Moderate Democrats should be popularists

The temptations of K Street are most dangerous to vulnerable members

There is more to life than winning elections. But winning elections is an important part of politics, and when it comes to winning I am decidedly a popularist. I think the commonsense view is that a politician is more likely to win if she adopts popular positions on the issues, especially if she emphasizes popular positions on issues that matter to her constituents.

Left-wing people often strike me as dangerously divorced from this mode of analysis.

But in some ways, the even greater malady in this regard is the extent to which the moderate Democrats who have the most to gain from a more popularist approach fail to employ it.

Joe Manchin, for example, clearly knows a thing or two about winning elections in a tough state and appropriately tries to stiff-arm the most controversial and unpopular ideas that leftists try to force on the Democratic Senate caucus. But where is the Joe Manchin affirmative agenda where he picks up a few progressive policy ideas that are popular and uses those causes to help define, in the public mind, why he’s a Democrat at all? Instead of just selectively eschewing the unpopular progressive items, he’s an across-the-board hesitant guy currently fighting for a lower corporate income tax rate.

A great piece by Emma Rindlisbacher and Andrew Perez over at The Daily Poster reveals that the leader of that fight on K Street is Blanche Lincoln, who was sort of a Joe Manchin of her era as a Democratic Senator from Arkansas in the 1998-2010 period. And this is exactly what was so frustrating about the large Democratic Senate caucus that existed in 2009-10. Back then a more moderate and ideologically diverse Democratic Party was able to hold down 59-60 Senate seats. Obviously, lots of those members were not going to be able to support a full-throated progressive agenda. But they didn’t just press Obama to trim his sails on his least-popular ideas. Moderate Democratic senators and their Blue Dog allies in the House fought for a smaller fiscal stimulus, opposed direct financial payments, urged Social Security cuts, killed the ACA public option, and got car dealerships exempted from Consumer Financial Protection Bureau scrutiny.

The frontline members are essentially torn in two directions. On the one hand, they are afraid of losing so they worry about embracing unpopular ideas. But on the other hand, they are afraid of losing so they want to be friendly with business lobbyists to have strong fallback options. If it were true via divine coincidence that the least popular progressive ideas are also the ones that draw the most trade association ire, that would be very lucky for them. But it’s not true, and it’s a huge problem!

The triangle of political safety

The basic issue is that when you’re trying to be politically cautious, there are really three different groups that you need to worry about. One is mass opinion (especially in your state or district). The other is the kind of interest group Lincoln is now working for as a lobbyist. And the third is a kind of wonk/expert class that has access to the media and is influential in party circles.

Now sometimes these things all come together. People in 2006 would be amazed to learn that in 2021, it’s totally politically safe for a Democrat to be firmly and proudly in favor of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. It’s popular with the public, it’s even more popular in high-status circles, and monied interests are, if anything, likely to give you a funny look for being on the other side.

The problem is that economic issues aren’t so easy.

And not just in the sense that business elites will push back against any progressive idea. Raising the gas tax to finance infrastructure upgrades would definitely make some enemies on K Street. But other business lobbies would be all for it. And experts would be thrilled. The problem is the public hates paying higher taxes. The public wants rich people to pay higher taxes. So Biden structured his plan that way. But monied interests don’t want to pay higher taxes! So now you have Joe Manchin fighting for less public works spending and a lower corporate tax rate.

The tension here unfortunately is pretty general, because a lot of the absolute most popular stuff you can do on economics is proposals that obscure costs with regulatory mandates. So the electorate likes CAFE standards much more than higher gas taxes. But industry doesn’t like either of those ideas. And experts strongly favor gas taxes.

Paid parental leave is very popular, for example, but only when structured as a regulatory mandate on employers rather than financed with taxes. The business lobby would probably not love either of these ideas. But small business owners, in particular, have very strong objections to these kinds of mandates. And if you think about it, these complaints make sense. If you only have five employees, then having 20% of your staff gone from work but still earning their salary is going to be a huge burden. So the tendency is to create carve-outs for smaller firms. Experts will generally tell you this is a bad structure and urge you to instead do something like the FAMILY Act, which is based on a payroll tax. That is, in fact, a better program design. But it’s less popular and, in this case, the lobbyists will oppose it either way.

And in a practical sense, the moderate members with the most to gain from popularism seem to constantly act with one eye on the revolving door.

Former moderates head for K Street

The Blanche Lincoln story is not unique in any way. Most of the Red State Democrats from her day are doing the same.

Max Baucus isn’t off ranching in Montana; he’s lobbying for a Bitcoin exchange that’s getting into hot water with bank regulators. When Joe Donnelly was in Congress, he tried to break with Democrats by supporting Donald Trump’s border wall (probably smart politics), but in concrete legislative terms, the most important bipartisan deal he and other moderate Democrats stuck before the 2018 midterms was to partially roll back some Dodd-Frank rules. That doesn’t make much sense as a popularist stance, but it’s helpful to pave the way for a soft landing at Akin Gump, the highest-grossing lobbying firm in DC, which is also where Kay Hagan landed after her defeat in 2014.

Mark Begich and Mark Pryor work together at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the second highest-grossing lobbying firm in DC. Evan Bayh is at Apollo Global Management.

I’m not someone who is 100% against private sector work or a hard-core revolving door scold.

But I think in some ways, this is actually a uniquely tricky terrain specifically for the moderate Democrats. If Maria Cantwell were to decide to leave the Senate and go cash in doing public policy work for Microsoft, on some level I’d think “who cares.” I’m sure Microsoft has some totally legitimate public policy concerns. They probably also have a bunch of not-so-legitimate concerns that any Washington State politician would back them up on anyway. And more to the point, the nature of the political dynamic in Washington State is that none of this really matters. I bet Cantwell sticks around the Senate a long time. But when she does leave, she’ll just routinely be replaced by some other normal Democrat.

Arkansas is different though. I think if you were to ask people in Arkansas why nobody in Arkansas votes for Democrats anymore, they’d cite alignment with Republicans on a bunch of cultural issues plus a generalized cynicism about political economy — cynicism that’s only going to be fueled by the reality that the last two Democrats that Arkansas sent to Congress are corporate lobbyists now.

It’s not factually true that Democrats are just the party of elitists and “woke capital.” But it’s not 100% false, either. And the essence of running in a tough state is that you’re swimming upstream against unflattering stereotypes about your party. If you’re a Democrat in a district with lots of gun owners, high levels of church attendance, and not so many educated cosmopolitan types, then you want to simultaneously not be a socialist while also really emphasizing that there is an important class element to politics and your opponents are in hock to pernicious business interests. But the Democrats most likely to face these problems are themselves often the Democrats who are most in hock to pernicious business interests.

The most popular ideas aren’t very “moderate”

The reason this gets so tricky is that the left-of-center economic policy ideas that are most popular tend not to be especially “moderate” as defined by conventional elite politics.

The Loan Shark Prevention Act, which would cap interest rates on consumer loans, tests extremely well even with rigorous pro and con arguments. This would get a lot of people a better deal on their credit cards and basically eliminate the payday lending industry — an industry that is not admired or liked. Everyone knows Social Security is very popular, and so it’s no huge surprise that expanding Social Security polls very well. So do various ways to make prescription drugs cheaper by cracking down on pharmaceutical companies. Last but by no means least, people love the wealth tax.

A politically optimal red-state Democrat would be probably further right on several things than the actually existing Joe Manchin and Jon Tester, but also pounding the table for a couple of select left-populist economic ideas.

But note that these ideas not only challenge business interests and rich people, they are also very different from the kind of sophisticated “let’s copy Sweden and Denmark” thinking that a lot of high-status expert types would endorse. Indeed, expanding Social Security is so outré that even the left-wing members of Congress who support the idea don’t actually emphasize or prioritize it in any way. People are out there fighting to have child care or larger-scale green investments included in Biden’s Jobs Plan, or they’re fighting for student debt forgiveness or to try to stick a path to citizenship for undocumented essential workers into a reconciliation bill. There’s no genre of Democrat whose one big thing is we need to give more money to the elderly.

Now I’ll be totally honest — these aren’t my favorite ideas either. None of them are what I’d consider optimal policy design or the highest priority ideas in the world. But it’s not like the Biden Jobs Act proposal is optimal policy design or addressing the absolute most important ideas in the world either. To some extent, we’re all just muddling through in a fallen world. And if you’re looking for a way to appeal to potentially persuadable rural white voters, there’s just a much stronger evidentiary basis for taking on credit card and pharmaceutical companies than for promising rural broadband subsidies.

Will anyone pay for popularism?

The big problem here, obviously, is money.

But not just in The Daily Poster sense that the corrupting power of money in politics prevents red-state Democrats from being popularists. We’ve seen Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and AOC and Cori Bush and many others prove that grassroots small-dollar donations can easily match or even beat traditional big-money fundraising.

What makes it difficult is that the kind of pundits and social media influencers who drive grassroots money also reject popularism. The people who’d clap loudest for the Loan Shark Prevention Act are going to be furious when Senator Popularist votes “yes” on banning late-term abortions and “no” on an assault weapons ban and free college.

Some loser like me will be out there making the point that it doesn’t actually help women to replace Senator Popularist with a replacement-level Republican who supports much more severe abortion restrictions and also makes it impossible for Democratic presidents to get federal judges confirmed. But we all know how that kind of argument goes. And more to the point, the whole deal with high-volume, small-quantity donors is that they aren’t really motivated by transactional or strategic considerations. They are donating expressively to their favorite politicians and a politician who goes against your values on abortion and guns isn’t that guy.

You can in fact see these pressures at work on Sanders himself, who in 2017 took vehement criticism for endorsing an anti-abortion Democrat in Nebraska. Sanders’ record is resolutely pro-choice, but his vision of a class-oriented “political revolution” counsels in favor of a certain big tent approach to non-economic issues. While this controversy was raging, Sanders defended himself. But he learned his lesson and never did it again. Trying to help a true popularist win reelection would be significantly stigmatizing.

The next politics

It seems unlikely to me that anything about this dynamic will really change until after it’s too late and Democrats have already lost power in Washington.

I’ve found it striking to watch how the once very pragmatic Democracy Alliance donor circle has increasingly turned into a force pulling things further to the left. But I think it’s a natural cycle of elections. That spirit of pragmatism was born out of defeat in 2004 and it delivered successes in 2006 and 2008. Then there were some significant governance and political failures in 2009-10 that were wrongly attributed to a lack of ideological purity. And ever since then, American politics has been in a kind of tenuous see-saw. Trump of course won in 2016, but Democrats felt more that they’d been cheated — by the media’s stupid email obsession, by the Electoral College, perhaps by Russian military intelligence — than that they’d been beaten. Then they came roaring back in 2018.

In 2020, they looked at polls telling them they were on track for a landslide. And while the huge landslide didn’t quite materialize, they did still win.

Victory covers many sins, and as long as you’re sitting on a 50-51 Senate majority, it’s hard to focus minds on the sheer scale of the geographic disadvantage and the poor odds for retaining a majority absent a sharp course correction.

But if Republicans do sweep into office in 2024 or 2028, then that gives elite actors in the progressive space reason to reconsider their ideological Puritanism.

It also tempts Republicans to go back to George W. Bush’s efforts to cut Social Security or Paul Ryan’s efforts to cut Medicare and Medicaid. Those guys didn’t push that agenda for no reason, after all. They believed doing it was necessary to maintain America’s low taxes. The long years of the economy being depressed and interest rates and inflation being very low meant that wasn’t true, so Trump could just sweep in and cut taxes while leaving retirement programs alone. Even he was tempted into trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act, and it was a huge disaster. If Jay Powell can deliver full employment and a world where deficits matter again, then I think it’s likely this agenda returns. At that point, the bar for what it takes to be a popularist Democrat gets much lower — it’s just don’t cut Social Security and Medicare.

That’s very popular. And defending the status quo doesn’t particularly mobilize business lobbyists against you. Last, the status quo matters to lots of wonky expert types too. Center-left people who’d be upset if you proposed expanding Social Security — citing the poor targeting and non-optimality of the policy — would gladly agree that cutting it in order to keep taxes on the rich low is a bad idea. Alternatively, Republicans might take the other horn of the dilemma and stop arguing for regressive tax policy. I doubt they’d ever do this. But if they did, they’d be an electoral juggernaut that could score a lot of wins on abortion and guns and other things that seem to matter more to rank-and-file Republicans than taxes.