With 'Better Deal,' Democrats (temporarily) calm a restive left

Washington Post

The roll-out of congressional Democrats' 2018 messaging, the "Better Deal," was preceded by mockery and obscured by breaking news.

It also seemed to work.

To the happy surprise of Democratic leaders, the economics-focused Better Deal earned positive reviews on the left, where the party is regularly accused of compromise or sellout. There was anti-trust language, and an apology for the party's neoliberal past. There was a reiteration that the party now backed a $15 minimum wage. There was a door swinging open to expanded or even universal Medicare.

Splinter, the newly renamed media company that absorbed Gawker Media last year, pronounced the agenda "modestly left-wing" and advised that it "contains some sensible, popular left-wing economic proposals - like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour - that Sen. Bernie Sanders fought for during his 2016 primary campaign. It's mostly pretty good."

In the Fiscal Times, author and economics writer David Dayen wrote that Democrats had "hit the target," by incorporating robust proposals for tacking in monopolies. "A shockingly large portion of the platform is dedicated to breaking corporate power, and in particular monopoly concentration," Dayen wrote. "It's a credit to the emerging New Brandeis movement that these ideas have been embraced at the highest levels of a political party."

In the broader activist community, there was more arched-eyebrow praise. AllOfUs, a group started by veterans of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign who wanted to challenge "corporate Democrats," issued a statement praising the plan but demanding Democrats explain "how race and identity fit in."

"By understanding that the root of the problem is concentrated money and power, the starting point is correct," said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. "That lets us end at expanding Medicare for everyone or healthcare as a right. As a starting point this is in stark contrast with the Republicans who want to destroy Medicaid, raid Medicare and steal healthcare from millions so that a handful of Wall Street criminals can buy more boats."

One of the cheekier pans of the plan came from Vice, which pointed out instances of overlap between Hillary Clinton's 2016 platform and the new agenda. "The new agenda also echoes Clinton's promises to expand job re-training for displaced workers, provide paid sick and family leave, a renewed scrutiny on potential monopolies, and her late embrace of a $15 minimum wage," wrote Vice's Alex Thompson.

The similarities revealed one trick that Democrats had pulled in putting together the agenda. In interviews, including one Tuesday on CNN, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was quick to criticize the 2016 Democratic campaign for being "namby pamby" on economics, allowing Donald Trump to run away with traditional Democratic issues. But even before the Sanders primary challenge, Clinton ran a campaign that sided with labor and the left on most issues; after the Sanders challenge, Clinton had moved left on trade (opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and college tuition.

The Better Deal, which included nothing that the Democrats' most endangered incumbents fear running on - no environmental or social issues - seemed to slam the door on small-government ideas that had occasionally infiltrated the party. Six years after the Obama White House nearly signed off on a deal to curb entitlement spending, the Democratic agenda called for either maintaining or expanding existing programs. The crusade for Social Security privatization, which once had some Democratic allies, is now over in both parties.

There was one problem the Better Deal could not solve: the attention problem. On Monday, despite a long ramp-up and a flurry of op-eds about the new message, the Better Deal got only a little more TV time than the average minority party announcement. For most of Monday, cable news chewed over Jared Kushner's testimony to senators probing possible Russian meddling in the election; for somewhat less time, it covered the progression of a GOP health care bill that kept rising from the dead.

Schumer's CNN interview mostly focused on problems from the 2016 campaign; the final question dealt with whether the saga of British baby Charlie Gard was a warning of what single-payer would look like in America. In a morning hit with with Fox News, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., was ribbed for "starting to sound like Bernie Sanders," and needled for the "better" frame's resemblance to the Papa John's slogan "better ingredients, better pizza."

"Papa John's doesn't have an economic agenda," said Cicilline.

The piece didn't last. A few hours after the big Better Deal rollout, AllOfUs announced that it would help launch an alternative - a People's Platform - that had been discussed in progressive circles for months.

"A Better Deal is a step toward progressive populism, but not enough," wrote AllOfUs spokesman Waleed Shahid. "Democrats should embrace the #PeoplesPlatform and take advantage of their historic opportunity to create a nation where all Americans have the things we need to thrive: a decent job, an education, health care, safety and a livable planet."

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