The Democratic Party’s “Centrist” Leaders Remain Clueless

By William K. Black

Cross-posted at New Economic Perspectives.

On December 10, 2016, a New York Times article entitled “Democrats Have a New Message: It’s the Economy First” that unintentionally revealed that the Party’s “centrist” leadership and the paper remain clueless about how to improve the economy and why the “centrist” leadership needs to end its long war against the working class.  This is how the paper explained the five “centrist” leaders’ framing of the problem.

It was a blunt, plain-spoken set of senators who gathered last Monday at the Washington home of Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, dining on Chinese food as they vented frustration about the missteps of the Democratic Party.

To this decidedly centrist group, the 2016 election was nothing short of a fiasco: final proof that its national party had grown indifferent to the rural, more conservative areas represented by Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana, who attended the dinner. All face difficult re-election races in 2018.

This non-centrist group was a gathering of five New Democrats.  President Obama self-identified himself as a New Democrat.  The Clintons and Al Gore are leaders of the New Democrats.  The leadership of the Democratic National Committee was, and remains, New Democrats.  On economic issues such as austerity, jobs, and full employment, the New Democrats are far more extreme than the (stated) views of Donald Trump.  The New Democrats are infamous for their close ties with Wall Street.  This means that the paper’s description of the Chinese nosh is as clueless as the five New Democrats kvetching about policy “missteps” that they championed for decades.  Of course, neither the paper nor the non-centrists mentioned that critical fact.  The blindness of the non-centrists to the fact that it is their policies that launched the long war by the New Democrats against the working class is matched by the blindness of the paper.

The kvetching may have been “blunt,” but it was also dishonest.  The five New Democrats know that they will likely be replaced in the 2018 elections by Republicans who share the New Democrats’ anti-working class dogmas.  What was really going on was an extended cry of pain about the five senators’ fear of losing their jobs.

Note that the paper never tells you what the five New Democrats so bluntly identified as the New Democrats’ “missteps” or what new policies they believed needed to be adopted by the Party.   This failure is particularly bizarre because the paper says that its reportage is based on sources that the paper agreed to keep anonymous so that they could speak frankly about this meeting over Chinese food.  That combination of supposed frankness from the sources gained by the grant of anonymity so them could describe in detail the purported bluntness by the gang of five should have produced some epic, specific condemnations of the Democratic Party’s leadership by the New Democrats.  Instead, it produced mush.  Focusing on the “economy” is the right general idea for any political party, but it is so general a word that it is close to meaningless without identifying the specific policy changes that the five New Democrats now support and oppose.  The mushy reportage provides a thin gruel to the reader.

Most of all, they lamented, Democrats had simply failed to offer a clarion message about the economy with appeal to all 50 states.

“Why did the working people, who have always been our base, turn away?” Mr. Manchin said in an interview, recounting the tenor of the dinner conversation.

And the “clarion message about the economy” that they proposed that the Democratic Party make was?  You would have thought that little detail would (a) be critical to the article and (b) would be something that the five New Democrats would have been eager to publicize without any need for anonymity.  Conversely, if even after the disastrous election, from their perspective, the five New Democrats could not compose that “clarion” call, then the real problem is that the New Democrats’ economic dogmas prevent them from supporting such a “clarion” pro-worker policy.

The second sentence of the quotation is equally embarrassing to the New Democrats.  It purportedly recounts “the tenor of the dinner conversation.”  The first obvious question is – how did each of these five New Democrats answer that that question?  That is what the readers would want to know.  Even with the grants of anonymity to multiple sources the paper inexplicably presents only the vaguest hints as to the five senators’ explanation for why the New Democrats waged their long war on the working class.

Notice also the unintentional humor of the five New Democrats finally asking themselves this existential question in 2016 – after the election.  The New Democrats began their long war on the working class over 30 years ago.  Tom Frank published his famous (initial) book warning that the New Democrats’ war on the working class would prove disastrous in 2004.  The five New Democrats are shocked, shocked that the working class, after 30 years of being abused by the New Democrats’ anti-worker policies and after being vilified for decades by the New Democrats, overwhelmingly voted against the Nation’s most prominent New Democrat, Hillary Clinton.  None of the five New Democrats appears to have a clue, even after the 2016 election, why this happened.

The article and the five New Democrats fail to discuss the anti-working class policies that they have championed for decades.  Job security is the paramount issue that drives voting by many members of the working class.  The New Democrats and the Old Republicans share a devotion to the two greatest threats to working class job security – austerity and the faux free trade deals.  This makes it ironic that the paper sought out the Party faction leaders who have been so wrong for so long as supposedly being the unique source of providing the right answers now.  If the five New Democrats had engaged in introspection and were prepared to discuss their disastrous, repeated policy failures that would have been valuable, but the New Democrats admit to making zero errors in the article.

The paper’s understanding of economics and jobs is so poor that it wrote this clunker.

But even liberals believe Democrats must work harder to compete for voters who lean to the right, if only to shave a few points off the Republican Party’s margin of victory in rural America. In some cases, they said, that may mean embracing candidates who hold wildly different views from the national party on certain core priorities.

First, the phrase and the implicit logic in the use of the phrase “even liberals” reverses reality.  It is progressives who have consistently called for the Democratic Party to return to its role as a party that champions working people.

Second, the issue is generally not who “leans to the right.”  Indeed, the 2016 election should have made clear to the paper the severe limits on the usefulness of the terms “right” and “left” in explaining U.S. elections.  Jobs are not a right v. left issue.

Third, the paramount policy priority – jobs – is the same regardless of whether one focuses on economic or political desirability.  So, how long does it take for the article, and the five New Democrats to discuss “jobs?”  Given the fact that they vented at length about the fear that they would begin to lose their jobs within two years, the subject of job security should have been paramount to the five New Democrats.  The article, however, never even mentioned jobs or any of the related critical concepts – austerity, the faux trade deals, or the refusal to provide full employment.  Further, the article did not comment on the failure of the New Democrats to even mention these any of these four concepts.

“A Clarion Message about the Economy with Appeal to all 50 States”

Here is UMKC’s economics department’s long-standing proposal to every American political party:

Our party stands for full employment at all times.  We will make the federal government the guaranteed employer of last resort for every American able and wanting to work.  We recognize that the United States has a sovereign currency and can always afford to ensure full employment.  We recognize that austerity typically constitutes economic malpractice and is never a valid excuse for rejecting full employment.  The myth that we help our grandchildren by consigning their grandparents and parents to unemployment is obscene.  The opposite is true.

The working class wants jobs and job security – not simply income.  Working class people overwhelmingly want to work.  Working class males who are unable to find secure, full time work often become depressed and unmarriageable.  If you want to encourage marriage and improve the quality of marriages, full employment and job security are vital policies.  There are collateral advantages to providing full employment.  Full employment can reduce greatly the “zero sum” fears about employment that can tear a society apart.  Each of these outcomes is overwhelmingly supported by Americans.

Good economics is not a “right” v. “left” issue.  Austerity is terrible economics.  The fact that we have a sovereign currency is indisputable and there is broad agreement among finance professionals that such a currency means that the federal government budget is nothing like a household.  The major party that first adopts the federal full employment guarantee will secure a critical political advantage over its rivals.  Sometimes, good economics is good politics.

Bernie Slanders: How the Democratic Party Establishment Suffocates Progressive Change

By Thomas I. Palley, Independent Economist Washington, D.C.

Cross-posted at the author’s blog, thomaspalley.com.  An earlier version of this appeared at Social Europe.

The Democratic Party establishment has recently found itself discomforted by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to return the party to its modern roots of New Deal social democracy. The establishment’s response has included a complex coupling of elite media and elite economics opinion aimed at promoting an image of Sanders as an unelectable extremist with unrealistic economic policies.

The response provides a case study showing how the Party suffocates progressive change. Every progressive knows about the opposition and tactics of the Republican Party. Less understood are the opposition and tactics of the Democratic Party establishment. Speaking metaphorically, that establishment is a far lesser evil, but it may also be a far greater obstacle to progressive change.

The elite media’s response was captured in a snapshot report by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) showing that the Washington Post ran 16 major negative stories on Sanders in 16 hours, prior to the Michigan primary. The headlines were particularly hostile, and since only 40 percent of the public reads past the headline, that is as important as the substance of the story.

Economic policy has been the fulcrum of Sanders’ campaign, and the response of elite opinion has been exemplified by Paul Krugman of The New York Times.

For years, Krugman has mockingly used the term “very serious people” to attack Republicans opposed to President Obama’s policies. Now, he unironically revokes the credentials of all who do not support Clinton  by declaring: “every serious progressive policy expert on either health care or financial reform who has weighed in on the primary seems to lean Hillary.”

Regarding Sanders’ opposition to neoliberal trade agreements, Krugman writes “In this, as in many other things, Sanders currently benefits from the luxury of irresponsibility: he’s never been anywhere close to the levers of power, so he could take principled-sounding but arguably feckless stances in a way that Clinton couldn’t and can’t.”

The slamming of Sanders has also been joined by a gang of past Democratic appointee Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers. In an open letter co-addressed to Senator Sanders, Messrs. Kruger, Goolsbee, Romer and Tyson mauled a favorable empirical assessment of Sander’s economic program conducted by Professor Gerald Friedman.  Without any detailed independent assessment, they simply declared the assessment unsupported by the “economic evidence”.

Messrs. Kruger et al. were then joined by Justin Wolfers, via one of his regular New York Times opinion pieces. His accusation was the beneficial effects of fiscal stimulus would disappear once full employment was reached and the stimulus withdrawn.

Wolfers is co-editor of the prestigious Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Ironically, a recent issue contained an article by elite Democratic economists Larry Summers and Brad DeLong invoking a similar mechanism as Professor Friedman. Summers and DeLong argued a large negative temporary demand shock can permanently lower output: Friedman simply reversed that and argued a large positive temporary stimulus can permanently raise output and growth.

There is legitimate room for intellectual difference. What is so stunning is the tone of the critique and the fact it sought to diminish an important policy (fiscal stimulus) just because Sanders was using it to his political advantage.

Given their elite professional standing and easy access to elite media, these attacks quickly ramified throughout the mainstream media, illustrating how the elite media – elite opinion nexus works.

The slamming of Sanders reflects an enduring status quo defense mechanism which usually begins with insinuations of extremism, then mixes in charges of lack of qualification and realism, and ends with assertions of un-electability. It is applied in both political and public intellectual life.

The extremism gambit explains the persistent linking of Sanders and Trump. Whereas Trump is an egotistical demagogue and businessman with a disreputable business history, Sanders is a thoughtful social democrat with a long history of public service through high electoral office.

The un-electability charge pivots off the extremism insinuation as follows. Americans will not elect extremists; Sanders is an extremist; ergo, Sanders is unelectable.

As with the extremism insinuation, the un-electability charge lacks foundation. Polls show Sanders beating all the potential Republican nominees, and beating Trump handily.

The third charge is lack of qualification. The reality is Sanders has a fifty year history of political involvement, worked his way through the political ranks serving people, was Mayor of Vermont’s largest city, then Vermont’s representative in Congress where he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and after that became a Senator for Vermont. That seems to be exactly the career and CV a President should have.

Lastly, Sanders has been dismissed as selling unrealistic pipe dreams. Social Security would be a pipe dream if we did not already have it; so would Medicare and public education too. There is a lesson in that. Pipe dreams are the stuff of change.

Rather than an excess of pipe dreams, our current dismal condition is the product of fear of dreaming. The Democratic Party establishment persistently strives to downsize economic and political expectations. Senator Sanders aims to upsize them, which is why he has been viewed as such a threat.

November will be a time for Democratic voters to come together to stop whoever the Republicans nominate. In the meantime, there is a big lesson to be learned.

Today, the status quo defense mechanism has been used to tarnish Bernie Sanders: tomorrow it will, once again, be used to rule out progressive policy personnel and options.

Progressives must surface the obstruction posed by the Democratic Party establishment. Primaries are prime time to do that, which means there is good reason for Sanders’ campaign to continue.