs, which is to give money to rich people and take it away from poorer people and to loosen federal regulations so as to insure coal manufacturers and auto companies an easier ride. There is a difference between Democratic and Republican administrations that will not go away. Republicans like the successful and Democrats like the underdog. It is as simple as that.
Not that the parties or the candidates are in a position to insist on the issues they care about. The networks and other news media determine that. Remember that an inordinate amount of attention was paid to Benghazi and Hillary’s e-mails, though both of those added up to nothing. And Trump was treated as a clown but noone pressed him on his ignorance of the substance of issues. The media will insist on making the midterms a referendum on Trump’s character, his ties to the Russians, and whatever happens with North Korea. The public is stuck with that, and those may be enough to give the Democrats both houses of Congress.