Left Turn? (National Journal)

Liberals in Congress believe that 2009 could be their best year since the New Deal.

From rank-and-file freshmen to committee chairmen, the Left is forecasting big electoral wins followed by major legislative action in 2009. Some go as far to predict that the public policy changes could be the most significant since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s.

By Brian Friel

On the afternoon of April 9, the ballroom of Washington's Willard Hotel belonged to Bernie Sanders. The independent senator from Vermont with Einsteinian hair and an admiration for Scandinavian-style socialism stood before a few hundred like-minded liberal activists who had convened to contemplate the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal on its 75th anniversary.

The grassroots organizers, political strategists, and students at the event had spent nearly as much time in the hours before Sanders's speech bashing President Bush's two terms as they did celebrating FDR's four. So a couple of stabs from the Brooklyn-accented Sanders elicited roars of laughter from the crowd.

"I don't know where the hell they got this word from, 'robust,' " Sanders said, referring to a term Bush commonly uses to describe the economy."It's always 'robust.' And 'strong fundamentals,' and 'sound'--all this crap." The liberals laughed. Sanders then explained his opposition to Bush's new Office of Management and Budget director, Jim Nussle: "I want somebody at OMB who can, at the very least, explain the reality of American life to the president." The liberals laughed even harder.

But in wrapping up his 10-minute pitch, Sanders urged the crowd to look past the Bush presidency. "The disgust for right-wing extremism and the Bush administration is very apparent," he said. "Our job is, now, to give the American people a progressive alternative." He admonished the Democratic Party to start "forgetting about their campaign contributors" and fight for national health care, tax increases on the wealthy, cuts in military spending, and an end to the Iraq war. "We need to galvanize the American people to demand radical changes in the way we do business," Sanders implored.

As the November elections draw closer, such heady talk is increasingly common among congressional liberals--or progressives, as many of them prefer to be called. From rank-and-file freshmen to committee chairmen, the Left is forecasting big electoral wins followed by major legislative action in 2009. "If you get a Democratic House, Senate, and president, you will see positive public policy changes that will outstrip anything since the New Deal," House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., boldly predicted on April 24.

Many potential obstacles loom. Democrats may not win big in November. Moderates and conservatives in their caucus may organize opposition against proposals that would be unpopular in Republican-leaning territory represented by Democratic lawmakers. Progressives may fail to develop a clear political strategy and attract enough public support to get their proposals signed into law over GOP objections. Or they may keep their ambitions in check out of fear that an overreaching agenda could backfire on Democrats in subsequent elections. But, at the moment, optimism rules the liberal ranks.

"I'm looking forward to November," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a key liberal on the House Rules Committee, said. "If things turn out the right way, this could be the beginning of a time of great transformation."

A Bush Backlash

The progressives' optimism is fueled by poll after poll showing that the American public favors their policy positions.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the liberal bloc in the House, points out that most Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq. "The elected members of Congress are not listening to the public," Woolsey said. "The public wants us to leave, but it doesn't know how it wants us to leave. That's our job."

In addition, surveys show that most Americans disapprove of the country's direction and of Bush's performance. The public trusts Democrats more than Republicans to deal with the economy and health care. Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, has pointed out that the number of Americans who agree with the statement "Government should care for those who can't care for themselves" rose from 57 percent in 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress, to 69 percent in 2007, when Democrats took over.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who ousted GOP Sen. Mike DeWine in 2006, said the election results that year proved that the country is moving in a progressive direction. "All the seats that went from Republican to Democrat in the Senate were people running on progressive economic issues--on alternative energy, on raising the minimum wage, on a different trade policy," Brown said.

At numerous gatherings this year, liberal activists have promoted the view that a national backlash is brewing against the Bush administration and 12 years of Republican control of Congress--a force that will carry a Democrat into the White House and more Democrats into the House and Senate. The economic downturn increases public support for government activism, liberals say.

Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a progressive group based in New York City, said that Congress appears increasingly willing to intervene in the financial markets. "There's a pretty unprecedented opportunity to drive a progressive agenda in Congress," she said.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the other co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said that people "are really sick and tired" of the agenda that Bush pursued during the past eight years. "The alternative of that is a strong progressive agenda that enacts universal health care, and brings the troops home, and looks at how we cut poverty in half," Lee said. "Just the opposite of what the Bush administration is and has been is the progressive agenda."

Similarly, Brown said that progressives hope to correct the negative consequences of past policy steps that limited the government's reach. "It's clear that so much of what's brought on the economic problems now are because we've done tax cuts for the rich and we've deregulated the whole financial structure," Brown said. "Look at what we have with the economy, with oil prices, the problems with the airlines. It's all been around deregulation and seeing the wealthy get wealthier and the middle class shrinking."

In Frank's view, the nation's economic woes are on par with the problems that led to the two major liberal legislative programs in the first half of the 20th century--the progressive reforms, including antitrust laws, under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the New Deal under FDR. The first era of government activism resulted from the rise of giant industrial corporations; the second from the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression.

At an April 24 Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Frank said that once Democrats gain full control of Washington, they'll usher in a new era of government activism to respond to the unregulated securitization of debt that led to the subprime mortgage crisis and other problems facing the economy. He also predicted a variety of other progressive initiatives.

"You'll see expansions in health care," Frank said. "I think you'll see an increase in the rights to join unions. You'll see increased regulation. You're going to see the updated [Securities and Exchange Commission], the updated [National Labor Relations Board], an updated Medicare.... We'll get back to the business of building affordable housing. I think you'll see substantial activity."

During debate on the congressional budget resolution each year, progressives lay out their priorities by proposing an alternative plan. This year, they proposed cutting funds for the Iraq war and for the Pentagon in general, and their budget assumed that many of the tax cuts approved during Bush's first term would expire. Progressives would redirect that money--hundreds of billions of dollars--to domestic infrastructure and anti-poverty programs. By contrast, the Democratic budget that the House approved in March assumed continued war funding, matched Bush's proposed Pentagon increases, and provided less domestic spending than the progressives' proposal.

"We believe in global peace and security, but we don't believe in a defense budget that allows the Halliburtons of the world and other defense contractors to take money--and then we never know what happened to the money," Lee said.

Congress must be more assertive in overseeing foreign policy and national security, Woolsey added. "We are not just a cheering section or a booing section," she said. She also argued for a clear commitment to multilateralism and international agreements. "We need a bold policy where we're working with other nations, to understand we all depend on each other," she said. And, although she conceded that some call the sentiment corny, Woolsey added: "We have to have world peace."

On the domestic front, Sanders is one of several lawmakers who are framing the progressive agenda around the middle class. He has been regularly reading constituents' letters on the Senate floor as part of a campaign he calls "the collapse of the middle class" that seeks to highlight the struggles of working Americans to deal with the rising costs of health care, education, food, housing, and energy.

Progressives should focus on statistics that show the concentration of wealth among the richest Americans and the decline of real incomes for working families, Sanders said. "Class warfare has been waged for years in this country, and all the evidence suggests that the wealthy are winning," he told National Journal. "It's time for the Congress to begin to stand with the middle class and take on very powerful and wealthy interests."

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government-Sponsored Enterprises, told the same crowd that Sanders addressed on April 9 that his discussions with Wall Street leaders have left him worried that the country could be headed into a depression that would require a New Deal-sized government response. Congress is already resurrecting New Deal programs, he said, as a first step toward confronting the housing market's problems.

"All we're doing is going into the basket and saying, 'Damn, what did they do in '32, what did they do in '34, what did they do in '36,' and we're pulling them out, dusting them off, giving them a paint job, correcting the fenders a bit, and we're using them," Kanjorski said. "To get us through the horrendous problems we may have over the next several years, we've got to make these old programs work, and we've got to be as inventive as hell."

Reality Check

It is notable that when progressives allude to history, they don't mention the Great Society, even though President Johnson and his Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate in the mid-1960s enacted the most recent, large-scale liberal legislative program, including the establishment of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, public housing, and other anti-poverty programs, plus the passage of landmark civil-rights laws.

Although most of the Great Society programs remain intact--and highly popular with the American people--many lawmakers remember the backlash that helped to spawn the Reagan revolution in 1980. Republicans, for their parts, aren't shy about recalling the 1960s.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who served as Bush's Housing and Urban Development secretary, said he opposed many of the housing market fixes that congressional Democrats are advancing this year, because he fears that they might turn into permanent government programs. "Having some experience at HUD, we still have a lot of Great Society programs that are inefficient, that don't accomplish much, but that have been there and continue to be there just because they've always been there," Martinez said.

Concerns about government effectiveness aren't confined to Republicans. Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, has warned his partisans that Americans want to see government cut wasteful spending and "listen to the people" before spending more money on health care, education, energy and other domestic initiatives. More than 60 percent of Americans agree with the statement, "When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."

Republicans contend that Americans are more interested in controlling government spending than in creating more government programs. Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., who has introduced a constitutional amendment that would limit increases in federal spending to growth in the gross domestic product, said that even with more people relying on government programs such as unemployment insurance during recessions, Americans are still concerned about spending. "I don't think that people necessarily want more government spending at this time," Campbell said, "particularly the majority of people who are paying taxes."

Much of the progressive agenda depends on increased revenue from the expiration of Bush's first-term tax cuts. Democrats contend that they are going to let taxes rise on the wealthy only, but Republicans counter that taxes will increase for most Americans. And when Democrats argue that the public wants a more activist government, Republicans point to the European countries that enacted many of the progressives' ideas in the past but are now rolling back taxes and regulations to increase their competitiveness in the global economy.

"Americans want an economy that works," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said. "Europe is rejecting that Big Government involvement. They're lowering their taxes.... We need to lower our corporate income tax rate to make our businesses more competitive."

As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Ensign has the job of maintaining GOP strength in the Senate. That task becomes especially important if Democrats manage to win the White House and increase their House majority. As long as Republicans control at least 41 Senate seats, they can block legislation by filibustering, a maneuver that requires 60 votes to overcome.

Ensign's opponent, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, faces long odds in capturing the nine Senate seats necessary to raise his party's 51-49 majority to a filibuster-proof 60-40. So even if progressives enjoy significant electoral victories elsewhere, it's still likely that their grand legislative dreams would face a tough road next year in the Senate. They would probably need votes from moderate Republican senators to advance legislation.

The liberals' challenge is illustrated by the failure of several of their key proposals to get the required 60 Senate votes during this Congress. In April, legislation backed by women's rights groups that would have overturned a Supreme Court decision limiting pay discrimination lawsuits fell three votes short of that filibuster-proof majority. Last fall, a bill granting the District of Columbia a voting member of Congress also fell three votes short. A union-backed bill aimed at making it easier for workers to organize would need eight more Senate supporters to clear that chamber next year.

Even with larger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, progressives would still face obstacles in persuading all of their fellow party members to back their proposals. Their ideas for cutting defense spending would be particularly unpopular among hawkish Democrats, especially in the Senate, where Sanders is the only member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Progressives are a more prominent presence in the House; 71 of the 235 Democrats in that chamber belong to the caucus, which was formed in 1991. The group includes key committee chairmen--Frank; Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.; and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. The progressives are the largest ideological bloc among House Democrats, outnumbering both the centrist New Democrats (58 members) and the more conservative Blue Dogs (47 members).

The Progressive Caucus co-chairs, Lee and Woolsey, are from districts neighboring that of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and they serve as the liberal liaisons to House leaders. Lee, Woolsey, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., gathered 92 House members' signatures last fall, for example, on a letter pledging that they would not vote for any more war funding that keeps U.S. troops in Iraq. With those numbers, they forced the leaders to schedule separate votes on war and domestic spending as part of the supplemental appropriations bill pending in Congress this month. The measure would have fallen if the House voted on it as one big package, because Republicans would have voted against the domestic spending and the liberals would have voted against the war spending. By holding separate votes, leaders can rely on Republicans and moderate Democrats to clear the war spending, and on liberals to join other Democrats in clearing the domestic spending.

But the progressives do not command a majority of the House Democratic Caucus. The progressives' budget this year garnered 98 votes on the House floor. Every Republican and 131 Democrats voted against it. The liberals must, therefore, balance their demands with the other blocs' wishes. "What we have to do is say, yes, we support strongly the Democratic agenda," Lee said, "but we have to go beyond that and push the envelope and make sure that real change is taking place."

Hope and Caution

Even though the freshman Democrats who ousted incumbent Republicans in the 2006 election are overwhelmingly moderate, Mark Schmitt, a progressive strategist at the New America Foundation, contends that Democrats have, by and large, moved to the left. Many of the conservative Southern Democrats who stymied liberals during the first years of the Clinton administration are gone. "There's a much narrower [ideological] range than Democrats have had at any time probably since Reconstruction," said Schmitt, who believes that the shift gives progressives a better chance of enacting their agenda in the coming Congress.

Democrats should not be worried about the tax-and-spend liberal label that Republicans are likely to slap on them, Schmitt contends, because Americans generally favor a greater government role in areas such as health care and the environment. "The era of Republicans just being able to yell, 'Liberal! Liberal! Liberal! Big Government! Big Government!' and have a backlash--that era is over," Schmitt said.

Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., a Progressive Caucus member, agreed that Democrats should not be afraid to promote ideas that their GOP opponents would decry as liberal. "As progressives, we have to get our voices back," he said.

Indeed, liberal lawmakers argue that the public's anti-Bush and anti-Republican sentiment should embolden them to offer expansive ideas. "We're going to be in a situation where we can talk about bold initiatives, not just the usual stuff we do here now, two tax cuts and call me in the morning," McGovern said.

James Stimson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), has developed an index, based on thousands of surveys, that tracks public support of liberal policies from 1952 to 2006. The index is "pointing in the direction that liberals are happy to see," Stimson said. The year "2006 looks more like the 1960s than the 1980s and 1990s." He said that public support for liberal policies generally rises during conservative administrations.

"The public is generally moderate, but it gets to choose between Republicans who are too conservative and Democrats who are too liberal," Stimson said. "Whatever you're not getting lately becomes more attractive." That view, if true, presents liberals with a double-edged sword. They may be able to capitalize on anti-conservatism now, but the pendulum will eventually swing the other way.

For now, however, congressional liberals are not talking about moderating their plans. "Incrementalism has its place," Lee said. "But we have this moment to shake things up and make some real change. We have to be bold and have a big agenda so we can get half of it, even. You can't start with 20 percent of what you believe in and expect to get 20 percent. You have to start with 100 percent and hope you get 75 percent."