Tell Me, Chuck: What Should Dems Do To Win Back the Middle Class?


A longtime reader writes: “Hope you’ll weigh in on Edsall on Schumer and the Dems ‘destroying’ the party over Obamacare.”

Well, OK. But I don’t have an awful lot to say. Basically, Sen. Chuck Schumer thinks Democrats made a mistake in 2009. They should have focused like a laser on the economy, and in particular, on helping the working and middle classes. Instead they passed Obamacare. This was yet another social welfare program that mostly helps the poor, demonstrating once again that they don’t really care much about the middle class.

Yesterday, Tom Edsall weighed in on this. He didn’t really take a political position of his own, but he did present a bunch of evidence that Schumer was substantively correct. That is, Obamacare really does help mainly the poor, and Democrats really have done very little for the middle class lately.

So what’s my view? Well, I’ve written about this before, and I’d say that on a technical level Edsall is exactly right. On the upside, Obamacare does help the working and middle classes a bit, partly because its subsidies are available even to those with relatively high incomes and partly because of its other provisions. For example, its guarantee that you can get affordable coverage even if you have a preexisting condition is something that helps everyone. If you’re middle class and you lose your job, that provision of Obamacare might be a lifesaver.

Still, there’s no question that Obamacare helps the middle classes only at the margins. Most of them already have employer health coverage, and the ones that end up buying coverage through the exchanges get only small subsidies. I happen to think that Obamacare will eventually be the foundation for a program of universal health care that genuinely appeals to everyone, the same way that Social Security does, but that’s in the future. It doesn’t really help Democrats now.

So I agree with Edsall about the technical distribution of Obamacare benefits. And I also agree with Schumer that Democrats need to do more to appeal to the working and middle classes. So that means I agree with their basic critique. Right?

Nope. Not even slightly. You see, the core of the critique isn’t merely that Democrats should do more for the middle class. It’s specifically that Democrats should have done more in 2009 for the middle class. But this is the point at which everything suddenly gets hazy. What should Obama have done in lieu of Obamacare? Paul Krugman has it exactly right:

When people say that Obama should have “focused” on the economy, what, specifically, are they saying he should have done?….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?

In broad terms, I agree with Schumer’s critique. Democrats need to do more to appeal to the working and middle classes, not just the poor. But Schumer is maddeningly vague about just what that means. And as it relates to 2009, in particular, he’s full of hot air. In the first few months of the year, Obama passed a big stimulus. He rescued the auto industry. He cut everyone’s payroll taxes.

Should Obama have done more? Oh my, yes. His pivot to the deficit in mid-2009 was dumb. And by far the biggest smoking gun of unfinished business was something to rescue underwater homeowners. But let’s be serious: even if Obama had supported a broad rescue effort, it wouldn’t have mattered. Congress wasn’t on board, and I doubt very much that anything could have gotten them on board. The politics was just too toxic. Never forget that the mere prospect of maybe rescuing underwater homeowners was the issue that set off Rick Santelli’s famous CNBC rant and led to the formation of the tea party movement. I wish things were otherwise, but bailing out underwater homeowners was simply never in the cards.

Beyond that, Democrats have a much bigger problem than even Schumer acknowledges. It’s this: what can they do? That is, what big ticket items are left that would buy the loyalty of the middle class for another generation? We already have Social Security and Medicare. We have Obamacare. We have the mortgage interest deduction. What’s left?

There are smallish things. Sometime people point to college loans. Or universal pre-K. I’m in favor of those things. But college loans are a stopgap, and the truth is that the rising price of college for the middle class is mainly a state issue, not a federal one. And universal pre-K simply doesn’t yet have enough political support. (It’s also something that would most likely benefit the poor much more than the middle class, but leave that aside for the moment.)

So I’ll ask the same question I’ve asked before. 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’ political fortunes. Nor will heroic but vague formulations about rescuing unions or raising taxes on the wealthy by a few points.

So tell me. What should they have done in 2009 that was actually feasible? What should they do now? Let’s hear it.