After Devastating 2016 Loss, Democrats Pitch Populist Election Agenda

A massively unpopular GOP health care bill gives Democrats an opportunity to win support by making new economic proposals voters desperately need and want. Sensing the opening, Democratic leaders are finally rolling out a new "better deal" economic plan. But they aren't seizing the opportunity because there’s not much new in it. 


Instead, the "better deal" continues the traditional party mantra of higher taxes on the rich, higher benefits for the middle class and spending on infrastructure. It lacks details, particularly on how to pay for it and the economic impact of higher taxes. It does not mention trade, and it’s hard to see how an economic plan can ignore trade's impact on the economy. Nor does it provide substantive approaches to immigration, keeping America safe or health care. 

Trump won on those issues. For Democrats to win, they need their own detailed, credible strategies on each. Otherwise, they will continue to lose elections as they did in four out of four states this year. Indeed, only 30 percent of voters approved of the job Democrats are doing in Congress in a CBS News poll earlier this month, and only 31 percent said Democratic control of Congress would be an improvement. 

Just condemning and opposing Republican bills won’t get traction by itself. For example, health care is now the most contentious partisan policy fight, but just decrying that Trumpcare would deny Medicaid to millions won't win it. Democrats need a proposal that provides details on how to keep Medicaid and pay for it, and other specific suggestions for how to fix Obamacare’s problems. 

They might even call it a “replacement” of Obamacare if that’s what it takes. Voters fearful of losing coverage would appreciate the compromise. 

Polls show 71 percent of respondents in a recent national survey want congressional Republicans to work with Democrats to make improvements to the health care law. If Republicans won’t work with them, Democrats should release their own proposals publicly—voters are more than ready.

In fact, they might be ready to support moving toward a single-payer system. Polls show support for single-payer running between 33 percent and 44 percent (one 2016 Gallup poll had it at 58 percent) and it has grown 5 percent since January. 

They're also ready for better alternatives on immigration. Trump’s immigration ban purporting to protect American jobs and keep America safe earned him plenty of votes. Democrats believed that they could win by appealing to their Latino base, and focused on opportunities for potential immigrants and protection of illegal immigrants already here—in other words, people who can’t vote. 

Instead, Democrats should propose their own immigration policy defining who can stay and whom should be deported, focusing on what’s best for the economy. They’ll find support in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report indicating that the effect of immigration on employment and wages of native-born Americans is very small, but its impact on economic growth is positive and significant.

Democrats haven’t been able to offer alternatives to Trump’s isolationist trade rhetoric because they’ve agreed with Trump that international trade costs American jobs. It’s time for Democrats to pivot back to the overwhelming benefits of free trade. 

Now that talks with China have stalled, Trump is more likely to curb imports and impose tariffs on them. Democrats should explain the devastating trade war that is likely to cause. 

Democrats should have supported TPP because it would have eliminated import taxes on every type of American-manufactured product and most agricultural products. That includes taxes of 59 percent on U.S.-made machinery, of which we exported $56 billion in 2014. 

The TPP also would have provided much-needed protection for U.S. intellectual property. Moreover, abandoning TPP left a gaping hole in Southeast Asia for China to fill with trade agreements that exclude us. 

Trump’s threat to walk away from NAFTA and his failure to renegotiate it is has caused exports of soybean, chicken, and corn to Mexico, our largest buyer of those commodities, to fall significantly, as Mexico seeks other trade partners. Uncertainty surrounding NAFTA could jeopardize 13 percent of our agricultural exports.

It’s up to Democrats to suggest how NAFTA can be amended to stem export losses and prevent Mexico and Canada from seeking new trade partners.

On education, you’ll find many generalities on the Democrats’ website. Their new plan includes affordable college without saying how it would be paid for. They’ve advanced nothing specific since Bernie Sanders’ proposal for free tuition, other than more student loans, and they need a substantive proposal. I’ve argued Democrats should propose lowering tuition costs and improving job growth by denying student loans for colleges that have the lowest graduation rates.

Resisting and opposing everything Republican, and resorting to the old saw of raising taxes and redistributing wealth, didn’t get Democrats elected in 2016, and won’t in 2018. If they want to win, Democrats have to start now by offering winning ideas. 

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