Heading into pivotal midterm elections this fall, Republicans and Democrats are both in turmoil over their value propositions to voters. Republicans may not be able to run on their record and Democrats are still searching for a platform with political traction.
Congressional Republicans planned to campaign based on a popular tax cut. However, the GOP tax cut faces sinking support, including in so-called Trump country as evidenced by a recent special House election in Pennsylvania that a Democrat captured.
Now congressional Republicans have an immigration mess on their hands. Already deeply divided, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border has apparently deepened the divide. House GOP leadership canceled plans last week to vote on a pair of immigration measures until after the November midterm election.
GOP congressmen face another political problem – backlash from their base if they criticize President Trump, as conservative voters seem bent on asserting at the ballot box that it is now the Trump Party, not a big-tent Republican Party.
Democrats aren’t any better off. They have a smoldering debate among progressives and centrists. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been demonized and molded into a rallying cry for conservatives. Trump has pummeled Democrats as obstructionists. There is confusion about whether to attack or ignore Trump and what themes will work in the midterm elections to flip control of the House and not lose ground in the Senate where the GOP holds a slim 51-49 margin.
In steps Jake Sullivan, who has been a senior adviser to President Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, with a keen read on where Democrats stand with voters and how they could earn their way back into power.
Sullivan argues in an essay published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas that Democrats should realize public opinion is more conservative than liberals might hope on deeply divisive issues such as abortion, guns, immigration and race. Political pay dirt for Democrats, Sullivan says, lies in left-of-center economic issues such as taxation, health care, minimum wage and education funding.
“Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess,” Sullivan writes. “There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before — and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality.”
In the face of political maps showing a lot of red, Sullivan insists “There’s something profound happening in American politics right now. A tide is moving. The center of gravity is shifting. Democrats have a rare opportunity to set bold goals and meet them. By offering new ideas based on tried and true principles –taking the big, ambitious governing style that used to define our party and our politics and putting it to work to meet the challenges of our time – we can achieve growth and fairness, innovation and equality.”
He added, “Moments like this don’t come around that often in history. Democrats must seize this one.”
The four pillars of his advice to Democrats are:
- Recognize that present-day jobs are as or more valuable than future jobs, which demands rethinking the contemporary workplace to ensure health insurance coverage, fair wages, antic-discrimination and the right to unionize.
- Promote policies that reflect changing family structures with more two wage-earning parents, single mother-led households, college students moving back home and a ballooning older adult population that is living longer.
- Talk about workers in sectors beyond manufacturing in fields such as health care and the service economy and promote workplace, tax and educational policies that sustain the American Dream, while addressing serious issues like opioid addiction.
- Build alliances with 21st century entrepreneurial businesses to pursue tax, trade and antitrust policies in a globalized economy that keep America competitive and increase income security for US workers.
Republicans have a clearer litany of their policy views – lower taxes, fewer regulations, anti-abortion, free trade and conservative judges. However, like any party in power, the GOP has to defend what it has done – or not done – as well as it what it stands for.
Sullivan’s prescription for Democrats may be the clearest expression of what Democrats could wield to win the seats in Congress and state legislatures they need to gain back power they have gradually lost in the past decade as worker confidence has waned.