Democratic gubernatorial candidates should go back to the future

Jeff Cox sees one gubernatorial contender best positioned to help Democrats become the majority party again. Bleeding Heartland welcomes guest posts advocating for candidates in competitive Democratic primaries. Please read these guidelines before writing. -promoted by desmoinesdem

There is only one word to use when surveying the damage the Republicans are doing to Iowa and America: depressing. We need to keep our eye on the ball, though, and avoid being diverted into competitive name-calling with Republicans. We need to elect Democrats until we regain a majority at every level of government. In the present crisis, any Democratic victory is a win, no matter how awful the Democrat.

In addition to issuing an “all hands on deck” call to elect Democrats, we should also have a discussion about how we got into this mess of being a minority party at every level of government. We could do worse than look back to a period of history when Democrats were the natural party of government, the half century beginning in 1932.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected by promising a New Deal for the American people, he brought to an end a half-century of Republican majority rule. Republican political dominance had been based not merely on money or organization or their dominance in the media. It was based on their ideas, which corresponded with what most people regarded as “common sense”: balanced budgets for families and governments alike; what’s good for General Motors is good for the country; if you work hard and avoid spending your money on booze, women and movies you won’t be poor and you might get rich; the appropriate response to poverty is charity; government can do nothing much about a depression except wait for a natural recovery.

Roosevelt challenged “common sense” with a series of legislative initiatives that violated that common sense in almost every way. He created federal entitlements available to all Americans regardless of income, e.g. Social Security. (An entitlement is a program that is not means-tested, i.e. you don’t have to prove you are needy to draw the benefit.) He also put government resources directly into the hands of working people, and the power of the federal government squarely behind working people with the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

Republicans were furious, and remained furious for fifty years, because Roosevelt and the Democrats had transgressed the boundaries of the old common sense and Democrats were winning elections anyway. When the electoral pendulum swung back to the Republicans in the 1950s, they scaled back on the New Deal achievements but failed to repeal a single one of them. The New Deal became the new common sense. Government was the solution, not the problem, and tax money should be used to benefit working people, not big corporations.

In the 1950s and 1960s conservatives were forging an intellectual counter-attack on New Deal socialism, reading thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the novelist Ayn Rand, a favorite of both Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan. When the Democratic Party fell apart in the 1970s over issues of war, race, and runaway inflation, Republican conservatives seized the opportunity in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Republicans won elections for another 40 years by turning the old Democratic Party common sense on its head. The depression of the 1970s/80s they claimed was caused by government and the welfare state. The solution was to starve the beast by shrinking government. They went to war with the New Deal, and they are still at it.

Just as Republicans had been traumatized by the ascendancy of New Deal ideas, Democrats were traumatized by the Republican revival. Convinced that there was something wrong with the New Deal, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama embraced the ideas known as neo-liberalism, i.e. pro-corporate and pro-free trade policies based on the view that the corporate economy can be micro-managed from above by technocrats, and that government entitlements should be replaced by means-tested programs targeted to those who truly need them

Neither Clinton nor Obama was capable of establishing a new neo-liberal common sense. When Clinton came into office, Democrats appeared set to regain majority status. When he left office, the Republicans once again controlled every level of government. History repeated itself with Obama who came into office with Democratic majorities in the midst of a depression. His policies were a kind of neo-liberal Anti-New Deal: bailing out big banks with direct government subsidies; a home foreclosure program that bailed out mortgage lenders; pay freezes and layoffs for public employees; a minimum wage capped at $7.25; trade deals that further depressed wages and undermined unions.

Finally, Obama crafted a health insurance program that, unlike the New-Deal based Medicare, was based on the principle of means-testing rather than entitlement, dividing Americans against each other based on income levels rather than bringing them together under a universal program. By the 2016 elections, Democrats were left defending a robust recovery characterized by low wages, long hours, bad working conditions, extreme job insecurity, widespread health care insecurity, and lack of economic opportunity for young people burdened with student debt. Bruce Braley’s attempt to hold on to Tom Harkin’s Senate seat by defending Obamacare put Joni Ernst in office The attempt to create a new neo-liberal Democratic common sense failed at the polls.

The surprise of the 2016 Presidential election was the unanticipated resurrection of the New Deal. FDR rose from the grave in the unlikely person of Bernie Sanders running as a Democrat. He launched a campaign based on a New Deal approach to the Depression of 2008: a one trillion dollar green jobs program; free tuition at all public colleges and universities, a universal entitlement to health insurance (Medicare for all); a $15 an hour national minimum wage with no exceptions. He addressed the widespread anxiety about campaign finance reform by refusing corporate campaign contributions (while accepting help from unions) and limiting individual contributions to $2700.

Sanders went on to attract more caucus attenders in Iowa than any other candidate, and carried primaries or caucuses in 22 states (including every congressional district in Minnesota, rural and urban, and every county in West Virginia), garnering 45% of the elected delegates. Clinton narrowly won the nomination fair and square in my opinion, in part because Sanders was challenging the entrenched “common sense” of the Ayn Rand/Paul Ryan Republicans, and the neo-liberal consensus among leaders of the Democratic Party, who had succeeded in lowering the expectations of Democratic voters about what is possible. Despite that, Bernie Sanders remains far and away the most popular political leader in America, and has changed the debate inside the Democratic Party in fundamental ways back to the New Deal.

This brings us to the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. The consensus among most of the candidates appears to be: turn the clock back by undoing the damage the Republicans have done, restore collective bargaining rights, restore minimum wage increases, fund public education fully at all levels, put more money into health care, especially mental health funding, de-privatize Medicaid, and fund Planned Parenthood.

This is an admirable agenda, but it is also a “business as usual” agenda in which Democrats propose to return to the status quo before the Republican take-over in Iowa, to the very status quo that produced Republican landslides. But how does this agenda address the crisis of campaign finance, the staggering load of student debt faced by Iowa students, and the lack of educational and job retraining opportunity for working class, small town, and rural Iowans?

There is only one candidate who stands out from the business-as-usual crowd in this race, and that is Cathy Glasson. Glasson is the only candidate willing to be an advocate a modest but absolutely essential reform: eliminating tuition at our community colleges. This will provide educational opportunity and a ladder to a higher degree for high school graduates, not to mention urgently needed job re-training opportunities for workers made ‘redundant’ in our brutal, NAFTA ridden capitalist economy. She also proposes freezing tuition at our three Regents universities, the only practical way to deal with the student debt crisis.

Campaign finance? Like Sanders, Glasson refuses to accept corporate PAC contributions. She is funding her campaign mostly from small contributions by members of her union. The business-as-usual candidates appear to be thumbing their noses at an Iowa public convinced that the campaign finance system is corrupt by bragging about their superior ability to raise money, or funding their campaigns with contributions from the oligarchs of the Des Moines business elite.

Finally Glasson, a nurse, is the only candidate who understands that, while Medicaid can and must be improved, it can’t be fixed. A means-tested program, it can’t cover everyone who needs medical care and it can’t provide health care security, which is what Iowans need. Even a de-privatized Medicaid will have a big target on its back that says “welfare,” and will be chronically underfunded, leaving poor Iowans in perpetual uncertainty about their access to health care. The only way to fix Medicaid in Iowa is to fold it into a national Medicare for All program, which is on the way to becoming the new “common sense.” Democrats should get on board.

Republicans have made themselves unpopular in many ways, and Democrats will probably win back lost ground in 2018. Having won, though, can we keep an electoral majority? For that we will have win the war of ideas, and go back to the future, to the principles of the New Deal that have a proven record of working.

Jeff Cox

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in The Prairie Progressive, which appears quarterly in hard copy, printed in a union shop, delivered by unionized postal workers. For a year’s subscription, send $12 to The Prairie Progressive, Box 1945, Iowa City, IA 52245.

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