Politics & Government

Democrats please progressives with left-leaning policy agenda

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., accompanied by Congressional Democrats, speaks in Berryville, Va., Monday, July 24, 2017, to unveil their new agenda. From left are, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Schumer, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., accompanied by Congressional Democrats, speaks in Berryville, Va., Monday, July 24, 2017, to unveil their new agenda. From left are, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Schumer, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. AP

The Democratic Party’s top leaders talked about reviving Teddy Roosevelt’s fights against big corporations, mimicked Bernie Sanders’ calls for a massive minimum wage hike, and echoed Franklin Roosevelt’s promise to deliver a “New Deal” to the American public.

It was the kind of message the party’s liberal wing has waited years to hear.

“For a long time the Democratic Party has been pretty timid about the role of government,” said Tamara Draut, a vice president of policy and research at the liberal think tank Demos. “It’s a good thing to see them leaning in to it.”

In an attempt to prove they are about more than saying “no” to President Donald Trump, the party’s congressional leaders gathered Monday in this small Virginia town to unveil an agenda they hope will unite Democrats for the foreseeable future. It didn’t include any mention of the polarizing president or the investigation into his campaign’s ties to the Russian government, a decision Democrats say they made deliberately to show they have their own ideas and messages.

The leaders and their aides say Democrats tried to conceive an agenda any Democrat can run on — whether the candidate is in a deep red state or bright blue city — a months-long process they describe as exacting and careful to bring everybody on board.

But the most important audience for their “Better Deal” program was the party’s increasingly vocal liberal wing, which has blamed the party’s electoral wipeout in recent elections on the establishment’s perceived political timidity and fealty to corporate interests.

“When you lose elections, as we did in 2014 and 2016, you don’t flinch, you don’t blink. You look in the mirror and ask what did we do wrong?” said Chuck Schumer, flanked on stage by nine other Democratic congressional leaders. “The number one thing we did wrong was not to present a strong, bold economic agenda to working Americans so they’re hope for the future might return.”

The party, he said, had for too long shied away from these fights — but no longer.

Even the language used by Schumer — normally associated with the party’s business-oriented, pragmatic faction — was reminiscent of a revolutionary-minded activist.

“Old-fashioned capitalism has broken down, to the detriment of the consumer,” the Democratic Senate leader said. (The term “Better Deal” is an homage to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal economic program from the 1930s, which many liberals still view as the foundation for the party’s economic agenda.)

Schumer was joined on stage by liberal icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a sign of the support of the agenda from many of Capitol Hill’s progressive leaders. On stage, the potential 2020 presidential contender talked up the agenda’s anti-trust proposal, which she said was proof Democrats are trying to “take back our government.”

“For decades now, government has slacked off enforcement of those laws, and the result has been bigger and bigger corporations with more and more power,” Warren said. “Democrats are ready to take this challenge head on.”

Progressive leaders interviewed Monday called the agenda a positive development even if they wished it would go further. Many of them said they were just happy to see the party advocate for its own agenda, entirely separate from Trump or the potential scandals that threaten to engulf his administration.

When it comes to congressional elections, Democrats have long failed to get voters to show up.

“For congressional Democrats, it’s a good step toward defining real change rather than just attacking Trump,” said Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, Sanders’ political group. “I would say it’s imperative to define what we’re working for, not just what we’re working against.”

Progressive leaders also approved of the substance of agenda. That wasn’t surprising, given that many of the proposals in the “Better Deal” agenda were tailor-made to please a liberal audience, including raising the minimum wage to the $15-an-hour mark Bernie Sanders advocated for during last year’s presidential election.

It also calls for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, reshaping trade deals, and creating a new government position to enforce anti-trust laws.

Progressives singled out the plans to take on corporate power as the most significant part of the Democrats’ new agenda, a proposal they doubt the party would have embraced even recently.

“That shows me that something I haven’t seen in the Democratic Party, and I think it’s new, and it’s definitely needed,” Draut said.

Democrats at Monday’s rally emphasized they believed their agenda would appeal to all wings of the party. Indeed, in addition to Warren, Schumer was joined on stage by center-left Democrats such as Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who both voiced strong support for it.

These Democrats pointed to parts of the agenda that will be more familiar to business-oriented Democrats, like investing in retraining programs for displaced workers or changing the tax code to give companies incentive to invest in their workforce.

Despite the enthusiasm from liberals, leaders of the party’s centrist wing said they too were happy with the new platform.

“There’s something in there for all wings of the party, from Warner to Sanders,” said a spokesman for Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank.

The Democratic centrists might also have been pleased with what wasn’t included in Monday’s roll-out: There was no mention of liberal favorites like free college tuition or single-payer health care.

Democrats will still face pressure to adopt those measures ahead of next year’s midterm election. Our Revolution, the Sanders group, plans to hold a rally Tuesday in the capital, pushing lawmaker to adopt proposals like single-payer health care or imposing a tax on Wall Street. The leaders of the group are calling it the “People’s Platform.”

It’s a reminder that even as liberals praise the new agenda from congressional leadership, they still expect more.

“Negotiating drug prices for Medicare, we’ve been saying that for 15 years,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America. “That’s a no-brainer, not bold leadership.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty

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