Why Centrist Democrats are Wrong

In a recent column, political commentator and centrist Democrat  Fareed Zakaria  argues that the current round of progressive policy proposals such as The Green New Deal  and Single Payer Health Care  are the wrong ideas for the Democratic Party. The right ideas, according to Zakaria, are the kinds of “wonky proposals” that centrists have advocated over the last three decades.

It is refreshing to see the Democratic Party bubbling with new ideas. But this new  thinking seems starkly different from the party’s reform efforts of the past three decades. The wonky proposals of the Clinton-Obama era were pragmatic and incremental, and they mixed market incentives with government action. Today, we have big, stirring ideas — and that could be the problem.

In their zeal to match the sweeping rhetoric of right-wing populism, Democrats are spinning out dramatic proposals in which facts are sometimes misrepresented, the numbers occasionally don’t add up, and emotional appeal tends to trump actual policy analysis.

Part of what is wrong with Zakaria’s argument is an implicit premise that the Third Way Centrism  which characterized the Clinton and Obama administrations will live up to its promise to deliver social protection with market efficiency.  In actuality, that kind of centrism is just as likely to lead to complex,  unwieldy, and consequently, unpopular solutions.  The Affordable Care Act required a complex maze of mandates, subsidies, taxes and rule in order to create the fictional marketplace of the state health care exchanges. It has also done little to bend the cost curve , reduce ballooning out of pocket expenses and rising deductibles for medical consumers, or reduce the financial burden on employers of providing health insurance.  Where the Affordable Care Act did improve coverage and make a difference, was in the simplest and  most direct provisions such as the medicaid expansion and requirement that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. A simple, direct, extension of Medicare buy in for those who need to purchase health insurance on their own could have provided greater coverage with fewer complications than the creation of multiple state exchanges. This simple idea, it should be noted, was scuttled by centrist Democrat, Joe Lieberman.

This does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that current proposals for Single Payer Health Insurance and the Green New Deal in their current form will or should be adopted. If they were to come to fruition, there would be the inevitable scaling back and necessary political compromise.  Their proponents, as of present, have not done well in explaining the costs and the mechanisms of financing.  There may be other, better mechanisms of financing than a  wealth tax or 70% marginal rate on the highest incomes. For example, genuine tax reform which treats all sources of income as the same for tax purposes, though perhaps as politically difficult as a 70% margin, still deserves consideration. There are also other ideas worth discussing such as a Universal Basic Income advocated by Democratic Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang.  Zakaria and others have made a valid point, that emotion and moral zeal may be outrunning sound policy analysis, but that does not mean that the ideas themselves are intrinsically bad ones.

It is also worth noting, that our military budget which is scheduled to climb  to 700 billion dollars, a figure which adjusted for inflation, still represents our largest military outlays ever. And though estimates of the full cost of our ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are disputed, credible estimates range from 1.5 trillion to 5.6 trillion.  Yet in spite of this, the Trump administration has added substantially to our deficit and debt from its most recent round of tax cuts. Empire, as it turns out, which has also been favored by centrists such as the Clintons and though to a lesser degree,  by Obama, is expensive.

To win in 2020, the Democrats will indeed need more than just good sounding ideas. They will also need focused, persuasive arguments and substantive policy analysis without losing the public in a morass of detail. That is a tall order. But a vision of an economy with full employment at a living wage, easy and affordable access to health care, coupled with a more realistic and workable foreign policy will provide a better chance of  victory than a rehashing of centrist proposals.

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