Watching the Republicans glory in their new majority in the Senate and expanded majority in the House is hard to take for progressive Democrats. Democrats have dug ourselves a deep hole, and the country will suffer as the most conservative political party in American history controls the Congress. What very few people (especially progressive activists) understand, though, is that it is in moments like this when really important victories can be won.
America’s political history is full of examples. Decisive defeat in an election doesn’t automatically spell doom to the side either in the short run or long run in terms of policy fights. The election of hard pro-slavery President James Buchanan, followed by the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, was the pinnacle of slave power, where it looked like all political power had been stripped from the abolitionist movement, yet less than a decade later, slavery was outlawed for all time. William McKinley’s decisive 1900 defeat of William Jennings Bryan looked like the end of populist hopes and dreams, yet within a few years much of the populist agenda was starting to be enacted. It was a bitter disappointment when Nixon pulled out an incredibly close win against liberal stalwart Humphrey, but in Nixon’s first term OSHA and the EPA were founded, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, and the first affirmative action programs were put in place.
And here are some questions about more recent times: when were the only two minimum wage increases between 1980 and 2007? 1990, after the devastating win by GHW Bush in 1988, and 1996, after the Republicans swept into power in the 1994 elections. When was the tax reform bill essentially written by the strongest progressive tax group (Citizens for Tax Justice) in the country passed? 1986, after the Reagan landslide in 1984. When was the landmark bill providing health insurance to children passed? 1997, when Gingrich was Speaker. When was the only progressive legislation on corporate corruption (Sarbanes-Oxley) passed since 1980? 2002, after the second Bush won the first time and with Tom DeLay the most powerful man in the House. When did the President’s top priority legislation, Social Security privatization, never even come up for a vote in spite of the Republicans having control of both Houses of Congress in the aftermath of two bad elections for the Democrats? 2005, after both Bush and several new GOP Senators won.
It is time for progressives to stop thinking only defensively (although defensive battles can be great wins as well, like the Social Security fight against Bush), and start thinking about what we can win. While it is true that the Republican party keeps getting further and further to the right, making it hard to pass good legislation, let me give some examples of some of the ways we can fight and win progressive victories over the next two years:
1. Obama still has the power of executive action. He began to use this power in earnest over the last two years on immigration, climate change, Cuba, and wages paid to workers for federal contractors, but there is far more he can do, and Progressives should push him to do more and bigger things. One example: On the wage front, Obama did a couple of good things over the last year but he could do so much more. He raised the minimum wage paid to workers for those companies who contract for the federal government, but only to $10.10 — there is no reason it can’t be higher, and indexed for inflation. He could do something on the overtime wage issue. He could push federal contractors to do more to give their workers bargaining rights. He could force contractors to simply obey labor laws, like the USDA wanted to do a few years ago but was forced to back off by the White House. Treasury could tighten regulations and step up enforcement on the big Wall Street banks (and could even throw a few bankers in jail for the very real crimes they have committed). On environment, on trade, on procurement and contracting, on many other issues, the administration could deliver some big and important progressive victories in the next two years.
2. The Obama administration should not play only on defense in the next two years on the federal budget. McConnell famously promised the Koch brothers he would attach all kinds of riders to budget bills if he became the Majority Leader, and he will try. But Obama should play some offense too. In the Clinton years, we won some big fights with the Republicans in the budgeting process, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, by playing hardball. Given that it is Republicans that will always get blamed for government shutdowns (voters have figured out that they are the anti-government party), Obama can play hardball again.
3. McConnell is promising a more open amendment process. Let’s hold him to his word and take advantage of it. A more open amendment process is how Teddy Kennedy pushed through the minimum wage increase in 1996. Not a single legislator claimed to like the sweetheart deal for Wall Street speculators a Citi lobbyist snuck into the last budget bill- we should offer an amendment to strip it when it comes to the floor. Progressives have the high political ground on most economic issues, with big majorities favoring our positions- let’s take advantage of that fact in the amendment process.
4. In spite of the fact Democratic candidates were losing big in 2014, we won a lot of good things in the ballot initiative process. Let’s build on that success and use that process to win more strong progressive victories on key economic, social, and environmental issues.
5. Make an example out of the defensive fights we have to fight. When George W. Bush was beaten badly on Social Security privatization, it hurt him badly in the 2006 election, and it changed the politics of the issue in a big way. When the truly awful Trans-Pacific Partnership is being debated, let’s do the same thing. We can win on this issue with a good strategy because a lot of Republicans don’t like handing over so much power to the administration, and by waging an aggressive campaign, we can make future Democratic presidents very nervous about battles over pro-big business trade bills.
My advice to my fellow Progressives: Don’t feel sorry for yourselves as the Republicans bask in their victories this week, and stop focusing 100 percent of the time on playing defense. We can win some important fights in the next two years, we just need to craft a strong strategy and go execute it.