Over at U.S. News & World Report, Pat Garofalo has a very interesting piece up that asks “Are Democrats Trolling the Left?” This question deserves some serious consideration, because the answer could tell us a huge amount about American politics over the next several years.
In recent weeks, had Washington had re-formed with a Republican Congress, Democrats made a sudden left turn on economic policy. House Democrats, led by Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, proposed a middle-class tax cut that would be financed by higher taxes on wealthy CEOs along with a small tax on financial transactions. Meanwhile, President Obama is preparing to ask Congress for a bill that would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days per year.
There’s an optimistic way to look at this: Democrats learned a lesson during the 2014 midterms about failing to offer a bold economic agenda, and have finally seen the light on some good policies that tackle income inequality and an ever-growing financial sector directly.
For years, progressives inside and outside of Congress have pushed these very ideas. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has made a financial transactions tax part of its budget proposal since 2011, and Senate liberals have introduced it many times as well. Similarly, paid sick leave has been a major project of activists and legislators at the municipal and state level since at least 2007, when San Francisco began mandating it for all employers in the city.
But given that the Democratic Party has less political power now than at any point since 2008, isn’t it a little too late to embrace these ideas? Garofalo wonders if that might actually be the point:
A less charitable reading…is that the Democrats are seizing on the opportunity to be progressive at a moment when it’s cheap and easy; being out of power (or in Obama’s case, term-limited) they won’t have to pay the price in campaign dollars or blowback that would come from pursuing these policies in an environment in which they could actually become law. After all, when Democrats controlled all of Congress and the presidency, it’s not like they made a move on paid sick leave or a financial transactions tax or any of a host of other ideas that would have helped out the middle class. (Which isn’t to diminish the very real accomplishments of that Congress.) Now they can stoke the fire and garner the goodwill of the left, without having to deal with the downside.
Garofalo, who has written about these policies for years, concludes by saying, “I feel like I’m getting trolled by the Democrats at the moment, seeing them come out forcefully in favor of these ideas when they won’t actually become law.” (As someone who has also extensively covered these proposals, I feel his pain.)
The true measure of Democrats’ sincerity will determine how hard they push for these policies in the near term, and also to what extent these ideas will become part of the Democratic agenda in 2016. Should the party retain the White House and maybe even win back Congress in two years, this might decide whether Washington can actually act to slow down dangerous Wall Street trading and exorbitant CEO pay while funneling the benefits back to the middle class.
Really, it goes beyond those particular policies—are Democrats ready to take on the wealthy and corporate classes at full steam, Citizen’s United be damned?
It’s a question where progressives should resist easy answers. Loyal partisans will dutifully tell you Democrats mean business. Cynical progressives trained to thoroughly distrust the motives of any elected Democrat will tell you otherwise.
For my part, I remain firmly unsure. The best answer I have for now is a partial evasion—that it might not matter much. Regardless of whether the initial launch is crass exploitation or earnest desire, these policies can now easily become a baseline for the 2016 candidates. And if they produce success at the polls, Democrats will be motivated to keep pushing. But this effort could also go off the rails in a thousand different ways—maybe a million different ways, if Democrats aren’t truly invested in the outcome.