Web Only / Features » January 10, 2017
Democrats: It’s Time for a Contract with American Workers
Republicans are in power because they had a plan. The Left needs one, too.
"There is power in giving voters a specific set of deliverables."
It’s time to put a plan together, Democrats. Put it in front of the American people and bring it up so often that the media can’t believe you’re bringing that up again. When Donald Trump tweets about it, thank him for his input and refer people back to your plan. Again and again. There’s a model for this. It worked once but hasn’t been tried since.
1993. Bill Clinton had just been elected, and he made universal health insurance his highest priority. With solid majorities in both chambers—258 House seats, and 56 Senate seats—Democrats should have prevailed. They worked on the legislation for months, but different factions in the party had their own ideas about how to balance the private and public sectors. The leader of the Senate, George Mitchell, announced in August 1994 that work on health care reform would have to wait until after the fall election.
In the meantime, Republicans put together a plan. They got groups like the American Medical Association on board, opposing Clinton’s proposal. And then, six weeks before the election, Republican leaders in Congress created the Contract with America, an eight-point statement of Congressional reforms that they would vote on immediately. There were also 10 policy proposals that they promised to take a vote on within the first 100 days of taking office.
Did it work? The GOP picked up 54 seats in the House and took control of that chamber for the first time since 1952. The party also picked up eight seats in the Senate, giving it 52 seats there and control of both chambers. Most of the specific ideas in the contract either died in the Senate or were vetoed by Clinton. But the Democratic wipeout in Congress killed health care reform for nearly 15 years. And one proposal in the contract, the Personal Responsibility Act, became the foundation for the infamous welfare-reform bill that Clinton signed in 1996.
The contract, in other words, helped reverse the Democratic momentum coming out of 1992, blocked Clinton’s agenda and put the GOP’s priorities front and center in U.S. politics until Barack Obama’s election.
Keep it simple
So what should the Democratic plan be now?
Call it the Contract with American Workers and keep it simple—a few key policies that have broad public support and will measurably improve the lives of working- and middle-class people. It won’t require anything more than condensing parts of the 2016 Democratic Party platform.
Here’s a start: A $15 minimum wage. Universal health care through a public option. An expanded and strengthened Social Security program. Free community college. A reformed campaign-finance system to reduce the power of corporations and other special interests in Congress. Paid medical and family leave of at least 12 weeks. Massive investment in child care to make it accessible and affordable. How to pay for all this? Sharply progressive taxes on people earning more than $250,000 per year would suffice—but there’s no need to get into that kind of detail. The GOP never does, and never pays for it.
Yes, there are a range of other urgent priorities that Democrats need to address and defend, from reproductive and LGBT rights to racial justice and climate change. Those can't be neglected.
But there is power in giving voters a specific set of deliverables. Think about the dozens of proposals that Hillary Clinton posted to her website and talked about in her speeches, versus Trump’s nearly substance-less campaign. Yet voters knew exactly what he planned to do: build a wall, back out of climate change and trade agreements, cut taxes and kill Obamacare. That wasn’t all he intended to do, clearly. But it was a plan. It was never quite clear to voters that Clinton, for all her policy statements, actually had one. Imagine how different things would be right now if she and the Democratic leadership had collaborated on an agenda a year ago—a plan for the first 100 days—and hammered it home the way Trump talked about his wall.
Force the issue
In the debate over health care in the early 1990s, the Contract with America wasn’t the only tool the GOP used to defeat Clinton’s plan. Republicans had a fiercely unified opposition, forged from the sense that their survival was at stake. In a policy memo, the influential GOP pundit William Kristol once wrote that allowing health care reform to pass would “revive the reputation of … Democrats as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.”
Democrats never really recovered from that defeat, or from Clinton’s self-inflicted wounds, especially his collaboration on NAFTA. Trump used that trade deal to position himself as the champion of working and middle-class interests in the recent election. And that sleight of hand is the rule: Democrats support policies that would actually benefit middle- and working-class people. Republicans use tax cuts, nativism and racism to claim the populist mantle.
It’s time for a dramatic intervention laying out a few concrete policies Democrats would pass within their first 100 days in power. Trump would veto most or all of them, sure. Make him defend a veto of universal health care and free community college. Promise to bring them up again. And again. Force the issue. Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare more than 60 times, by some counts, since 2009. And how did that work? They killed Clinton’s health care plan. Now they’ll gut Obama’s.
Republicans are in the minority, public-opinion wise. Their policies are immoral. And yet they hold the reins of power because they had a plan. For the love of God, Democrats. It’s time to fight fire with fire.
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Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
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