The Democrats' Dilemma
As Republican Congressional leaders push for additional capital gains and corporate tax cuts while resisting significant aid for displaced workers, Obey says, "The whole point of our Democratic message should be that everyone's in this together. It's the message that Americans embraced during World War II, and it is still, I believe, the message that patriotic Americans respond to. You don't create national unity by creating investment opportunities for the investment class while leaving behind the working class. It's like being on the Titanic. If the Titanic takes on water, it would be nice to provide everyone with a lifeboat."
But how do we pay for the lifeboats? Obey was among the first to take aim at the tax cuts for the wealthy pushed through Congress in the spring by the Bush Administration. He would freeze a planned cut in the top marginal tax rate, which is paid by the wealthiest seven-tenths of 1 percent of Americans--a move, Obey says, that will free tens of billions of dollars to meet commitments already made, allow for modest tax rebates for working Americans as an economic stimulus and insure the long-term stability of the economy.
But do Democrats have the guts to build their program around an agenda that conservative Republicans will almost certainly describe as a tax "increase"? "They should," says Representative Bernie Sanders, the Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and plays a leadership role, with Dennis Kucinich, in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "If the President wants to go before the American people and say that in order to pay for needed programs, it's better public policy to go into that Social Security trust fund than to reduce the tax break for the richest 1 percent of Americans, he's welcome to do that. I would be very pleased to debate him anywhere, anytime, before any audience."
The Progressive Caucus has introduced an ambitious House proposal for expanded unemployment benefits, healthcare and social-service spending, public works spending and tax rebates for the working poor, financed with $200 billion raised over the next decade by postponing tax cuts for the top 1 percent of taxpayers. Senator Paul Wellstone is pushing similar ideas with his "Workforce Recovery" bill.
Schakowsky has even bigger plans for what could be done with $340 billion raised through a more ambitious scaling back of tax cuts, detailed in the "First Things First" act she introduced on October 2. A neighborhood organizer in Chicago before she came to Congress, Schakowsky has already pulled together support for her bill from US Action, AFSCME, the Association of Flight Attendants and other groups. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., a co-sponsor of both the Progressive Caucus and First Things First measures, says that at a time when faith in the ability of government to accomplish big things is at its highest level in thirty-five years, Democrats must say "now is the right time to make a public investment to meet America's unmet needs--build high-speed rail, fix our crumbling schools, improve our healthcare system, provide a high-quality daycare system and rebuild all our communities, urban and rural--not just limit our appropriate responses to New York City."
In early October, as he moved into what he called "the second phase of bipartisanship," Gephardt was talking tough about opposing GOP attempts to wrap a fast-track bill in the flag of patriotism and force the free-trade initiative through Congress. And the minority leader had finally begun to discuss scaling back some of the Bush tax cut and directing resources toward economic stimulus schemes more ambitious than those announced with such fanfare by the President. But Gephardt was still shying away from the bold initiatives that progressives are proposing, and his reticence continued to beg the question of whether the "loyal opposition" remains more loyal to maintaining the facade of bipartisanship than to the task of mounting a genuine opposition.
Democrats who seek to move their party toward an embrace of progressive populist economic policies are not giving up. But they're not naïve, either. They recognize that before they can move Congress, they must first move their own party leadership from Hoover-like caution to Roosevelt-like "nothing to fear but fear itself" crusading and campaigning.
"The first question really is whether Democrats will have the stamina to do the right thing. I know there is a fear on the part of a lot of Democrats in Washington that it might somehow be politically dangerous to bring up contentious issues at this point," says Schakowsky. "Those of us who have been out listening to our constituents know that it isn't dangerous. And we have to get into our caucuses and say to the leadership and our fellow members, 'Look, the question of who is going to get a tax cut is not a national security issue.' What it is is a test for the Democratic Party. Our core constituencies, the people who rely on us to represent them, are hurting. We need to stand up for those people. The Republicans aren't afraid to stand up for their core constituencies--they're still pushing tax cuts for the wealthy, bailouts for corporations. I think if we started to distinguish ourselves on these issues, we'd find that the American people would be with us--not just in this year's legislative battles but in the 2002 elections."