Two weeks ago, I might have thought I would have to say I was wrong about what I had said two weeks earlier, which is that there was not much difference between the various candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, that they were all New Deal Democrats, and so we would make a choice on the basis of personality, which is a good or a bad thing depending on whether you think that people of real character will shine through, the alternative being that we will chose a charlatan or simply someone who has a tic or an expression that we find charming. What had gone wrong was that so many of the Progressive Democrats seemed committed to outlandish “Socialist” proposals and so there was a real division between the progressives such as Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, on the one hand, and the mainstream Democrats, such as Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown, the others not yet having chosen sides. What a difference a few weeks make.
The great ideological division in the Democratic Party was discovered by media people who had to imagine some sort of conflict for them to report on, and picked that out to be an ideological contest and were none too careful about how to characterize it. It was also furthered by Trump and his allies who have already decided to run their campaign as against socialism, or any other label that distracts from the warts on a Trump reelection campaign. Those two efforts were abetted by the surprise decision by Amazon to withdraw from their deal with New York City to build a headquarters in the borough of Queens that would create twenty five thousand jobs, Amazon withdrawing because some local politicians--mind you, not the Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, who represents the district, nor the mayor or the governor, nor the unions that represent construction workers and warehouse people--had turned against it. The inspiration behind local rejectionists was the first term Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, already known to the media as AOC, something of a pinup girl for Democratic Socialism. Mayor Bill De Blasio ran for cover by saying that Amazon had caved too quickly and so it was they who had acted irresponsibly.
The Amazon decision is, in fact, a good test case for the limits of the radical view. Providing three billion dollars in development funds that don’t exist until the projects are up and running and supplying tax revenue seems a good idea, especially when all the pockets of tax relief have already been approved, such as funding outer borough projects or tech projects, unless you disapprove entirely of giving money to corporations run by billionaires, which seems to me a cut off your own nose kind of reasoning, but AOC is so bitter against the rich that she doesn’t care if a program produces jobs. She also is unaware that the money is not sitting there in a pot waiting to be allocated elsewhere to programs in education, let us say, that she might more favor and seems to deny knowledge that the jobs would go to people she supposedly favors, such as those from the neighborhood trained in local community colleges whose resources would be abetted by Amazon money so that they could take up many of the less than professional level jobs that would be on offer. So I prefer to think AOC is simply naive, not at all like ideologues of the Old Left who knew their Marx whether they had read him or not or ideologues of the New Left, some of whom, at least, knew their Marcuse and the SDS Port Huron Statement, also whether they had read them or not. AOC has to study up so as to catch up with the idea that labor movements need to have employed workers if they are going to organize them. AOC is also the voice of the Green New Deal, a proposal to have government take over airlines and rail and energy so as to save the planet from carbon admissions and so head off the apocalypse of climate change. Trump and his allies have already denounced the Green New Deal as socialism.
What the Democratic prospects have learned to do in the past two weeks is roll with the punches. After initially supporting the idea of Medicare for All, which is still the center of Bernie Sanders’ program, most of them say only that they are for universal coverage, however that is accomplished, which includes the idea of allowing buy ins to Medicare for people in their fifties and raising subsidies and lowering the qualifying income for such subsides, the two ideas together narrowing significantly the number of people uncovered without getting rid of the private sector insurance plans that most people seem to like. That may not mean the resulting system will be neat or rational, but it will move us closer to the goal of universal coverage, which, after all, is the substance of the matter.
It is also possible to turn the Green New Deal into what it claims to be, which is a New Deal program that will aid the environment without making it a recipe for a political revolution that will nationalize most of the current major means of production. The idea of making infrastructure improvements which are paid for by the federal government is as old as Henry Clay, who wanted to build roads across the Alleghenies. Both Republican and Democratic politicians supported the continental railway and the interstate highway system. The question is how to accomplish an even more daunting task at the present time when there are so many environmental regulations and so much opposition to eminent domain, the use of which would be necessary to secure rights of way for most of the corridors where high speed rail would be introduced, that any action would be held up in the courts for a generation. How to unleash the construction that would take a generation to complete and would not necessitate any restriction on air travel, in that people would use rail rather than air of their own accord, flying used only for long hauls, which means nothing shorter than from New York to Chicago? That is what the Progressive Democrats should be thinking about but I am afraid that they have no head for policy, only for slogans.
I think that any serious contemplation of infrastructure construction would require the creation of a blue ribbon panel of experts to consider alternative plans and how to regulate the process so that it doesn’t lead to the boondoggle which caused Governor Gavin Newsom to suspend California’s plan for a San Francisco to Los Angeles bullet train in his first months as governor because it had already gone scandalously over budget and not cleared the courts. Also to be hashed out by such a commission is whether there should be competitive bidding within each corridor so that a company that gets one contract does not get them all and what kind of inspector general system should be used to make sure that there are not wild cost overruns. Perhaps very large performance bonds are in order. I think it is generally agreed that the money for this humongous project should come from federal bonds because interests rates at the moment are very low. All this makes it a very New Dealish kind of project without the flim flam of climate change added. So Democrats, at least, can all sign on to that.
If that is the case, and I hope that is indeed the case, then the candidates will have moderated their disagreements on policy, which is already the case with Kamala Harris, while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who won’t modify their policies, will find themselves fading fast. Warren, who is supposed to be a policy wonk, is in favor of a wealth tax when it is not even clear that such a tax is constitutional, only an income tax, which has previously been at a seventy percent marginal rate, and could be restored to that. Lack of a policy perspective means that some candidates make things harder rather than easier for themselves. The rest of the candidates can then go on polishing their personalities for public view and public acclamation, given that there are no foreign policy crises on the horizon, though you never know whether the next President will find his or her self caught up in one that dominates his or her Presidency, just as happened with George W. Bush, who had hoped to preside over a “compassionate Conservative’ administration but had to become a wartime leader instead. That is why the evaluation of the character of the nominees is so important: they will have to deal with what they did not know they would have to deal with.
The long road of the primaries carries with it that virtue. We will know these people well enough so that we will know whom we can trust to make the tough decisions. For reasons still unknown, though I suspect it was a backlash against the first African American President, that is not what happened last time out, when the Republican Party preferred an outrageous outlier to more responsible candidates, though, truth be told, none of the rest of the Republican contenders exactly grabbed you by the lapels and demanded the nomination by force of character, by an apparent gravitas. I am hoping that one of the Democrats will rise above the fray and show him or her self to be a classy character, sort of like Jed Bartlet on “The West Wing”. We will see.