Opinion

The Great Debate

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

But beneath this surface calm, there is a growing divide within the Democratic Party over what might be considered the tectonic plates of our political economy, a debate that has only begun to surface. Here are some of the core divisions:

Passive or Active Voice Populism

Since Occupy Wall Street, inequality has been Topic A, hardly surprising in an economy where the top 1 percent is capturing 95 percent of the income growth coming out of the Great Recession. The president weighed in, calling inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

Can Obama circumvent Washington?

Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Pennsylvania as the new Wisconsin in union fights

The Wisconsin state capitol was the site of massive protests in 2011 during the fight to pass Republican Governor Scott Walker’s labor reforms. The following year Big Labor staged demonstrations in Michigan against Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s right-to-work bill, which ultimately passed. Now Pennsylvania’s state capitol is set to reach fever pitch, as unions plan to bus in hundreds of protestors this week to fight legislation that, if bad for union bosses, could be a boon to rank-and-file workers.

Pennsylvania is a longtime labor stronghold. Consider that a plaque directly across from the state capitol commemorates the unionization of government workers. But Pennsylvania lawmakers are now poised to pass a law to end automatic deduction of union dues from government employee paychecks.

The “paycheck protection” bills pending in state Senate and House of Representatives committees, propose to prohibit government employers from deducting from a public employee’s salary “any funds which inure to the benefit of a private organization.”

Filling judicial vacancies to protect the progressive legacy

What could never happen, finally did.

For more than 30 years the Democratic Senate caucus feebly stood by as Republicans seized control of the federal courts. Now, however, faced with a GOP filibuster of nominees for three vacancies on the appeals court that could determine the fate of most of President Barack Obama’s initiatives, the Democrats have at last responded.

The Democratic Senate majority last month eliminated the 60-vote requirement to end filibusters against presidential nominees to the lower federal courts and the executive branch. With this, they blocked a key element of the GOP’s long-term strategy to overturn the progressive legislative and judicial advances of the past 50 years, and prevent new Democratic initiatives.

Five years into Obama’s tenure, Democratic judicial appointees are still barely even with the number of active Republican judges. There are 93 vacancies, including 37 judicial emergencies as of January 7, with 53 nominations pending. If Obama is to preserve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy – as well as his own — against the many hostile judges now on the bench, he and the Senate will have to act quickly.

Punitive politics: Blame the Puritans

‘Tis the season of giving, charity and good will — unless you happen to be a Republican, and then ‘tis the season of pusillanimity, churlishness and bad will.

Congressional Republicans seem hell-bent on denying the most disadvantaged among us healthcare, unemployment benefits and, perhaps worst of all, food stamps, from which the House of Representatives slashed $40 billion last month. Elizabeth Drew, writing in Rolling Stone, calls it “The Republicans’ War on the Poor.”

You can attribute these benefit cuts to plain meanness with a dose of political calculation thrown in, as Drew does. But there may be another explanation than congenital cruelty: Republicans believe they are adhering to a principle that they place above every other value, including compassion. That principle is the need to punish individuals whom they view as undeserving.

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

Obamacare’s endless exemptions

Thursday night, the White House announced yet another exemption from the pain Obamacare is causing so many Americans. This latest “fix” would allow some Americans who’ve lost plans to exempt themselves from Obamacare requirements by claiming the law imposes a “hardship” because it’s “unaffordable.”

“Hardship”…“unaffordable”…these are the Obama administration’s own terms. About its own law.

These are the very things Republicans and health experts warned about for years.

The Senate after filibuster reform

The Washington Post editorial page led the charge in denouncing the change in Senate filibuster rules engineered by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and 51 of his Democratic colleagues last Thursday. Many other media voices quickly followed suit.

Reid’s action to allow a simple majority of senators present and voting — not the longstanding 60 — to end debate and proceed to a vote on presidential nominations to executive and judicial offices (except the Supreme Court) has now been widely characterized as a radical step, certain to accelerate the poisonous partisanship in Congress. It will, critics insist, grievously damage the Senate’s comparative advantage over the House of Representatives in fostering bipartisan negotiation and compromise.

The procedure Reid used — setting a new cloture precedent with a simple majority despite a Senate rule requiring a two-thirds majority to change Senate rules — was gutsy. Yet this method has been long available to the Senate. It was even proposed by Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist in 2005 and occasionally used to make minor changes in the filibuster.

What Democrats have going for them? Republicans

Democrats had one thing going for them in the election this week: Republicans. That kept President Barack Obama’s party from faring much worse.

Dissatisfaction with the economy is still very high. In the network exit polls, more than 80 percent of Virginia and New Jersey voters said they were worried about the nation’s economy over the next year.

The economy was the top issue in both states. New Jersey voters concerned about the economy voted 2 to 1 for Republican Governor Chris Christie — even though he was the incumbent. It isn’t his economy. It’s Obama’s economy. That’s the new rule in American politics: All politics is national.

Not ‘court-packing,’ GOP’s aim is ‘court-shrinking’

The party that brought you “death panels” and “socialized medicine” has rolled out another term — carefully selected, like the others, for its power to freak people out. “Court-packing” now joins a Republican rogue’s gallery of poll-tested epithets.

Of course, “court-packing” is not a new term, and its menacing overtone is not a recent discovery. “There is a good deal of prejudice against ‘packing the court,’” observed Homer Cummings, the U.S. attorney general, in 1936, on the eve of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed attempt to do just that — to tip the Supreme Court’s balance by increasing the number of seats and filling them with New Dealers. Cummings, who sold the idea to FDR, hoped Americans would not be “frightened by a phrase.”

But they were. And today’s GOP is betting they still are. Hence the resort to a term that has no valid application to the matter at hand: President Barack Obama’s determination to fill the three vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

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