Wayne O'Leary

Schizophrenic Democrats

Fissures are already appearing in the fabric of the Democratic party as it prepares for the 2014 congressional elections and, more importantly, the presidential election to follow in two years.

On the surface, Democrats appear completely united. Unlike the GOP, no obvious ideological split is rending the party of Rooseveltd Democrats are being told the question of a party standard bearer two years hence has, in effect, been decided, that they should swallow hard and get on board. Those tempted to contest the Clinton coronation are advised they risk being perceived as anti-wom; there is nothing comparable to the Republican war between tea partiers and the country-club establishment. So, at any rate, is the perception political pros at the Democratic National Committee and big-money Democratic PACs want disseminated.

But the truth is that many of the Democratic rank and file are uneasy with the current laid-back drift of the party under President Obama and are chafing under the enforced inevitability of Hillary Clinton as its anointed candidate for 2016. To put it bluntly, dissatisfiean, or (possibly worse) as closet Naderites who would spoil the anticipated party three-peat by fomenting a schism in the ranks.

For the short run (2014), the official Democratic strategy is to portray the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a splendid, popular success and run on it, since the minimum number of enrollees to guarantee its solvency was duly achieved. This measure of success is narrowly political and partisan: Republican predictions of a total catastrophe in implementation did not materialize, so score one for our side.

In reality, no one knows how the ACA will ultimately pan out. Are companies going to drop their employee healthcare coverage (including the mislabeled “Cadillac” coverage unions, in many cases, negotiated years ago in lieu of pay increases), thereby shunting disgruntled workers into the health exchanges where they will purchase less generous policies mostly at their own expense? More importantly, will exchange premiums, lacking competition from a public option, begin to skyrocket in price, causing those who signed up to rethink their decision? We’ll get a hint of this when 2015 premium prices are announced at the end of the year — after, not before, the election, if Democrats are fortunate.

It’s possible that Democrats, despite having adopted a conservative, pro-corporate approach to healthcare reform (the individual mandate) analogous to the conservative approach to retirement pensions (the self-financed 401(k)), could nevertheless luck out politically because Americans are a supremely pragmatic people. The ACA may be an inadequate halfway measure — it’s always been aimed more at cutting overall health costs than achieving universal healthcare — but for the previously uninsured, a partial reform is better than nothing; they’re still held hostage by the big insurers, but at least they’re covered and paying somewhat less than they would in a completely open market.

This is good enough for centrist Democrats, and it’s symbolic of the party’s split personality. For those on the left, not only doesn’t the ACA go far enough (it’s not single-payer), but its prominence as an issue drowns out others they would like to see addressed, such as jobs and wages, inequality, genuine reform of the banking system, a crackdown on Wall Street, and so on.

The healthcare debate exposed a growing rift in the Democratic party that those seeking to avoid controversy are anxious to deny. There are really two distinct and readily identifiable Democratic camps: the centrists, represented by President Obama and the Clintons; and the progressives, represented by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D).

The centrists, who have controlled the party’s organizational apparatus and policy direction since the 1990s, are center-left on social policy and center-right on economic policy; the progressives, who have come into prominence since the Great Recession (and, I would argue, represent the future), are center-left on both counts, especially on economics, where Sen. Warren’s insistence that the system is “rigged” summarizes their more confrontational stance.

It is President Obama’s misfortune that he’s become a transitional figure between the fading centrism of the Clinton years and the emerging progressivism personified by Sen. Warren. By Clintonian centrism, I mean a preoccupation with the debt and deficit, a willingness to adopt Republican solutions (conservative welfare reform, and telecommunications and financial deregulation under Clinton; market-based healthcare reform under Obama; free trade under both), and a maintenance of cordial relations with Wall Street and its monied interests — all the while giving lip service to progressive ideals.

The president departs from the go-along to get-along script at times, pursuing unthreatening and generally popular liberal initiatives like an increased federal minimum wage, for instance. But behind the scenes, he’s been the captive of his fiscally conservative economic advisors, almost all of whom matriculated under Bill Clinton. Their consensual advice: try to advance liberal values incrementally without antagonizing the Big Money that Democrats, as well as Republicans, are beholden to for campaign funding.

The Democratic ideological fault line running just beneath the surface can best be detected in New York, which has become ground zero for the proverbial struggle over the party’s heart and soul. In the Empire State, Democratic centrism is championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a veteran of the Clinton administration, and the new Democratic progressivism by Mayor de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, each of whom has increasingly strained relations with the governor.

Cuomo, in true centrist mode, has pushed for state budget freezes and tax cuts for banks, corporations, and millionaires. Schneiderman wants to investigate insider stock trading and would use the money Cuomo has earmarked for tax reductions to fight financial fraud and prevent home foreclosures. De Blasio, for his part, recently proposed taxing New York City’s wealthy to fund preschool programs and called for a state rent subsidy for the homeless. Cuomo strenuously disagreed, and the two have also clashed over charter schools, which de Blasio dislikes and Cuomo endorses.

This is the “unified” party of which Hillary Clinton would be the consensus nominee for president. She’s certainly the choice of corporate Democrats; word is Clinton would be Wall Street’s preferred candidate, should Jeb Bush and Chris Christie not run. But is she the right fit for a party transitioning to a more left-leaning progressivism, or an out-of-touch reminder of the increasingly irrelevant past? That’s the question of the hour.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2014


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