Democrats Unveil Populist Agenda for 2018

The party has a new slogan, but many of its policy proposals sound familiar.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif, speaks in Berryville, Va., on Monday to unveil the Democrats' new agenda. Joining her, from left, are Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, Sen. Mark Warner, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
July 24, 2017, 8:25 p.m.

The Democrats have a familiar problem: A majority of Americans say the party stands against President Trump, but not for something.

This week, they’re trying to change that, unveiling a slogan—“A Better Deal”—that echoes President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, President John F. Kennedy’s campaign cry that “we can do better,” and Papa John’s “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.”

But in substance, it’s a strong statement that after months of soul-searching, the Democrats are choosing to align themselves with a moment defined by economic populism and the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The three policy goals that the Democrats announced Monday attempt to put them on the side of the little guy: making drugs cheaper by empowering Medicare to negotiate prices, making goods cheaper by blocking corporate consolidation, and making good-paying jobs more accessible through a tax credit awarded to companies that train workers.

“Simply put: What do Democrats stand for?” asked Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, before answering his own question at a press conference in Berryville, Virginia. “A better deal for working people. Higher wages, lower costs, and the tools for a 21st century economy.”

In the weeks ahead, the Democrats will announce other policies towards “rebuilding rural America” and “changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations,” he added.

The policies aren’t new ideas, they’re just newly promoted by leadership. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been calling to break up the big banks for years; Warren did a little dance Monday when someone asked during the Democrats’ press conference about reinstating Glass–Steagall legislation separating commercial from investment banking. Other senators, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, won their first seats in the Senate in 2006 on messages that included aspects of “A Better Deal.”

Back then, McCaskill reportedly drew her biggest applause line when she criticized President George W. Bush’s prescription-drug plan, as she railed on Big Pharma and described her mother’s experience with Medicare Part D. Brown, meanwhile, was a steady advocate to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. More recently, he was a staunch critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was pushed by President Obama.

In an interview, Brown said he hadn’t read the party’s new platform, adding he doesn’t “talk much” about the national message, but rather Ohio’s interests. But he reiterated that he has focused on the same positions his whole career: that trade agreements “betrayed” American workers, the minimum wage is not up to date, and the U.S. should strengthen overtime rules and the ability to join a union.

Republicans quickly criticized the Democrats’ agenda as rehashed.

"After losing to Republicans at the ballot box year after year, this is the best they have to offer?" said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. "Today’s recycled Democrat talking points do nothing to change the fact that the Far Left has taken hold of the party and continues to push a message of more resistance and obstruction. Until Democrats make a real effort to work with Republicans and President Trump on the priorities voters supported last November, they are going to continue to be lost in the electoral wilderness."

Of course, the last time Democrats took back Congress in 2006, they didn’t need to present much of a choice, merely a referendum on the Republicans’ record in power. That election cycle, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the opposition’s message should simply be "Had enough?" Witnessing an unpopular Republican president, economic uncertainty, the fiasco in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and a Republican Party beset by ethical issues, voters didn’t require a proactive, positive vision to vote Democrat.

There are some overarching similarities between the political environments of 2017 and 2006. In April 2006, 47 percent of voters “strongly” disapproved of Bush’s job performance; in July 2017, 48 percent already “strongly” disapprove of Trump’s, according to Washington Post-ABC polls. The president’s lies and ethical concerns, and the Republican Party’s reticence to reach out across the aisle—most evident in the way it's attempting to pass its extremely unpopular bill to replace the Affordable Care Act—could lead to substantial Democratic gains in the House and Senate.

Democrats’ final slogan in 2006 was “A New Direction for America.” Few remember that or their initial offering, which was roundly panned: “Together, America can do better.” “A Better Deal” may not be necessary either, but Democrats want to be more than just “Not Trump.”

“American families want to know what Democrats are going to do to better the economy and help them get ahead,” emailed J.B. Poersch, the president of the Senate Majority PAC, which is closely aligned with Schumer. “Not unlike 2006, this current president is falling well short of his election promises. As the president remains unable to move a real economic agenda, Americans want an alternative plan for higher wages and lower costs.”

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