Readers of this column have surely noted that I am frequently unsparing in my critique of the Democratic leadership and the labor movement. But I must say that the results of the Nov. 6 midterm election have given me cause to hope that the Dem leaders have turned a corner and appear to have some inkling about how to proceed going forward.
In my columns over the last 16 months, I have adhered to a few consistent messaging and process approaches that I think the Democrats must adopt in order to regenerate their working- and middle-class base. Income security (not The Economy, Stupid!) should be the overarching message. Stop relying on big-money contributions. Reinvigorate the calcified party apparatus on the national, state and local levels, and organize those millennials who want to be active.
Addressing Right Issues
The post-election House Democratic agenda addresses all those issues to some degree. They have inched toward an income-security message by including strengthening the Affordable Care Act, moving to regulate the incessant increases and high costs of prescription drugs, and highlighting the need for a comprehensive, national infrastructure-rebuilding and investment plan. These are modest efforts to help families maintain their income security, and they create good jobs through important and necessary government investment.
They also address the corrosive influence of big money in politics by putting changes to future campaign finance and ethics laws, including the disclosure of political donors, on the agenda. They would also change the House rules to ban Members from sitting on corporate boards. Again, these are modest proposals, but they address an issue that is consistently in the forefront of voters’ concerns with the electoral process.
Indeed, in terms of campaign fundraising, the Dems seem to have finally reached the place presciently shown to them beginning with Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, and continuing through the presidential campaigns of John Edwards, John Kerry and Barack Obama. That is the fact that small-donor contributions can more than adequately fund any campaign on any level. In fact, by late October, Democratic congressional candidates had outraised Republicans by more than $78 million! If the Democrats stay on this path in the future, they will not only have more than enough money to run their candidates, they will also have in the process generated a list of supporters for organizing and voting purposes, and taken the high ground on the corrosive influence of the money-policy connection.
Rose’s Win a Blueprint
The election results also showed that the Democrats have found the happy medium between imposing a message and organization from above onto local races, and working with their candidates to craft local-issue messages and grassroots organizing. I saw that first-hand in my own Staten Island/Brooklyn congressional race where Max Rose defeated Dan Donovan and ended years of Republican dominance. Rose ran a textbook campaign with a combination of a relentless door-to-door ground strategy and an advertising/messaging effort that highlighted local concerns. And he raised his funds in mostly small-donor amounts.
So politically speaking, the Dems have gotten some of their mojo back. Now comes the hard part: governing. And it is in that context that it is even more important for the House Democrats to show they can return dignity, reason, ethics and substance to the inanity that currently inhabits our politics.
It seems that the newly elected Democratic House Members lean to the view that public office should be a vocation more than a career. If that is indeed the case, then the new Dem House majority should lighten up on the politics and start legislating, because that is what legislatures do. Don’t let that shiny object called Trump distract you. Yes, keep your eye on him. Not as Trump, but as President, the inhibitor of Article 2 of the Constitution.
Remember that the Framers created the Congress in Article 1, and not by accident. They had just won a seven-year war against a despot executive—the King of England. So their interest was in creating a government where the legislative body, the representative of the people, would be as powerful, if not more so, than the Executive. Hence, as 1 precedes 2, the Congress preceded the Executive as more important in the minds of the Framers.
So, Democratic House of Representatives, act like the nation’s legislature! Let your new young horses loose to debate policy. Keep the public informed. Celebrate the institution you now control. Keep an eye on that shiny object called Trump, but don’t let it blind you. You may not enact many laws, but you can show the American people what it means to have a competent democracy by introducing and advancing legislative proposals.
Must Connect With Workers
So, this midterm election has provided cause for some celebration. But, as usual, I must end with some words of caution. A Nov. 9 New York Times graphic showed the Democrats winning 86 percent of competitive districts in an economic tier described as “well off.” But they won a combined average of less than 30 percent of competitive seats in all the other tiers below “well off”—from “comfortable” to “distressed.” That should cause great concern. The Democratic Party must be the representative of the middle- and lower-income classes. Of course, the party should try to appeal to all citizens. But economic downturns will always be with us. So if Democrats are not connecting with working and struggling citizens now, where will they be when the owner economy turns against everyone else, and today’s well-off become tomorrow’s marginal and distressed?
My suggestion has always been, focus on work and workers. But nowhere in the reporting on the Dem agenda could I find the words “labor,” “worker” or “union.” I feel certain that unions participated significantly in many of the Dem congressional victories. But it is extremely unsettling to see no mention in the Democratic House agenda of the importance of the unobstructed freedom to organize; no mention of work as a human service instead of a commercial commodity; no mention of a worker’s right to negotiate the circumstances of his or her service.
If this is a purposeful decision agreed to by the leaders of labor and the House leadership to move labor’s concerns to the back-burner so as to keep our issues below the trench line for a while, then I can understand that as a temporary tactic. But if there has been no mention of work, workers or unions because the Democratic leaders are fearful of ever uttering those words, and the titans of labor have not been involved in setting the Dems’ agenda, then we have a really big problem.
One can only hope that is not the case.
Editor’s note: Mr. Montalbano is a retired labor lobbyist and former political action director for District Council 37.
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