Democrats: It’s Time for a Contract with American Workers

Republicans are in power because they had a plan. The Left needs one, too.

Theo Anderson January 10, 2017

It’s time for a dramatic intervention laying out a few concrete policies Democrats would pass within their first 100 days in power. (Photo by Erik Freeland/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

"There is power in giving voters a specific set of deliverables."

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 health­care. 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.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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