What, Specifically, Should Democrats Have Done/Could Do For the Middle Class?

Well, I’m certainly proud to be in good company in my impatience with a lot of the woulda shoulda coulda talk about Democrats failing to fixate obsessively on middle-class economic concerns since 2009. There’s Kevin Drum:

I’m all in favor of using the power of government to help the middle classes. But what does that mean in terms of concrete political programs that (a) the middle class will associate with Democrats and help win them loyalty and votes, and (b) have even a snowball’s chance of getting passed by Congress? Expansion of Social Security? Expansion of Medicare? Bigger subsidies for Obamacare? Universal pre-K? A massive infrastructure program? Let’s get specific, and let’s not nibble around the edges. Little programs here and there aren’t going to make much difference to the Democrats’s political fortunes. Nor will heroic but vague formulations about rescuing unions or raising taxes on the wealthy by a few points.

And even more pointedly, here’s Paul Krugman:

I’ve been getting correspondence from people saying that I need to respond to Tom Edsall channeling Chuck Schumer on how health reform was a mistake, Obama should have focused on the economy.

The thing is, I responded to this argument four years ago, and everything I said then still applies. When people say that Obama should have “focused” on the economy, what, specifically, are they saying he should have done? Enacted a bigger stimulus? Maybe he could have done that at the very beginning, but that wouldn’t have conflicted with the effort to pass health reform — and anyway, I don’t hear many of the “focus” types saying that. So what do they mean? Obama should have gone around squinting and saying “I’m focused on the economy”? What would that have done?

Look, governing is not just theater. For sure the weakness of the recovery has hurt Democrats. But “focusing”, whatever that means, wouldn’t have delivered more job growth. What should Obama have done that he actually could have done in the face of scorched-earth Republican opposition? And how, if at all, did health reform stand in the way of doing whatever it is you’re saying he should have done?

I have seen no answer to these questions.

Krugman’s “governing is not just theater” point needs to be taken to heart by every self-styled “populist” who thinks screaming about the rich and powerful is all Democrats need to do to win back middle-class voters. As members of the party of an activist public sector–the only one we have at the moment–Democrats need to stand for proposals that will actually improve living conditions for working Americans, not just signify whose “side” they are on. Yes, Republicans have the luxury of complete irresponsibility, and I know it’s very tempting to say what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. But at some point progressives have to remember they are in politics not just to win but to accomplish great things. The Affordable Care Act is hardly perfect, but in the sweep of history it’s a pretty great thing, and the idea it should have been foregone so that Democrats could maniacally agitate the air about the economy strikes me as incredibly short-sighted.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.