Democrats need to stop apologizing for their support of a strong, active government if they want to win elections, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said Tuesday in a speech at the National Press Club.
“In order to win in 2016, Democrats must embrace government, not run away from it,” Schumer said.
The Senate’s third-ranking Democrat said the middle class “knows in its gut” that only a “strong and active government” can stop the economic bleeding that has caused median incomes to drop $3,600 since President Bush took office in 2001.
This is the first time in American history that middle-class incomes have been in decline for more than a decade, Schumer said, and it’s not for a lack of production.
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Overall productivity has shot up while wages have gone down, meaning that those gains have gone to capital, not labor. And another decade of this would mean a “sour and angry” populace with different groups ready to “turn on each other in a way we haven’t seen in almost a century.”
It was a methodical, big-picture speech that laid out the historical and economic case for why only strong government, and the Democrats who are willing to advocate for it, can keep the country out of crisis.
It was also a speech about political calculation—one that may or may not include poor and disadvantaged populations in its attempt to appeal to white middle-class voters.
To explain why the Democrats lost in 2014, Schumer went back to 1932.
He said the “big tectonic plates” of pro-government and anti-government sentiment have shifted back and forth slowly, but dramatically, over the decades. Those who advocated for government ruled between 1932 and 1980, when President Roosevelt unleashed massive government spending to pull the country out of the Great Depression, and Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon built the highway system and founded the EPA.
Anti-government forces took over from 1981 to 2008 with the ascendance of Ronald Reagan and his “government is the problem” rhetoric. Schumer said Democrats were too successful at creating broad-based prosperity and Americans didn’t think they needed government anymore.
The fear and uncertainty of the 2008 recession swung the pendulum back in government’s favor, Schumer said. But the Democrats in charge of government failed to convince Americans that government was actually working for them.
First, the Democratic Congressional majority passed a stimulus that saved the United States from another Great Depression, but wasn’t big enough to really fix things.
Then Democrats “blew the opportunity the American people gave them” by focusing on health-care reform—which he argued not enough voters cared about, since 85 percent of Americans already had health care through the government or an employer—instead of taking broader action to end the recession and help the middle class as a whole.
Finally, this underlying economic insecurity made it easier to attack government over more superficial, but easily sensationalized issues like Ebola or the disastrous online exchange rollout.
Americans still know that government is the best shield they have against the wage-depressing forces of globalization and increasing technological efficiency, Schumer said. They know that those private-sector forces naturally benefit only those at the top unless government intervenes, and that the Republican solution of giving those forces even more unrestricted power makes no sense.
Democrats therefore have a “natural advantage” when middle-class incomes are declining—but now the party needs to make a stronger and more coherent case for why that is.
That will mean a two-step strategy that he claims will work for both progressive Democrats and those in red states, if done well.
First, a more populist message, “even for those of us who don’t consider ourselves populists,” to counter people’s suspicions about wealthy special interests capturing government; then, “proposing and passing legislation that is effective and acutely focused on reversing the middle class decline.”
Schumer wouldn’t go into policy details during his speech, but he said anything Democrats propose has to do five things: directly make middle-class lifestyles more affordable, be simple and easily explained, be “achievable,” affect a broad swath of Americans, and fit together into a coherent theme.
Schumer’s comments on health care revealed a sort of pragmatic class bias, and perhaps the limits of his own populism.
He said that while the Affordable Care Act’s reforms were necessary and he was proud to vote for the bill, it affected “a very small slice of the country,” and an even smaller slice of the electorate—5 percent, he estimated, based on assumptions about how many uninsured people are registered to vote and how many of those registered voted.
Health care “wasn’t the change we were hired to make,” he said. “Americans were crying out for an end to the recession, for better wages and more jobs; not for changes in their health care.”
For the bottom fifth of earners, the ACA was also a significant income boost. And of course those “changes in health care” also included revolutionary gains in women’s health coverage, and the difference between life and death for people with pre-existing conditions at every income level.
Schumer didn’t discuss poverty in his sweeping analysis of the broken modern economy; everything centered around the middle class. This may be a sound strategy, given that most Americans think of themselves as middle class, poor people vote less often due to higher barriers, and a stronger middle class strengthens the economy as a whole.
Schumer’s speech also signals a renewed focus on winning the affections of the white, likely male, working-class voters Democrats lost so badly in 2014, and possibly less focus on the concerns of the “rising American electorate” of women and people of color that many Democratic strategists see as the key to the party’s future.
Democrats have big advantages in almost every demographic except for white men, 62 percent of whom voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. And an August poll shows that the Democratic Party has a lot of work to do in gaining the affections of white men, as that group prefers a Republican-led Congress by a 17-point margin.