democratic party

Why Is It So Hard for Moderate Democrats to ‘Do Popular Things’?

Democrat Josh Gottheimer
Democrat Josh Gottheimer, right, popular things hater. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

“Do popular things.” That might not seem like an especially innovative prescription for how to win elections and influence policy. But over the past year, many in blue America have treated the commandment as though it were a paradigm-shifting hypothesis akin to the theory of relativity. “Popularism” — the notion that it would be politically wise for Democrats to focus their rhetoric and legislative efforts on reforms that voters like — has won its proselytizers’ national attention and congressional favor, while attracting no small amount of controversy and refutations.

None of which is as silly as it sounds.

The “popularist” front, led by Democratic data scientist David Shor and the progressive think tank Data for Progress, has put forward a genuine, semi-novel insight: Many substantively radical ideas enjoy broad public support, while many putatively moderate ones do not. Political pragmatism is not synonymous with Beltway centrism.

Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax is both an (arguably unconstitutional) attack on property rights and wildly popular. Barack Obama’s 2012 embrace of Social Security cuts was both a sop to Acela corridor centrism and politically toxic. As preached by Data for Progress, “popularism” is less a corrective for the politics of progressive self-expression than one for those of centrist self-delusion.

This said, the “do popular things” crowd does counsel ideological discipline among progressive lawmakers and activist groups. And, in the wake of last summer’s calls to “defund the police,” it was this aspect of popularism that earned its adherents the ardor of anti-woke cable-news hosts, and the criticism of some left-liberal pundits, who’ve raised both ethical and empirical objections to making “do popular things” a Democratic imperative.

On Capitol Hill today, however, the popularist ethos is dividing the Democratic Party’s center more than its left flank.

Last week, a group of “front line” Democratic House members — lawmakers whose districts are, on average, more red than blue — called for a major change in their party’s impending $3.5 trillion spending bill. Specifically, the moderates argued that, to appeal to the heartland, the legislation must empower the government to dictate prices in the pharmaceutical market, corporate profits be damned. In a letter to House leadership, purple-district Democrats Elissa Slotkin, Sharice Davids, and Susan Wild, among others, asked for the forthcoming reconciliation bill to give Medicare the authority to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Such a reform makes both political and substantive sense. It would deliver a clear, high-salience benefit (cheaper drugs) to a powerful voting bloc (senior citizens); generate $456 billion in government savings, which could help “pay for” the law’s other provisions; and modestly reduce inflation, the biggest macroeconomic liability that Democrats currently face. The policy is also among the most broadly popular in existence — one Gallup poll pegs support at 81 percent.

And yet, as HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard reports, a separate contingent of moderates has already pledged to block any spending bill that includes partisan (i.e., significant) drug-price reforms:

​​The biggest hurdle to action, at least for now, is a relatively small number of moderate Democrats, most of whom signed on to a separate letter in May threatening to vote against any action on pharmaceutical prices that did not have bipartisan support. The party’s small majority in the House means that these centrists could block any action. 

… While this group of moderates does include some members who hold swing seats, many of them ― including Peters, New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer and Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss ― also have a history of taking significant donations from the pharmaceutical industry. In contrast with the members demanding action on drug prices, the moderates pushing back represent districts with an average [Partisan Voter Index] of D +9. 

It’s possible that Gottheimer and Auchincloss share a deep-seated ideological opposition to partisan pharmaceutical-pricing laws. But it seems more likely that their position is informed by political calculation.

For the Democratic Party as a whole, Medicare drug-pricing reform is a political no-brainer. But that is not necessarily true for all of the party’s members as individuals. Gottheimer and Auchincloss are not going to rake in small-dollar donations from ideologically motivated Democratic superfans. They both rely on large-dollar funders, of which the pharmaceutical industry is a big one. Further, they both represent areas in which Big Pharma is a significant employer: New Jersey and Massachusetts contain two of America’s largest pharmaceutical hubs. Thus, they have more cause for fearing a PhRMA-funded negative ad blitz than other Democrats do. A Republican nonprofit — bankrolled, in part, by the pharmaceutical industry — launched a $5 million ad campaign in May that argues that Medicare drug-price negotiation will chase pill-manufacturing jobs to China.

This is not to excuse Gottheimer and Auchincloss’s opposition to a policy that would stop highly profitable firms from bilking seniors. Auchincloss can certainly afford to buck Big Pharma, given that he represents a safe blue district. And even in Gottheimer’s more Republican jurisdiction, the median voter is unlikely to recoil at cheaper drug prices. The point is simply that elected officials’ (often craven) calculations of their own best interests are informed by factors beyond national issue polling. For some moderate Democrats — especially those in highly competitive districts, who lack job security by definition — such factors may include the desire to maximize one’s future employability as a lobbyist for well-heeled interests.

Ultimately, the problem that popularists like David Shor wish to address is broader than the mere ideological indiscipline of Democratic politicians and activists. The issue is the Democratic Party’s relative lack of institutional mechanisms for identifying its long-term best interests, and getting its members to place those interests above their own. To a degree, these failings are inherent in the nature of America’s political parties and governing institutions. The former are weak, decentralized entities; the latter insulate members of Congress’s upper chamber from various forms of partisan and popular pressure through the provision of six-year terms. Nevertheless, within these constraints, party leaders can be more or less effective at enforcing party discipline. The success of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda rests, in no small part, on whether the Democratic leadership can force their moderate members’ mass conversion to popularism.

The president’s jobs and families plans look tailored to the tenets of popularist thought. Consisting of more than $4 trillion of public investments in green energy, public infrastructure, and welfare state expansion, the Biden agenda would constitute liberalism’s greatest legislative advance since the Johnson presidency. Yet it is virtually bereft of politically risky provisions. New welfare spending is concentrated on children and the elderly, the two most sympathetic constituencies for such aid. The package’s modest reforms to the health-care system do not disrupt private insurance for the change-averse upper-middle class; they merely expand and improve existing public insurance programs. Biden’s climate agenda features no explicit tax on carbon, only a mix of mandates and public investments. And of course, absolutely none of the president’s initiatives are financed by tax increases on the middle class.

Biden’s commitment to accommodating public opinion poses constraints on his progressivism. It is impossible to create and sustain a European-style welfare state without asking America’s middle class to pay higher taxes. And the Democratic leadership’s simultaneous insistence on forgoing such increases — and honoring voters’ avowed skepticism about deficit spending in opinion polls — has rendered the party’s climate plan woefully inadequate to the scale of the crisis.

Despite these deficiencies, congressional progressives have been broadly supportive of the president’s ambitions. Last week, Bernie Sanders gave his blessing to the Democratic leadership’s proposed $3.5 trillion budget resolution, calling it the “most consequential” policy since the 1930s. Opposition to the Biden agenda is concentrated among a small number of moderate lawmakers who put more stock in the executive class’s views on tax policy than they do in the general public’s. Joe Manchin has already all but vetoed the president’s initial proposal for the corporate tax rate, while various other moderate Democrats have balked at doubling the capital gains rate and ending stepped-up basis for millionaire heirs.

The Democratic leadership’s apparent bet is that (1) they can find enough budget gimmicks and unconventional revenue raisers to replace the tax hikes that displease moderates most, and (2) if that isn’t enough to appease the party’s most recalcitrant centrists, fear of sabotaging Biden’s presidency will. The byzantine budget-reconciliation process has forced Democrats to bundle all of their party’s major initiatives into a single, mammoth bill. That will eventually force the Gottheimers and Manchins of the world to make a binary choice between acceding to policies too progressive (and popular) for their taste and ensuring that their entire party look like a collection of incompetents incapable of governance. The Democratic leadership seems to believe that their moderates will resign themselves to the former.

If that analysis proves correct, then Biden’s resulting legacy will owe as much to legislative brinksmanship as it will to ruthless poll testing.

Why Is It So Hard for Moderate Dems to ‘Do Popular Things’?