2020 and the Democrats’ Theory of Change

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On March 15, 2019, thousands of students from New York City—and around the world—walked out of class to protest the lack of action to protect the earth from catastrophic climate change. 

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As Democrats prepare for 2020, they face a fundamental quandary. The theories of change offered by their most recent president, Barack Obama, and previous presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, have been shot to hell.

I borrow the phrase “theory of change” from an article that Mark Schmitt wrote for the Prospect in December 2007 about the candidates who were vying for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Rather than being about ideology or electability, Schmitt wrote, the nomination fight that year was about differing assumptions about politics and how to use the “levers of power” to get things done. Schmitt suggested that Obama wasn’t so naïve as to believe in “hope” and “bipartisanship” but was instead using those aspirations as a “tactic” to subvert conservative power. By claiming “the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity,” Obama would seize the high ground, and “Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”

Even cleverly interpreted, however, the theory of change that Obama espoused as a candidate in 2008 has long ceased to be tenable. He did get important things done, notably the Recovery Act in the depths of the Great Recession, the Affordable Care Act, and financial reform—but none of them thanks to bipartisanship. Republicans refused to be partners in governing even in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Depression. The only reason Obama had significant legislative achievements is that for his first two years Democrats had control of Congress, including a filibuster-proof Senate majority for about six months, which is what enabled the ACA to pass.

As a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and as the party’s candidate for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s theory of change relied on detailed preparation of serious and practical policy ideas. Her standard speech in the 2008 campaign, Schmitt pointed out, made use of a three-way contrast. One candidate, Clinton said, was relying on “hope” for change (that was Obama), while a second thought you could just “demand” change (that was John Edwards), but she insisted you have to “work for it.” The title of Clinton’s 2014 book Hard Choices expressed the same spirit, and her 2016 campaign site offered policy prescriptions in more than 30 different areas. From her long experience she could give a coherent response to the full gamut of international and domestic challenges, a quality that Americans once valued in a president.

In campaigns, however, more can sometimes be less. Clinton’s many rational and sensible policies could not compete successfully for the voters’ attention with the few simple things that Donald Trump used to stir outrage and appeal to raw emotion. Of course, Clinton wasn’t helped by the media’s preoccupation with her emails, the disinformation efforts during the campaign, and much else—and she did win nearly three million more votes than Trump. But there is a lesson nonetheless in her inability to convey a clear and strong message about what she would change as president and how she would do it.


IN LIGHT OF THIS recent history, it’s easy to understand why Democrats are fed up with bipartisan compromise and sensible pragmatism. There is no point in calling for bipartisanship if the other side is unwilling to compromise and sees no reason to do so because it has gotten away with being intransigent. In what may be the single most important development in American politics in the last half-century, the liberal and moderate Republicans who once were open to compromise have nearly vanished from the national stage. This is not as common in state government, where Democrats and Republicans sometimes do work together. As a result, some Democratic presidential candidates with state-level experience—Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper is the current example—claim they can bring cooperation back to Washington. But in national politics these days, the advocates of bipartisanship are the true utopians.

So Democrats will almost certainly need to rely entirely on members of their own party to govern, but that won’t resolve the problem of how to bring about change. The Democratic Party itself is a coalition, and that coalition now includes people who used to be Republican moderates or independents, especially in the suburban areas where Democratic victories in 2018 gave them control of the House. If Democrats ignore that side of the party, they will not only lose the presidency in 2020—they’ll lose the House too. Democrats now hold 31 districts won by Trump in 2016, while Republicans hold only three won by Clinton. The extreme clustering of Democratic votes in cities puts the party at a structural disadvantage that they can overcome only by extending their support into traditionally Republican suburbs. The need to win those relatively affluent districts, however, constrains how far to the left the party can move. No credible theory of progressive change today can ignore this reality.

The challenge for Democrats, furthermore, isn’t just to gain power but to keep it. The big changes that Democrats want to bring about will take a long time to see through. The last two Democratic presidents both lost control of Congress at the first midterm election. To break that pattern, Democrats need a strategy that can maintain and even expand their coalition instead of undercutting it.

There are legitimate disagreements about how to do that. Here’s my view.

To avoid the problems Clinton faced in 2016 in conveying a message about change, the Democrats need to focus on a few big ideas that embrace many of the specific policies they will be promising to pursue. Fortunately, they have already begun to develop those themes, though it will be critical how their presidential candidate in 2020 defines and explains them.

The first big theme brings together the most historically urgent issue of our time, climate change, with practical economic concerns about jobs and fairness. That’s the idea of a Green New Deal. Time is of the essence in climate reform. The longer the United States and other countries delay measures to reduce greenhouse gases, the steeper the reductions need to be and the greater the risk of hitting irreversible tipping points and triggering truly catastrophic levels of warming and sea-level rise. This is one reason why a Trump presidency lasting until the mid-2020s would be so dangerous.

But a narrowly tailored climate policy—built, for example, around a carbon tax—will not work. To succeed politically, a program has to provide voters with immediate and tangible benefits, and the way to do that is to frame climate reform as a program for rebuilding America, which, in fact, it necessarily must be. Trump promised an infrastructure program but has failed to deliver it; the Green New Deal can be that program, except now aimed at meeting both economic and urgent environmental goals. This shouldn’t be a Christmas tree hung with every progressive ornament, but it has to be socially inclusive, deliver increased earnings (for example, through a higher minimum wage), and attend to the legitimate worries of workers and communities, especially those threatened at least initially by the coming energy transition. Borrowing is a proper way to finance public investments that bring a future return, and that is principally what Democrats should rely on, without being intimidated by deficit scolds as they were in recent Democratic administrations.

A second big theme is family security, which could embrace a variety of specific ideas that Democrats are supporting. Several presidential candidates have endorsed a bill now in Congress, the American Family Act, which proposes what in other countries are known as “child allowances.” The allowances would consist of refundable tax credits of $300 per month for children up to age five and $250 for children ages six to sixteen. An expansion of the existing Child Tax Credit (which does not, however, benefit the poor), the new system would cut child poverty by a third and bolster middle-income families, while being phased out at higher incomes.

Proposals for paid family leave and universal child care would also fit into what could be conceived of as a broader Family Security Act, aimed at helping young families get a start and providing a secure foundation for their—that is, for America’s—children. Democrats ought to finance these programs not only by repealing most of the unpopular 2017 Republican tax legislation but also through higher taxes on the superrich, as in Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax on households with net assets of more than $50 million.


THE GREEN NEW DEAL and a family security program have two things in common. First, they are about securing the future, though each provides concrete benefits that voters will be able to see in the short term. Second, both the programs and the financing for them will express a sense of fairness and justice that Americans are asking for, without demanding higher taxes from those middle-class suburbanites who have just started voting Democratic.

Democrats will necessarily have to spell out positions on many other issues, such as immigration and trade, where the election is likely to be a referendum on Trump. At the same time, they need to stay away from some other causes that could undermine their chances to win in 2020 or to govern effectively thereafter. I have two things particularly in mind.

The first is reparations for the descendants of slaves, an issue that has had a flurry of publicity after some of the Democrats running for president said they were open to the idea. I have long believed there is justice in the idea of reparations; in a 1992 article I proposed reparations in the form of an “Endowment for Black America.” But it is one thing for writers to suggest ideas, another thing for candidates and parties to adopt them in a campaign. When an idea is not ripe—when, as in the case of reparations, an overwhelming majority of voters continue to reject it—political leaders need to say no. They are not obliged by their ideals to make a gift of an election to the opposition.

Medicare for All, particularly in its single-payer version, would also be a political albatross. Again, I understand the abstract argument; I’ve proposed an alternative that I call “Midlife Medicare” for making Medicare available at 50 for individuals not otherwise insured. But single-payer poses a host of difficulties: It would take away people’s existing insurance, arouse the all-out resistance of the entire health-care industry, and require tax increases of a magnitude with no precedent in U.S. history.

Current single-payer proposals imply raising taxes to pay for all the costs now covered through private insurance premiums and out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, those came to $1.6 trillion, just about the same total as the government raised through the personal income tax. Even if single-payer had big savings, the necessary tax increases are implausible and would likely sink the rest of the Democrats’ agenda. The rest of what Democrats hope to accomplish is simply too important to put at risk. On health care, their immediate aim should be to provide for early eligibility for Medicare, reforms of the ACA, and measures to reduce pharmaceutical and medical prices.

Large-scale institutional change is extraordinarily difficult in the United States. Our political institutions are set up to make it difficult, and the entrenched power of concentrated wealth makes it even harder. There has been no period in American history, not even the New Deal, when reformers did not make concessions to achieve the big changes that were consistent with sustained political power. If Democrats can carry out a Green New Deal and a family security program, it will be momentous, and it will build the support for other things as well. But if they cannot adjust their program and how they talk about it to fit the political coalition they have, they will get nowhere.

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