Elections

Democrats Need More than an Anti-Trump Platform

President Trump speaks at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., September 22, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
The same stale ideas in a new package might be enough to win in this year’s midterms, but they won’t be enough forever.

One of the Right’s most common, and best, arguments for the Trump presidency is that it shattered the Republican party’s calcified agenda. Invested in a coalition of various interests and beholden to a pervasive and outdated Reagan nostalgia, the GOP desperately needed new rhetoric and a new approach. For good or ill, President Trump provided both.

The Democrats’ effort to come up with a program, separate from anti-Trumpism, suggests they’re in desperate need of some disruption as well.

Say what you will about Reagan nostalgia, it’s at least fresher than FDR nostalgia, which has largely defined the Democratic party for the better part of a century. When Democrats look for a policy vision, their framework is the New Deal.

Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and LBJ’s Great Society were both continuations of the New Deal.

After the 9/11 attacks, New York senator Charles Schumer wrote in the Washington Post that the attacks proved that “the era of a shrinking federal government has come to a close.” This new challenge proved we needed a “new New Deal.”

Even the New Deal’s biggest competitor, John F. Kennedy nostalgia, has always been about aesthetics and atmospherics. Kennedy’s own policy agenda never broke with the New Deal paradigm.

Barack Obama, who had a Kennedy-esque cult of personality, was nonetheless expected by liberals to be a new FDR, which is why Time magazine ran a picture of a photoshopped Obama as Roosevelt on its cover after the 2008 election. When Obama rolled out his sweeping policy vision, a “New Foundation,” it was a New Deal rehash.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, 78, is a child of the New Deal. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a passionate New Dealer in Congress, named one of his sons Franklin D. Roosevelt D’Alesandro. The New Deal remains Pelosi’s North Star, which may be why she accidentally referred to their new program as “the New Deal.”

Now the Democrats have their “Better Deal” agenda, yet another New Deal retread. The Democrats even admit it. Pelosi insisted that the Better Deal is not “a course correction.” It is “a presentation correction.” Schumer says it was chosen in part for “its relation to both the New Deal and a better deal than Trump.”

It’s remarkable how Democrats call GOP ideas tired and outdated yet keep returning to a well that was dug four years after the invention of sliced bread. At the rollout of a Better Deal, Pelosi said it is “founded on strong values that we share. Strong values fueled by fresh ideas.”

On Fox News Sunday, anchor Chris Wallace asked House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Crowley to “give me one fresh idea that Democrats are offering voters for November.”

The FDR coalition is a relic. The coalition the Democrats want is shot through with divisions. The Better Deal gives Democratic pols something to talk about that won’t rile one faction or another.

Crowley’s confident response: A new infrastructure plan! But one that, unlike Trump’s plan, the feds would pick up more of the tab for. Can’t you smell the freshness?

Ironically, the New Deal was never a coherent program. It was a mixed and entirely ad hoc, dirigiste response to an economic crisis. “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of the New Deal, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”

There are many reasons the Democrats remain a cargo cult to the New Deal, but the most important one for this moment is that the approach unifies not Democratic voters but Democratic politicians. The FDR coalition is a relic. The coalition the Democrats want is shot through with divisions. The Better Deal gives Democratic pols something to talk about that won’t rile one faction or another.

That may be good enough to win the 2018 midterm elections, because all they really need is some boilerplate to rely on as they ride an anti-Trump wave. But the time will come when it won’t be enough. The disruption is coming. They can help shape it, or they await a destroyer not of their own choosing.

© 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Most Popular

White House

More Evidence the Guardrails Are Gone

At the end of last month, just as the news of the Ukraine scandal started dominating the news cycle, I argued that we're seeing evidence that the guardrails that staff had placed around Donald Trump's worst instincts were in the process of breaking down. When Trump's staff was at its best, it was possible to draw ... Read More
World

Is America Becoming Sinicized?

A little over 40 years ago, Chinese Communist strongman and reformer Deng Xiaoping began 15 years of sweeping economic reforms. They were designed to end the disastrous, even murderous planned economy of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. The results of Deng’s revolution astonished the world. In four decades, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

O’Rourke’s America

With apologies to Margaret Atwood and a thousand other dystopian novelists, we do not have to theorize about what an American police state would look like, because we know what it looks like: the airport, that familiar totalitarian environment where Americans are disarmed, stripped of their privacy, divested of ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More