On the House side of the Capitol and on the presidential campaign trail, progressives are talking about “Medicare-for-all” and a Green New Deal. They want not only to save Social Security but to expand it, to guarantee a job to everyone and to abolish the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.
This, they admit, is all about drawing contrasts with Republicans to set the terms of the 2020 campaign. The proposals won’t go anywhere with the GOP in control of the Senate and Donald Trump in the White House.
In other words, progressives are willing to accept two years of legislative gridlock. And they have the power to cause it: With 97 representatives among its members, the Progressive Caucus is now bigger and stronger than ever before.
For a party that says government can improve lives, it’s a risky gambit. In seeking to underscore policy differences with the Republicans, Democrats could reinforce the view that both parties are to blame for Washington’s gridlock. They could divide the party, drawing attention to their differences with Democratic pragmatists instead of with Trump and the Republicans. If voter enthusiasm flags as a result, that could pose a political risk. Last, they could surrender the opportunity to make progress on the issues they care about.
To Democratic lawmakers enraged by Trump’s bad faith negotiating during his first two years in office, it seemed disingenuous when he pledged in his State of the Union address to seek compromise. “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump said. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”
But the public seemed to like the idea. A CNN poll found that 59 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to the speech and it gave Trump a bounce in the polls. His approval rating rose into the mid-40s in an average of major polls in the days following.
For Democrats eager to enact an infrastructure law, reduce prescription drug prices or eliminate AIDS in America, here was Trump promising to work with them.
Interest groups invested in those issues responded by saying they would prefer the parties work together than draw partisan lines. Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties, said county officials across the country were cheering Trump’s proposal to get an infrastructure bill done.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, embraced Trump’s pledge to eradicate new HIV infections within a decade. “We stand ready to partner in this daunting effort,” he said.
Groups like the Association for Accessible Medicines, the trade group for generic drugmakers, and America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents insurers, have said repeatedly they are eager to see the parties work together to lower drug prices.
But the reaction from progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill was less enthusiastic. Steve Cohen, a Tennessean and Progressive Caucus member, said he didn’t even go to the speech. Trump, he said, “has disgraced the presidency and does not deserve the respect and attention from Congress and the public.” Another progressive, Judy Chu of California, said the speech was another example of the way “Trump intentionally governs by division and misdirection.” Kamala Harris, the California senator and presidential candidate, said the calls for unity were “insincere.”
Trump has disappointed the Democrats repeatedly, dangling deals on immigration, gun control, health care and infrastructure, among other things, before changing his mind or spurning Democrats’ offers.
The problem for Democrats is that their voters are genuinely divided on whether they prefer compromise or resistance. A Pew Research Center poll taken in November after the election found that 46 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents favored cooperating with Trump either a great deal (10 percent) or a fair amount (36 percent), while 53 percent said either not much (38 percent) or not at all (15 percent). The country as a whole, with Republicans and right-leaning independents added, favors at least some cooperation by a nearly 2-1 margin (64 percent).
If Democratic leaders side with the 15 percent of their voters who prefer no compromise at all, it could open a rupture with pragmatic Democrats and undermine the party’s prospects in 2020. More fundamentally, it could mean missing out on the opportunity to build on the bipartisan successes of the last Congress, which were the most significant in years. The big four were reauthorization of controversial anti-terrorism authorities, revisions to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law, a new program to fight opioid abuse, and a criminal justice law that reduces some mandatory minimum sentences and aims to better rehabilitate prisoners. The 443 new laws enacted in 2017 and 2018 were the most since the Congress of 2007-08.
Even if Trump was merely obfuscating in offering his olive branch, moderate Democrats still see potential for progress in 2019 if Democrats are willing to work with GOP counterparts in Congress.
It wasn’t Trump who drove 2018’s deals, it was congressional Republicans, and Democrats could still find willing partners on the other side of the aisle. Trump, always desirous of declaring victory, may well sign their bills. Republicans up for re-election “are very motivated to get something done,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “These are Republicans worried about another blue wave in 2020.”
In the view of Democratic moderates, seeking them out and working with them would be wise. The challenge for Democrats in Congress this year, as Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall sees it, is not to engage Republicans in “ideological combat, but in governing” — that is, showing they can do it.
By contrast, he argues that allowing the progressives to run the House and guide the agenda from the campaign trail could lead voters to the opposite conclusion. “The problem with the idea of drawing the sharpest possible lines is that they don’t command consensus across Democratic ranks. It doesn’t make sense to lead with allegedly bold ideas that illuminate Democratic divisions.”
Marshall also believes that Democrats can seize the initiative. At the institute, a think tank that’s actually more centrist than progressive, he’s putting forth a vision he’s calling “radically pragmatic.”
The institute’s first idea for what Marshall is calling the “do-something Congress” seems mundane compared with the liberal faction’s plans to upend America’s health care and energy sectors. The institute suggests passing bipartisan legislation to rein in Trump’s power to impose tariffs. That’s modest and achievable, with potential bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate, though it won’t find many fans among the progressives, whose only area of agreement with Trump might be on trade policy.
The institute’s other ideas include expanding telehealth services in Medicare as a way of increasing access to care and driving down costs, boosting job training, and helping entrepreneurs by creating federally supported centers offering small and medium-sized manufacturers use of the latest 3D printing and robotics equipment.
For its part, Third Way sees political promise in an agenda it’s calling “opportunity economics.” It calls for helping entrepreneurs get off the ground with a new $1 trillion fund, retraining workers through a vast new system of apprenticeships, improving Americans’ security in old age by requiring employers to contribute to their workers’ retirement, and repairing the Affordable Care Act’s beleaguered insurance exchanges.
The 35-day government shutdown that ran from late December to nearly February halted the bipartisan momentum of 2018, in which Congress passed more laws than it had in any year since 2008, including some of major significance. And recent history suggests that Congress struggles to legislate when control of the House and Senate is divided between the parties. The years when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats the Senate, from 2011 through 2014, were the least productive in modern times in terms of both the number of bills passed and their significance.
Those years also offer a cautionary tale to Democrats now ascendant in Washington, proud of their election gains and their victory over Trump in last month’s spending showdown. The Democratic Party faces a choice in the next two years: Will it follow Republicans in splitting between a pragmatic wing and a strident one, or will it remain united in showing voters it is better suited to lead than Trump and the Republicans?
The answer the party chooses could lead either to a more functional Washington or to even greater dysfunction, to more polarization or less, to a consolidated victory or more divided government.
Republicans, of course, rose to power in 2010 on the back of the tea party wave, then refused to compromise with Obama, nearly prompting a default on the debt before agreeing to a debilitatingly austere budget deal that Congress has since had to work around on an annual basis. While the results weren’t good for the country, they did seem to benefit the party, at least in the short run, as Republicans took the Senate majority in the 2014 election and the White House in 2016.
But the jury is still out on the long-term impact. Republicans in the hard-line Freedom Caucus, the heirs to the tea party movement, forced out their own speaker, Ohio’s John A. Boehner, in 2015, because of Boehner’s unwillingness to shutter the government over policy fights. The party has now gone through a remarkable ideological transformation, embracing Trump’s views on immigration and trade even though they are the polar opposite of the former GOP establishment orthodoxy. Meanwhile, it’s made no effort to do what the party itself once deemed essential to its future success: broadening its appeal to minority voters.
For Democrats, embrace of gridlock could launch a similar transformation. It would toss aside the mindset that Democrats should make government work. That view has dominated Democratic politics from Bill Clinton’s “third way” to Obama’s less-successful efforts to woo Republicans to his stimulus, health care overhaul and “grand bargain” on debt and entitlements.
Liberal activists are pushing an obstructionist approach that looks a lot like the Freedom Caucus’. They argue Democrats need only make the pitch on more far-reaching policies, and voters — even those who live in places long considered Republican territory — will come around. It’s not that conservatives have a lock there, they argue, but that Democrats have never drawn enough of a contrast with them.
They argue that this Congress — with government divided between the parties — offers an opportunity for Democrats to test ideas without the pressure of governing. “This is a rare moment where dynamic members and this [Progressive] Caucus can lay out bold ideas that capture attention and support of the public and that will not pass,” said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank.
Cavanagh sees few opportunities for “victories,” apart perhaps from some action to curtail U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen.
The idea that liberals can now “win,” rather than secure incremental gains through compromise, has even prompted rethinking of Obama’s legacy. Liberals now criticize him for spending too much political capital seeking to persuade Republicans rather than making the sale on progressive policies. “There has been a lack of boldness,” said Cavanagh. “I feel that’s the story of 2009 and 2010, the two years when Democrats controlled everything. There was a failure of leadership.”
Even establishment Democrats are thinking more along these lines. When polled by CQ’s Capitol Insiders Survey, Democratic congressional aides last year leaned toward the view that it was better to highlight differences with Republicans than seek areas of compromise. And in the most recent survey, from January, Democratic aides said they saw little hope of legislation this year on a host of policy issues, from immigration to health care to infrastructure.
A variety of factors have provided progressive absolutists an opening. First, there is the frustration among liberals over growing wealth disparities, the racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement and the sexism revealed by the #MeToo victims.
Next, there’s the sense among liberals that politicians of both parties have hoodwinked voters about government’s limitations and the danger of public debt. They point out that President George W. Bush put two wars on the national credit card, expanded education funding and created a Medicare drug benefit with few complaints from his fellow Republicans or apparent consequences for the economy. More recently, Republicans drove up the deficit with their tax overhaul. Why not, they ask, use borrowed money to expand welfare programs and health insurance coverage and to fight climate change?
Then, there was the last six years of Obama’s presidency when Republicans demonstrated that it can be politically savvy to stonewall, rather than compromise.
And finally there’s Trump, whose combative politics showed there’s a path to electoral victory through polarization rather than conciliation — indeed, that the presidency can be won by rallying a motivated base while forcing centrists and independents to choose between what they see as the lesser of two evils.
Pressure from the left
Democrats don’t think their party is on the verge of a realignment along the lines of what happened to the GOP following the tea party wave of 2010.
They point out that liberals didn’t challenge vulnerable Democratic incumbents in swing states and districts last year, and they note the unity Democrats showed, after some negotiating, in electing California’s Nancy Pelosi to a new term as speaker last month.
But there’s another side to the story: the defeat last year of two longtime incumbents in liberal district primary elections, Joseph Crowley in New York and Michael E. Capuano in Massachusetts, by progressive Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna S. Pressley. Then there is Ocasio-Cortez’s pledge, since rescinded, to back primary challenges to more moderate Democrats in 2020.
Whether or not Ocasio-Cortez ultimately decides to use her star power to help liberals in primary races, the group Justice Democrats, founded by alums of Vermont independent Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, does plan to.
Meanwhile, other activist groups are attacking the pragmatists in the Democratic caucus. Demand Progress, for example, lobbied Pelosi unsuccessfully to deny seats on top House committees to members of the compromise-focused Problem Solvers Caucus. In a letter to Pelosi, co-signed by 19 liberal groups, it said Problem Solvers like Jim Costa of California and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey would work “to impede the will of Democratic voters.”
When the Problem Solvers forced Pelosi to accept rule changes to bring bipartisan amendments and bills up for votes — in a bid to break the gridlock at the Capitol — liberals like Ocasio-Cortez pilloried them. Democrats should “not ‘negotiate’ with an admin that jails children and guts people’s healthcare,” she tweeted.
At this Congress’ outset, Democrats inside and outside Congress argued over whether to adopt rules requiring that spending increases be offset, and three representatives voted no: Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna of California and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Progressives and incoming-House chairmen sparred over how much power to give the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The progressives were annoyed when Pelosi denied the new panel subpoena power and the ability to write legislation.
There was also a policy debate about Democrats’ response to Trump’s demand for a border wall, with civil liberties activists arguing that Pelosi’s proposed concession — money to boost surveillance along the border — would violate civil liberties. The activist group United We Dream later attacked Democrats for offering to boost funding for immigration enforcement in lieu of wall funding. “For decades, veteran Democrats have wrongly supported budgets year after year to increase dollars for the deportation force,” said Cristina Jimenez, executive director of the group.
And the question of whether or not to impeach Trump continues to divide Democrats. Late last month, Texas Democrat Al Green joined billionaire activist Tom Steyer at a “Need to Impeach” news conference to call for Trump’s removal from office. But when the issue came to a vote on the House floor in January 2018, 121 Democrats voted to table Green’s impeachment measure while only 66 wanted to keep it alive. Pressure on both sides could grow depending on findings by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Pull toward the center
The problem for progressives is that while liberals are ascendant in Washington they are not nearly as much so across the country.
That may not be apparent inside the Democratic Party because more of its partisans identify themselves as liberal than ever before. Gallup last year found that, for the first time, more than half of Democrats (51 percent) said they were liberal, compared to 34 percent who said they were moderates and the 13 percent who described themselves as conservatives.
But even some of the liberals would prefer the party adopt a centrist political strategy. Gallup also found in that poll that 54 percent of Democrats want their party to move to the center, while 41 percent want it to pursue more progressive policies.
Overall, Americans’ assessment of their political ideology was unchanged in 2018 compared with the year before: 35 percent described themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 26 percent as liberal.
The liberals’ policy ideas don’t look like easy sells when pollsters describe the details. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, for example, found most Americans would not support a “Medicare-for-all” plan that would eliminate private insurance — as leading Democratic presidential candidates Harris and Sanders support — while a majority of self-described Democrats told the Kaiser pollsters that the party should focus on shoring up the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
An Economist/YouGov survey taken in February found that not even a majority of Democrats, just 42 percent, support the concept of a Green New Deal, with a plurality of all Americans, 31 percent, opposed.
Watch: Democrats downplay appearance of disunity on Green New Deal
Republicans are so confident that the progressives’ ideas will flop that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said last month he’d bring up for a vote Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey’s Green New Deal resolution, which calls for phasing out the use of fossil fuels to combat climate change. In so doing, McConnell will force Democrats to go on the record, divide their caucus and potentially embarrass the Democratic senators running for president.
Both progressive and moderate Democrats are making the case that the 2018 midterms were an endorsement of their approach, but the moderates most likely to balk at “Medicare-for-all” and the Green New Deal have the better case.
In several instances, liberal districts elected candidates more progressive than their retiring or defeated predecessors, but the winners who delivered the House majority to the Democrats, by taking away seats previously held by Republicans, were mostly moderates.
Third Way points out that 33 of the 42 winners endorsed by the moderate New Dem PAC took over GOP seats, while candidates backed by Justice Democrats did not flip any seats.
In a review of candidate advertising, Third Way found that none of the Democrats who took over GOP-held seats ran ads supporting “Medicare-for-all” or a single-payer health care system.
So, in abandoning the pursuit of compromise, Erickson of Third Way worries liberals may prompt Democrats to squander their electoral advantage. “People can get sucked into a social media bubble, and Democratic activists on Twitter are not representative of Democratic voters in general elections or even in a primary.”
Back to business
Liberals castigate groups like Third Way and the Progressive Policy Institute as corporate-funded Democrats. But Democrats’ successes in wooing corporate support have helped the party win elections and secure policy victories.
Trump’s views on health care, immigration and trade have opened the door for Democrats to woo corporate America on issues that once kept them in the GOP camp. Among industries adversely affected by Trump’s policies, Democrats took a greater share of political action committee donations in 2018 than they had in the past. Those in the health industry, for example — from doctors to hospitals — gave a greater percentage of their PAC donations to Democrats than at any time since 2010.
Democrats also saw gains in contributions from agribusiness firms and manufacturers — also taking their greatest share since 2010, when Democrats had the majority in both chambers. Corporate PACs shift their giving to favor incumbents, regardless of party, so Democrats’ gains in 2018, when they were in the minority in both the House and Senate, are notable.
And for the first time ever, more money was spent by super PACs — which can accept unlimited donations — to help Democratic candidates than Republican ones.
Liberals say friendliness between Democrats and corporate America prompts timidity in policymaking, and they’ve convinced the Democratic candidates for president to forgo PAC money. That could make it harder for them to win.
A friendlier rapport with corporate America also makes it easier to enact laws. It’s likely Democrats would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act without the support of the American Medical Association, the powerful professional society for doctors, or the American Hospital Association.
Their support for the law, along with criticism of GOP repeal-and-replace plans by America’s Health Insurance Plans, helped save the 2010 law in 2017 when the Senate could not pass a GOP bill.
Those groups are willing to work with Congress on legislation to shore up the insurance exchanges that undergird the law and affordable access to care for most Americans, but many in Washington risk squandering the alliance, said Lauren Crawford Shaver, a spokeswoman for the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of health industry groups that formed last year and is fighting plans to go to a single-payer or “Medicare-for-all” system. “We agree everyone should have affordable access to care,” she said. “This is a coalition around solving that problem but people in Washington are not taking advantage of that.”
Dose of reality
Progressives have garnered much of the attention so far in 2019, but party centrists are starting to speak out in favor of pragmatism, endorsing both bipartisanship and compromise on specific policy issues.
In other cases, they’re castigating the progressives’ plans. For example, Michael Bloomberg, the media mogul considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, told New Hampshire voters in January that eliminating private health insurance in favor of “Medicare-for-all” would “bankrupt us for a very long time.”
Amid the partial government shutdown in January, 29 Democrats — including several in safe districts — asked Pelosi to cut a deal with Trump, offering a House vote on his border wall.
Four members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition — Anthony Brindisi of New York, Lou Correa of California, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona — wrote a column for CNN Opinion that warned of fiscal profligacy, a pointed broadside as progressives push for “Medicare-for-all” and a Green New Deal. “It is more necessary than ever that the Democratic Party embrace fiscal responsibility,” they wrote.
The Blue Dogs, which have 27 representatives in their membership, want to legislate, specifically, on infrastructure and told Pelosi in a letter they see doing so as crucial to convincing voters “that we are the party that solves problems.”
Meanwhile, the New Democrat Coalition, which has 101 representatives in its caucus, has established eight policy task forces on issues ranging from climate change to trade with the goal of finding solutions that can pass a divided Congress, said the group’s leader, Derek Kilmer of Washington. He took heart from Trump’s State of the Union message: “As the president said, we need to rebuild unity.” The Blue Dogs’ Correa reacted in much the same way, saying that “bipartisanship is the only way we’ll be able to get anything done.”