Opposition as Opportunity

At this writing, there is a chance that the courts may yet order a Florida rerun, but the next president is likely to be George W. Bush. Where does this leave progressives? The task of a political opposition is to prevent damage in the short run and rebuild for the long term--and this could be a more propitious moment than it seems.

For starters, Bush's win would be the shallowest mandate in more than a century. Gore's issues did a lot better than Gore did. Conservative themes, such as tax cutting, limits on reproductive choice, the privatization of Social Security, and the voucherization of Medicare, simply did not resonate with voters. Instead of being angry at government, the public was dismayed by the assaults of the market. Voters plainly agreed with progressive Democrats on most policy questions, and Democrats in Congress are now freed from the crosscurrents of Clintonism to be a more progressive party.

So the challenge for progressives and Democrats is to resist the temptation to split the difference with Bush on small, tactical matters, and to think big. This is complicated by the fact that some in the Democratic Party, especially the New Democrats, are halfway into the Republican tank. Some may wish to share credit for a slightly less awful but still essentially Republican tax cut, or for a basically Republican voucher plan for Medicare, Social Security, or education. All of this would continue to push the political center of gravity to the right and would collapse rather than clarify differences.

On the Republican side, there are also potentially disabling crosscurrents. Bush advertised himself as a bipartisan conciliator. But Republicans, especially in the House, are loaded for bear. Despite a small swing to the Democrats and a wafer-thin majority, most Republican congressmen feel cheated of their impeachment victory and will use this period of undivided government to pursue maximal goals. Democrats who try to achieve legislative compromises in this climate are less conciliators than suckers.

An opposition's task is to rally popular and electoral support based on a coherent story of how society works. This is what Republicans did so successfully in the 16 short years between the Barry Goldwater wipeout and the Ronald Reagan blowout; and what Republicans in Congress did in 1993 and 1994 when they resolved to deny Bill Clinton any legislative victories save NAFTA, even on bills that they found substantively tempting. It is what Democratic senators and congressmen did both in the 1958-1960 period, when they put into public debate issues such as Medicare, federal aid to education, and civil rights, setting the stage for John Kennedy's win, and during the presidency of Bush the elder, when liberals advanced minimum wage, tax equity, family leave, and health reform.

Having taken office without a mandate after an obfuscatory campaign, George W. Bush will be in no position to mount a Reagan-style revolution unless faithless Democrats collude with him. Rather, Democrats should put onto the national stage issues that have been at best muted during the Clinton era, issues that can rally a liberal resurgence in 2002 and 2004. Opposition allows you to think boldly, if you dare.

The Meta Issue

The overarching division between Republicans and Democrats over the past century involves the relative role of polity and marketplace in building a good society. The view that an efficient economy and a just society require active government and politics as well as a vigorous market was ascendant during the 35 years that spanned Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but its proponents have been on the defensive for the past quarter-century. Recent events, however, create new openings. Ordinary people are sick of employers who treat employees as expendable cogs. The boom of the 1990s disguised people's vulnerability, but concern will revive as soon as the economy slows. Parents are exhausted by the work-family straddle. Doctors and patients alike are fed up with managed care. Consumers are increasingly frustrated with price gouging and the decay of service in every service industry from airlines to banking to phone companies to public utilities (all of which just happen to have lately been deregulated). Blue-collar workers are angry about being underpriced by cheap foreign labor.

All of these frustrations reflect the uglier tendencies of a newly liberated free market. All of them will require public remediation. And in every case, the conservative story offers no remedy.

How to translate these vague public feelings into a majority politics? Here are a few good places to start.

Health Care Reform

Ever since the failure of Bill Clinton's managed-competition initiative, Democrats have been denied an issue with the potential to energize activists and rally large numbers of voters. The popularity during this fall's campaign of such partial reforms as patients' rights legislation and prescription drug benefits under Medicare reflects a broader disillusion. The current system is based on privately run managed care plans and on health insurance as a fringe benefit (or not) of employment. The groups that suffer most from the present system are those essential to the Democratic base: the working poor, who are often uninsured; the elderly, half of whom have no prescription drug coverage whatsoever; and the anxious middle class.

Managed care is a proven failure. It has neither contained costs nor produced reliable access to health care. Doctors and patients detest it. Medicare, by contrast, the one oasis of universal coverage, remains justifiably popular despite its limitations.

Universal coverage should be the centerpiece of a progressive resurgence. And it should build on the existing Medicare program. But it is both politically and administratively improbable to think that a single-payer program could be enacted in one fell swoop. The best form of incrementalism, one that would inexorably lead to complete universal coverage within a decade, would be the extension of Medicare to everyone over age 55 and to all children under 18. The first group is at risk of losing insurance and finds coverage astronomically expensive to buy on the open market. The second group is extremely cheap to insure.

Universal coverage for kids under Medicare is vastly superior to the current patchwork mess of employer coverage, charity coverage, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Millions of children fall through the cracks. Establishing eligibility is a wasteful paper chase that deters people from enrolling. When children change health plans, they often change doctors. The system loses track of kids moving in and out of insurance. It undervalues a public-health approach to children, a group for whom prevention is most of the ball game. Vice President Gore vowed that no child should go without insurance, beginning in 2004. But because he proposed filling in the cracks via expansions of CHIP, his approach would not solve the problems of fragmentation, overlap, and eligibility.

With universal Medicare for kids, there would be no need for heroic efforts to determine eligibility and enroll children one at a time, and no bureaucratic maze. Poor children wouldn't lose health coverage as their parents went on and off and on and off public assistance. Every child would simply be issued a Medicare-Social Security card at birth. Universal, seamless coverage for kids would also create a politics that led to universal coverage for everyone. If Congress had not acted to ensure that the same Medicare card provided adult health insurance as children turned 18, there would be a rolling political uproar, to the disadvantage of conservatives.

Health care is a great issue for progressives as a heuristic--something that teaches a broader lesson. In this case, the lesson is that the market doesn't work in one large and intimate area of American life. It is the ideal place to begin a rollback of the Reagan revolution and to rebuild faith in collective purpose and public remedy. Fragmentary approaches fail that test.

It is no accident that the best-loved and best-defended social programs are the large, universal ones--Social Security and Medicare. They do what the private market cannot do: guarantee income security in old age and health coverage to a population--old folks--that market forces deem uninsurable. So popular are these programs of social entitlement that Republicans try to make voters forget that they strenuously opposed both. But these programs are limited to the elderly. They create a destructive politics of old versus young and endless media blather about the welfare state being too generous to the aged. If progressives are to build serious political capital with younger voters, they need to extend social insurance to the working-age population.

In the closing days of the campaign, Gore pounced on Bush's astonishing statement that people don't want Social Security to be run by the federal government. But Gore himself sent politically damaging mixed signals on whether progressive remedy requires government. He proposed lots of little government programs, but he seemed to be ambivalent about government itself.

Breaks for Working Families

Clinton's famous 1992 campaign manifesto, "Putting People First," had the right message and the right politics: Middle- and working-class people who play by the rules deserve more back from society. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration made only the barest progress toward delivering on that promise. Even if the Republicans succeed in wiping out all tax burdens, working families will still be stuck juggling work and family, worried about employment security and deteriorating health coverage.

We need an ideology and program to honor working families in more than token ways. One big theme is that of making work pay. This magazine devoted a special issue [June 19-July 3, 2000] to that subject. The welfare reform law--Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)--comes up for reauthorization in 2002. The challenge is to turn TANF from a lever to pry people off the welfare rolls into a support that rewards work. A few states, such as Washington and Vermont, already use it to that end by spending some of their surplus on community-college tuition, training, wage supplements, and child care. Most states do not. The new federal legislation should mandate a program directed at raising the skills and incomes of all of the working poor, not just former welfare recipients. In addition, a modest increase in the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit would be sufficient to lift out of poverty everyone who works full-time. We should reward work to end poverty as we know it.

A closely related issue is decent child care and early childhood education. To the extent that many working women who leave welfare fail to raise their living standards or fall out of the labor market, a grossly inadequate child care system is to blame. A hundred years ago, the kindergarten movement persuaded legislators in most states that five-year-olds should be in school and their teachers should have the same degree of professionalism as other schoolteachers. Today, we need not just custodial child care but early enrichment for all three- and four-year-olds, financed socially. Paid family leave is also part of this cluster of issues. One variant: Families could tap their unemployment insurance entitlement to pay for leaves from work to take care of a new baby or a sick relative.

Regulation of contingent work is another workplace issue that the Prospect has previously addressed [see Hans Riemer and Helene Jorgensen, "Permatemps," TAP, August 14, 2000]. Temporary and part-time employees deserve rights and benefits commensurate with those of full-time workers--and in the new economy, such workers are here to stay. But these employees should not be subjected to substandard wages, rights, benefits, and working conditions.

All of these issues connect the poor with the broad working middle class. The labor movement, as the engine of progressive politics, is the natural advocate of the theme of rewarding work.

The Crisis of Caring Work

As the nation shifts to a service economy, one category of service work is being relentlessly downgraded: caring for other people. Yet as the population ages, demand for well-qualified care workers is expanding more than ever. There is now a shortage of qualified registered nurses, nursing-home workers, day care workers, hospice workers, home health aides, people who deal with substance abuse, and workers in community residence programs that serve the retarded, the mentally ill, and the homeless. [See Deborah Stone, "Care and Trembling," TAP, March-April 1999.]

Every one of these service occupations suffers from inadequate pay, high turnover, and relentless speedup that debases the act of caring. America is obsessed with productivity, but when applied to caring work the concept becomes absurd. A home care worker who sees 10 patients an hour rather than five is less productive, not more, when the job is to protect and comfort the sick.

By definition, the wages of caring workers need to be set and financed socially, because most of the demand is social rather than private. It is as a society that we decide nursing-home workers and child care workers are to be paid only six dollars an hour. Not surprisingly, we reap low-quality, high-turnover workers caring for our loved ones. As a society we need to decide that these jobs should be professionalized. There is a potential political alliance between low-paid service workers and the middle-class consumers who use the services, with a central role played by unions.

Another issue is the need to build social capital. One of the most interesting recent initiatives is the movement advocating asset creation for the nonwealthy. [See Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, "$80,000 and a Dream," TAP, July 17, 2000.] Among the boldest and least appreciated planks of the Gore platform was his proposal to have government match savings set aside by working families, with a match formula as generous as three to one. These nest eggs could be used as supplemental retirement savings, but also to finance tuition or first-time home ownership. This proposal began as Gore's response to Bush's Social Security privatization plan. The vice president called for Social Security-plus rather than Social Security-minus. But in doing so, he backed into a much bolder initiative--one that could lead to government subsidizing wealth building generally. All that's missing from the Gore plan is a refundable tax credit, so that families too poor to put aside much in savings could still benefit. The plan, like extension of Medicare to younger people, also has the virtue of expanding social insurance to working-age people, so that they get back more from government.

Note that the foregoing issues have three things in common: They represent an area where the market falls short; they have the potential to build coalitions; and ... they cost money.

The Politics of Parsimony

To finance programs that reconnect ordinary voters to valued uses of social remedy, progressives need to challenge the conventional wisdom that the best use of the budget surplus is to pay off the national debt. This premise is dubious economics and disabling politics. During the post-World War II boom, the low point of the debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) was 24 percent (in 1974). The economy did just fine with much higher levels of debt. The trick was that the postwar economy grew faster than the debt did, so the debt ratio was stable or declining. Instead of paying off the debt, suppose we set a long-term target of a debt-to-GDP ratio of 25 percent. That will leave private-capital markets with plenty of money for the business sector to invest. But it also will allow at least $200 billion a year of additional public outlay without broad-based tax increases. (The surplus is projected at $300 billion to $400 billion a year for the next decade. We could pay down debt by more than $100 billion every year and still increase public outlay by more than $200 billion yearly. Even if the federal budget ran modest deficits of, say, 1 or 2 percent of GDP, as it did during the postwar boom, the ratio of debt to GDP would still decline.)

Unfortunately, nearly the entire Democratic Party, including some contributors to this magazine, has been won over to what might be called the Brookings view of debt reduction. In this view, what the economy needs most is more private capital. A huge surplus, moreover, is also a huge temptation for a Republican tax cut. By paying off debt, and by giving the Social Security accounts a credit for future borrowing, the Brookings-Gore camp imagines it has scored a trifecta: Private financial markets get more capital, thereby increasing growth rates; Social Security is saved; and money that Republicans want for a tax cut gets safely stashed in Gore's god-awful "lockbox." But this feint is crippling to progressive purposes. It accepts a discredited, conservative theory of economic growth. (Financial markets are not currently starved for capital by government borrowing; it's not a capital shortage that's constraining growth, but the Federal Reserve.) And the same lockbox--Gore-speak for debt paydown--that seemingly protects against a Republican tax cut also precludes the kind of Democratic public outlay that might revive a spending coalition. The debate about public investment versus debt paydown versus private tax cutting must be waged and won on its own terms, without recourse to fiscal accounting gimmicks. We really need a three-way debate: debt paydown versus tax cutting versus social investment. Gore's lockbox has locked out the most progressive and politically energizing of those options.

Of course, progressives have plenty of other issues to embrace--everything from revisiting regulation of monopolistic industries and protecting the rights of immigrants and minorities to reversing draconian policies on drugs and criminal justice. They need to halt the voucher movement in its tracks, and to improve the dynamism and accountability of public systems. And progressives also need to play defense and protect hard-won gains in such areas as reproductive rights and environmental protections.

That said, I emphasize a smaller subset of key issues--those with the potential to rebuild broad coalitions around the core premise that markets have limits and government has a necessary role in helping ordinary people. For a century, this has been the winning recipe for progressive majorities and for social uplift. Moreover, only when progressives have broad credibility on this big proposition is there enough running room to make progress with cultural conservatives on less popular social issues, like tolerance.

Let me mention two other issues that should be part of a progressive program but perhaps not at the center of it. One is a set of ground rules for the global economy. The other is campaign finance reform. Why not make these central? Certainly a laissez-faire global system makes it harder to operate a mixed economy at home. Once in power, progressives should work to bring labor and environmental standards to trade negotiations, to damp down speculative forces in global finance, and to recast the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as champions of mixed economies in developing countries. But except as raw nativism, this is not as good an organizing issue as it seems. Its details are numbingly complex. Progressives need to do more homework on the ideal architecture of a global economic system that both lifts the living standards of poor nations and reinforces social protections at home.

What about campaign finance reform? For more than a decade, many of us have placed containment of big money at the very center of a reform agenda. Clean-money initiatives at the state level are well worth supporting. But at the federal level, the risk is that a bill like McCain-Feingold could pass and not very much substantively would change. Given the First Amendment, enormous quantities of special-interest money would still influence politics, via issue advocacy and disguised candidate support. Another risk is that a compromise "reform" (backed by union-baiting New Democrats) would cripple labor's political action. The antidote to big money is the organizing of ordinary people around issues that matter to them.

Doing Class Warfare Right

Al Gore was accused of waging class warfare, but except at a few moments, such as his attack on the distributive effects of Bush's tax plan, he was too much of a New Democrat to wage it properly. Republicans certainly know how to do class warfare. The class warfare of the mid-1990s put everybody who earns a paycheck on one side and welfare mothers on the other. It worked all too well. Progressives should identify exactly what would be sacrificed if certain tax cuts go through. For instance, not repealing the estate tax for 30,000 multimillionaires equals providing prescription drug benefits for 30 million seniors. Bush's across-the-board tax cut would remove a trillion dollars in public revenues that could be used to provide health coverage and high-quality child care for all children. When progressive leadership clearly juxtaposes the interests of the many and those of the few, progressives usually win.

In the late 1970s, when supply-side theory first came into prominence, the economy was mired in slow growth. The right could argue that taxes for the wealthy needed to be cut in order to increase the rewards of saving and investment and, hence, to stimulate growth. This theory has been thoroughly discredited. The economy has been growing at unimagined rates, even though Bill Clinton succeeded in raising taxes on the top brackets back to nearly 40 percent in his 1993 budget. In fact, the Fed won't let the economy grow any faster for fear that labor shortages will spike inflation. So the always dubious but superficially plausible supply-side rationale for tax cuts is gone. Bush wants a tax cut for only two reasons: out of an ideological commitment to smaller social outlay, and to reward his allies. The result will be an even more unequal distribution of both income and opportunity.

We need to counter that ideology directly, not by insisting that, actually, New Democrats don't much like government either. Gore gave a feeble defense of public remedy. When Bush charged that Gore wanted to increase public spending by more than previous Democrats combined, Gore crowed that the otherwise unmentionable Cl-nt-n administration had actually reduced government. Talk about a mixed message! Far better to declare: You bet we want to increase public outlay--not because we hope to hire more pencil pushers, but to finance things that the vast majority of Americans want and that markets don't give them.

The idea that Gore lost because he moved too far to the left makes sense only in rarefied media precincts where a $100,000 income is chump change. The only good thing about this kind of a loss is that it frees progressives to think boldly and ends an era of partisan cohabitation in which blame was hard to distinguish from credit and leadership was seen as splitting differences. ¤

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