Staving Off a Democratic Civil War

Now that they’re both in Senate leadership, Elizabeth Warren and Mark Warner should hammer out an agenda they agree on. And yes, it exists.

Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty

So this is something that starts happening in an incumbent president’s sixth year, especially after an electoral walloping like the one the Democrats just absorbed: The fissures start to show. Because the president is becoming a lame duck and minds are turning naturally toward the next presidential election, the moment is now for the heavyweights in the party to start defining it in post-Obama terms. And the big fight the Democrats are starting to have, and need to have, is about how to put themselves squarely on the side of the broad middle class.

Of course, to someone who sees the world the way I do, it’s comically pathetic that there’s even a competition here. The Republicans are the party of the 1 percent. Oh, maybe the 5 percent on a good day. But really the 1 percent. No—actually really, the .01 percent. That more people can’t see this is, ah, well, a whole ’nother column really.

But in fact I think most people do see it—they just don’t mind it that much anymore. This is because 1) after 30 years of trickle-down agitprop, they’ve come to accept that what’s good for their bosses is good for them (because most people don’t know, for example, that U.S. wages haven’t really grown in those 30 years while for their bosses it’s been a party practically without rival in recent human history), and 2) most folks would simply rather blame poor people for their problems because doing so requires a lot less connecting of dots and is thus a more comforting narrative for them.

This is the crucial point that Democrats often don’t get. Democrats and liberals are inclined to say to themselves things like “if only most Americans knew X”—X being, say, that George Bush’s or Mitt Romney’s tax plan overwhelmingly benefits the rich—“why, we’d have ’em on our side.” But most Americans do know that, in their bones anyway. And they mind it, a little, but they don’t mind it as much as some of what they see from the Democrats.

Here, my conservative Beast colleague Lloyd Green is not entirely wrong to argue as he did Monday that a lot of middle-class people look at the two major domestic-policy matters the Democrats have placed before them—the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s executive order on immigration—and see a party that is more interested in helping poor people, and even illegally arrived poor people, than it is in serving them.

The Affordable Care Act was always a short-term political loser with respect to middle-class voters. Most of them have insurance, and only a small percentage face catastrophic illness. And you can explain why the individual mandate is a necessary leg of the three-legged stool until you’re purple in the face and it won’t get through to most voters. If it survives, it may start paying political dividends in a decade or so, when people have gotten used to it and it has increased the amount and type of preventive care insurance companies offer and made us a healthier society. It was the right thing to do for these and other reasons, but I don’t think anyone, including Obama himself, thought it would be a big political winner in his era.

Ditto the immigration executive order. True, a solid majority backs the Democratic position on the substance. But the recent batch of polls shows Americans to be, what else, deeply split on whether Obama was right to do this by fiat. (I’d love to know the percentage of Americans who are actually aware that the House could have spared us all this by passing the bill the Senate passed, which the country supports roughly two-to-one, at any point in the past 18 months; it’s surely single digits.) So Obama is not getting pummeled on this one so far, but he’s not winning it either. Again, the right thing to do, by my lights, but something that will be seen by the broader middle class as not really benefiting them.

In the coming months and up into 2016, Republicans will make sure these two programs stay front and center, because they of course know all this, and they’ll want to paint the Democrats as only looking out for “those people.” So the Democrats, as Chuck Schumer put it in his big speech last week, have to show the middle class that the party is firmly on its side. (I’ll write another column soon about the “defend government” part of Schumer’s speech, which is something I’ve been arguing for years.)

The problem is that the Democrats are more divided on the “how” of doing this than they are on any other single question. At least that’s what we’re told. But are they, really? So much is made of the Elizabeth Warren Wing vs. the centrists (they don’t have a figurehead who can equal Warren in stature). And sure, there are differences. Trade is probably the biggest one, and the issue puts Democratic interest groups at each other’s throats, although regular voters don’t care much about trade policy. Whether to attack the deficit is another, but the deficit is going down, and by the way most voters don’t care much about it either. Whether to give a little ground on entitlement reform is a third, and that admittedly is a big one that there is no way to finesse (except to raise the payroll tax cap, which is the most sensible approach and one the Democrats will come around to someday).

But on loads of economic issues, as Schumer suggested in his speech, virtually all Democrats agree—minimum wage, student loans, workplace rules, infrastructure, a tighter link between productivity and wages are just a few of the things that all Democrats agree on and that, with the partial exception of the minimum wage, would benefit huge majorities of voters.

I said “partial” because a higher minimum wage, often thought of as helpful only to those at the very bottom, would have ripple effects for workers higher up the wage chain. In fact, this is a terrific case in point for the way in which the war between the Democrats’ two economic wings can be greatly exaggerated. I have before me on my browser two recent studies on this question, one by the centrist Hamilton Project and the other by the more liberal Economic Policy Institute. Both give estimates of how many U.S. workers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.

Only about 3.3 million Americans (pdf) earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or less. The Hamilton paper estimates that an increase would benefit as many as 35 million workers, while EPI puts that number at more like 28 million. In other words, the sell-out centrists have a higher number than the unreconstructed lefties! At each others’ throats!

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Here’s what I’d like to see. Now that Warren and centrist Mark Warner are both in the Democrats’ Senate leadership ranks, I think the two of them should sit down and hammer out a Warren-Warner Middle-Class Compact that consists of 10 or however many major points that they know they can get everyone from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin to agree on (and of course they also need to be confident that Hillary Clinton will agree to most of them). Warren makes one clearly recognizable gesture to the center, and the centrists make one recognizable gesture to the left. But they agree. They have the stature and the position and the power to do so. I don’t know if they’re friends, but they don’t seem to be enemies; Warren helped raise money for Warner this year.

The core problem in Washington is that many both in the center and on the left are just too emotionally committed to a narrative by which the other side’s prescriptions will bring about the certain apocalyptic destruction of the Democratic Party. Warren and Warner have the power to change that narrative. Their chance to do so starts now.