A Hot Take™ On The Democrats’ “Better Deal”

Today, after much flailing about and increased frustration from the left, the Democratic Party finally unveiled a proper, coherent platform on which to run against the Republican majority in 2018. They have branded their platform “A Better Deal”, and in a New York Times op-ed today, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) described it thusly:

Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people — and that we stand for three simple things.

First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.

In the rest of the piece, Schumer announces the first of what are supposedly going to be a series of policies aimed at addressing these three goals; the Democrats’ website has also published information outlining with each of these (overview; plan for raising incomes; plan for lowering drug prices; plan for trustbusting).

There are many points to address here; some are positive, some are negative, and I am definitely not an authority on most of them, but luckily I have already proclaimed my awareness that this is a Hot Take™, which makes me immune from criticism, or something. It also lets me get away with just writing down all my thoughts without any semblance of larger order or structure. I’m basically a god right now.

Anyways, let’s get started with some credit where it’s due.

Holy Crap! The Democrats Have An Actual, Cohesive Platform To Run On!

Setting aside the content of the platform, which has its problems, just having a clear platform is a step forward. Most importantly, it offers something tangible to vote for, rather than assuming that the urge to vote against Trump and his Republican enablers will be enough to drive the vote. It may also hint that the Democrats might have actually learned from their mistakes. The failure to make the case for herself was one of many fumbles Hillary Clinton made last year. She flooded the airwaves with ads attacking Trump’s charactersome of which didn’t even feature her beyond the words “I’m Hillary Clinton and I approve this message”—instead of drawing a distinction between herself and Trump that, however unfairly, somehow still needed to be made. Pushing “A Better Plan” will help the Democrats avoid the same mistake in 2018, and especially in a midterm year, having a reason to vote for someone will bring more people to the polls than if they just had an urge to vote against someone else.

And there’s more!

Some Hints Of Boldness!

Strengthening antitrust laws to break up increasingly monopolistic corporations is a great thing, and it takes up an entire policy plank of the platform that was announced today. It makes a bold statement against corporate greed (Schumer even uses the phrase “vulture capitalists” in his op-ed), which should play well with the voters, and even in the white paper it’s immediately made clear how this very large-scale policy is relevant to the average American:

The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors. It means higher prices and less choice for the things the American people buy every day.

David Dayen of The Fiscal Times has a much more detailed look into this plank, pointing out that it is the most fleshed out of the three. He offers an important pinch of salt, pointing out that the Democrats will have to prove that they won’t just cozy up to these corporations after getting elected like they have in the past, and also cautioning that monolithic tech companies, “the biggest threats to dominate the economy”, are scarcely mentioned in the platform.

Still, between this and the suggestion that Democrats calling for a $15/hour wage are “part of the Better Deal”, there’s some refreshingly bold thinking—at least by the standards of a party often hamstrung by their total lack of it—in the Better Deal.

On the other hand,

The Drug-Prices Plank Is Hella Weak

Taking up an entire plank of today’s platform announcement was this:

Right now, there is nothing to stop vulture capitalists from egregiously raising the price of lifesaving drugs without justification. We’re going to fight for rules to stop prescription drug price gouging and demand that drug companies justify price increases to the public. And we’re going to push for empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices for older Americans.

That’s it? That’s all the Democrats can muster on the topic of healthcare? There’s yet another vote on an Obamacare repeal/replacement tomorrow, and the only thing they can offer today is “we’ll work to make drugs cheaper”? Yes, drugs are obscenely overpriced—if you’re unlucky enough to have certain rare conditions, your treatment may cost literally over half a million dollars a year—but so are hospital stays and medical procedures, and this platform says nothing about those. At a time when Americans are both quaking at the prospect of losing their health insurance under the Republican healthcare plan (whatever it actually is) and increasingly supportive of single-payer healthcare, this plank, which is spun less as a healthcare issue than as a cost-of-living issue, is particularly disappointing.

Explicit Capitalism And Silence On Social Justice

Of course, the Democratic leadership is nowhere near as ready as the American left to abandon capitalism; as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said in January, “We’re capitalists.” It’s interesting to see that made explicit in the white papers released today, particularly the one concerning breaking up monopolies. The given rationale for trustbusting is that these oversized corporations are hurting competition and undermining the choice inherent in a capitalist system. “Vigorous, free, and fair competition is a pro-business, pro-consumer, pro-worker approach,” begins the white paper, adding later on, “Strengthening antitrust laws ensures capitalism works for all Americans.” What you think of that approach might depend on which side of the “liberal/leftist” divide you find yourself on.

On a separate note, there’s almost no mention in the platform of marginalized groups. When a beneficiary more specific than “The American people” is given for a policy, it’s usually “middle-class families” or “workers” or “consumers”. I can’t speak to the Democrats’ reasoning here. I expect they’ve bought into the notion that they’ve alienated the “white working class” etc., in part through overuse of “identity politics”, and are trying to win them back by promising better jobs, better pay and cheaper living costs, and doing so in a way that doesn’t highlight nonwhite people. They may figure that there are more gains to be had from winning these voters than, say, trying to increase the turnout among minorities, or that the “A Better Deal” message will be more inherently appealing to minorities (thinking, well, obviously the Democratic platform offers a better deal for, say, LGBT people than the Republican platform).

I’d like to think they’re starting with broad, appealing policies and messages as a groundwork (though the drug-prices thing seems to me like it’ll disappoint more people than it’ll energize), and will introduce more targeted policies and messages later on, or that they’ll frame them outside of the largely economic platform they introduced today. On the other hand, well, this is their big, core, motivating agenda for 2018, and so far we’ve seen nothing that could even fall under the broad umbrella of “social justice”. On the other other hand, they have more policies yet to reveal, and they can’t have seriously thought the drug-prices thing would be a big, appealing opening salvo, so they must have something else good that they’re working on, right?

On the other other other hand, we’re talking about the Democrats here. Even if they don’t make any catastrophic mistakes, A Better Deal isn’t earth-shakingly progressive or anything. They may simply not want to rock the boat too much.

Speaking of Democrats and mistakes…

The Messaging Is Already A Tiny Bit Ragged

Reading through Schumer’s op-ed and the info on the Democrats’ website, there’s a slight, niggling lack of polish. Part of it is that, of the three major policy goals linked on the Better Deal overview page, two, on lowering drug prices and breaking monopolies, are just white papers: plain, unvarnished wall-of-text PDFs full of specific policy details. The third, raising incomes, is a nicely formatted webpage with colorful photos and a whole lot less information. It does link to other PDFs with more specifics, but again, you’d think a major announcement like this would warrant that bit more aesthetic polish. Why not have a splash page for each of the three policy goals that lists them in 500 words or less, but links to full white papers with specifics? Or why not just have each link on the overview page link directly to the white papers?

On a more substantial note, Schumer’s op-ed includes this line:

Right now millions of unemployed or underemployed people, particularly those without a college degree, could be brought back into the labor force or retrained to secure full-time, higher-paying work. We propose giving employers, particularly small businesses, a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs. This will have particular resonance in smaller cities and rural areas, which have experienced an exodus of young people who aren’t trained for the jobs in those areas.

Nothing on the Democrats’ website says anything about this tax credit. Even if it did, it’s strange that Schumer chose to include this point in his op-ed, which will surely attract far more eyeballs than the more detailed proposals on the website. In fact, all three policies he highlights suffer from this problem: they lack immediacy. They may well benefit average Americans, but they do so through degrees of separation. This tax credit, for instance, goes to small business owners, who then train average Americans for jobs they couldn’t previously do. The Democrats are going to tackle and break up huge corporations, which will increase competition, which will lower prices for goods and services, which means Americans will enjoy a lower cost of living. Compare that level of abstraction to “we’ll double your minimum wage”. These proposals may well work as intended—but alongside the introduction of a Bold New Platform, you’d think the Democrats would have gone for punchier examples.

All That Said

While I’ve spent most of this Hot Take™ chewing out A Better Deal, I do think it’s a step in the right direction. Every Democrat running for Congress in 2018 can point to this set set of clearly delineated, by-and-large appealing (albeit underwhelming) policies, and reinforce how better they are than the policies their Republican opponent has supported. Other policies set to join the platform—the Democrats’ website mentions nationwide high-speed internet, affordable childcare, and pension/retirement security as upcoming planks—should flesh out the platform, and maybe make it a little bolder.

The real question is whether it will go far enough, and that’s where the branding might bite the Democrats in the ass. After all, pretty much anything would be “A Better Deal” than what Republicans in Congress are offering up. That’s not much incentive to vote for something milquetoast. But hey. Nothing brings people to the polls like cheaper drug prices!

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