The Policies Democrats Need to Unite the Party

Unless a 2020 candidate can bridge the gap between liberals and moderates, Trump will win.

This has happened to me a number of times recently. I’m talking with Democratic operatives about the party’s frighteningly inadequate field of presidential contenders when somebody says, “God, I wish Sherrod Brown were running!” Everyone nods wistfully. 

The Ohio senator’s decision last March not to jump into the fray, after testing the waters extensively, set up probably the biggest what-if in politics right now. Had he chosen differently, it’s hard not to think he’d be a, if not the, top contender. His progressive bona fides are as strong as Elizabeth Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’s—no one in Congress has a more pro-union record on, say, trade. Yet he’s made a point of not endorsing positions that fire up the left but scare off most other voters, like Medicare for All and abolishing ICE. With his raspy voice, disheveled hair, and basic human decency, he has as much appeal to the Working Stiff Vote as Joe Biden—but is ten years younger than the former vice president. He’s as smart and knowledgeable on policy as Pete Buttegieg, but with a decades-long career in public office stretching from the Ohio legislature to the U.S. Senate. And, sure, he’s another white male, but I know women who would vote for him just to get his amazing wife, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Connie Schultz, into the White House.

Whether Brown has the performance skills required to take on Donald Trump, I don’t know. I saw him speak recently in Washington and wasn’t blown away. Still, he would be the kind of candidate the party desperately needs but doesn’t have—a big-tent Democrat both left-liberals and moderates could comfortably unify around.

Another reason to wish he were in the race is that it would bring attention to his policy ideas. In September, he introduced legislation that would allow individuals to get an advance of up to $500 on their Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal benefit normally paid at tax time to low-income workers. This might sound like a small thing. But it’s actually a huge deal because it would be a simple, elegant way to save millions of families from the clutches of the payday-lending industry.

Payday loans are high on the long list of sick practical jokes America plays on the working poor. Such folk typically have little or no savings—they literally live paycheck to paycheck. So when they need quick cash—say, for car repairs or because their income unexpectedly drops (think hourly wage earners who lose days of work because of a blizzard)—they go to their neighborhood payday lenders. But the loans they receive come with effective interest rates (counting fees) of as much as 400 percent a year. If they are unable to quickly pay them back—and many can’t—a $500 loan (a typical amount) can mushroom into a crushing debt the borrower may never be able to pay off.

Under Barack Obama, the federal government issued regulations requiring the industry to ensure that borrowers can pay back loans before handing over the cash advances, and the worst practices were beginning to fade. That was until last February, when the Trump administration gutted those regulations. 

Other partial solutions are in the works. A handful of banks and credit unions have begun to offer their low-wage customers small-dollar installment loans on better, but still pricey, terms. Some companies are partnering with fintech start-ups to offer installment loans to their employees with interest rates as low as 10 percent, but only a limited number of firms are ever likely to offer such loans. 

The genius of Brown’s idea is that EITC advances would come with basically no interest charges and be available to virtually anyone who needs one. It’s sort of like a “public option” that could put the whole payday-lending industry, if not out of business, at least in its place. 

Alas, Brown isn’t running. So we have to hope the other candidates adopt his proposals as their own. 

In the same spirit, this issue of the Washington Monthly offers a number of policy ideas we think would benefit the current candidates politically and be great for the country. Phillip Longman argues that the single best way to address the concerns that the majority of voters have about rising health care costs is neither Medicare for All—the plan that has hurt Elizabeth Warren in the polls—nor the build-on-Obamacare position of moderates like Joe Biden. Rather, it is to impose Medicare prices on the whole health system. And a group of national-security experts weighs in on Washington Monthly editor Daniel Block’s recent proposal to create a truly progressive trade deal between the United States and the European Union—one even a trade-deal skeptic like Brown might well support.

The alarming truth is that none of the current Democratic candidates for president has formulated the message they’ll need to bring the left and center of the Democratic Party together, lock up the nomination, and successfully challenge Trump. But it’s not too late for one of them (I’m looking at you, Amy Klobuchar) to adopt some bold and unexpected new policy ideas and change the dynamics of the race.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.