In the final scene of the film The Candidate, the newly elected Democratic Senator Bill McKay asks a harrowing question amid his victory celebration: “What do we do now?”
Democrats in 2020 have won a similar presidential victory – and under eerily similar circumstances as the movie depicted. The national campaign was primarily a referendum on the incumbent Donald Trump, with Democrat Joe Biden mostly offering vague promises of a better way – and so the same question is now upon us.
To answer it, you must first appreciate how we arrived at this moment of peril. In this week’s election, Trump kept the race close by winning 82% of voters who listed the economy as their top concern, according to exit polls. He was able to do that amid an economic crisis because Democrats did not forcefully articulate an economic message. Instead, Biden cast his candidacy in gauzy platitudes about restoring the country to a pre-Trump status quo.
That was enough to barely defeat Trump, who mismanaged the coronavirus response – but it was not enough to prevent Republican gains down ballot. Even more problematic, that much-glorified pre-Trump “normal” of crushing economic inequality is what originally created the conditions for Trumpism, and that larger ism probably isn’t going away.
And so moving forward, the answer to Democrats’ “what do we do now?” question should be clear: a new Democratic White House must show it is using its power to deliver for the working class. It must avoid replicating what happened in the first few years of the last Democratic presidency, or else we may get something worse than Trump in the future.
Recall that back in 2008, Barack Obama won the White House on a wave of anger at the incumbent president, and he took office under similar crisis conditions. And yet, despite Democrats winning large congressional majorities, Obama’s administration used its power to merely tweak the economic status quo, but not really change it.
From the get-go, the new White House brushed off progressives and championed a stimulus package that many economists said was far too small to quickly right the economy.
While Obama’s Affordable Care Act created some long-overdue consumer protections, it ultimately strengthened the power of private insurers. Despite Obama campaigning for a public insurance option, his administration dropped it, Democratic senators helped Republicans initially vote it down and then refused to ever bring it back up to force the issue, even though there was a good chance it would pass. The result: Millions have lost their health insurance and millions more are paying ever-higher premiums, while insurance companies have booked huge profits – and now support for the ACA is soft.
Similarly, Obama backed off his promise to pass new union protections for workers, and he reversed his promise to reform bad trade deals, instead pressing even more of those pacts that have become a symbol of a corrupt Washington more interested in enriching CEOs than helping workers.
Obama’s administration also refused to prosecute bankers and its Wall Street reform package was pathetically weak. Its Treasury Department helped kill an initiative to break up the banks, while it approved and defended big bonuses for Wall Street executives who engineered the crisis. The moves were a boon to a financial industry that bankrolled Obama’s campaign, but political poison.
During this period, progressive organizations and congressional lawmakers largely deferred to the new administration, which tried to bully the left into silence. When liberal groups floated the idea of pressuring incumbent Democrats to support more robust health care reforms, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel infamously berated them as “f-ing retarded.”
The enforced deference and failure to seriously try to transform the economy ended up delivering a cataclysm: Republicans in 2010 took back Congress in what Obama himself called a “shellacking.”
By the end of Obama’s presidency, Democrats held fewer elected offices than at any time since the early 20th century. Trump in 2016 made fraudulent promises to crack down on Wall Street — and he won the White House by flipping disaffected voters in locales that had been particularly hurt by a financial crisis that had never been rectified or reckoned with.
To be sure, Republicans were a powerful and determined opposition to Obama. But Democrats’ capitulations were disasters. They never understood the truism about political capital articulated by Republican strategist Karl Rove: “If you don’t spend it, it’s not like treasure stuck away at a storehouse someplace. It is perishable. It dwindles away.”
With a likely GOP Senate, a prospective Biden administration is certainly in a weaker position than Obama was in 2008 — but there are ways for the new White House to spend political capital on a working class agenda.
As president, Biden will have the unimpeded executive authority to implement a number of administrative rules and regulations to reform the tax code, lower drug prices, reduce student debt, crack down on Wall Street and raise wages.
He can refuse to populate his administration with corporate insiders, lobbyists and Republican Cabinet secretaries and instead staff the executive branch with officials committed to progressive economic policies.
Meanwhile, Biden can launch his first 100 days by introducing legislation that honors his campaign promises to boost the minimum wage, strengthen union protections and impose a wealth tax on billionaires. He can also push for a public health insurance option and for investments in infrastructure, renewable energy and climate mitigation.
A Fox News exit poll shows many of those are popular — for example, the survey showed nearly three quarters of voters favor “changing to a government-run health care plan” and favor “increasing government spending on green and renewable energy.” Waging high-profile fights with Senate Republicans over these matters is good politics, and could potentially peel off necessary Republican votes for good policy.
Then again, Biden often prioritizes decorum, comity and bipartisanship. He has also told his donors that if he is elected “nothing would fundamentally change” and that he would not propose any legislation to change corporate behavior.
The onus, then, is on progressive activists, advocacy groups and lawmakers to demand the new president fight the good fight. The conflicts — even if unsuccessful — are a way for Democrats to clarify which side it is on in the oligarch’s intensifying class war.
Senator Bernie Sanders has the right idea: He said he is planning to push a new Biden administration by introducing his own working-class legislative agenda in the first 100 days of the new Congress — and he said he will support primary challenges to lawmakers who abandon the Democratic Party’s promises. That effort could be boosted by newly elected House progressives, who seem eager for a battle.
A Democratic party that did not bow down to corporate power would be a return to the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt. He welcomed the hatred of the rich and powerful and championed a New Deal agenda that delivered for the working class. That helped prevent the rise of a fascist alternative and created an era of Democratic supremacy.
Democrats must be forced to do the same today. Like FDR, they must spend political capital on an agenda that materially improves people’s lives. That is the best way to ward off the electoral rise of right-wing extremism and build a lasting Democratic majority for decades to come.
David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor at large at Jacobin, and the publisher of the newsletter Too Much Information. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter
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