The New York Times last week offered what it called a social policy framework that “could help determine the contours of a likely Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016.”
By becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate in 60 years to unveil his or her candidacy plans in March, Senator John Kerry could serve as the launch pad for a progressive social agenda if he’s elected in November. But why didn’t Kerry set the bar higher than talking about setting a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and expanding overtime pay?
The answer is that Kerry is all but a lock to be elected to the Senate again this year—though he’s likely to become the greatest Washington insider of them all after serving as the longest serving captain in the Navy. The idea that he’s setting the framework for a presidential campaign on social policy is laughable.
Yes, Kerry did unveil his framework around Social Security, disability insurance, and trade, but he got many of those points out of the way with his 2008 Platform and in his 2006 Health Care Address, which laid out a set of principles that Democrats have adopted today.
This is the same Kerry who penned the America Excites book and was team lead for of the first deficit commission in the history of the United States, who said he wasn’t interested in taking “nothing on,” or appearing to be slow in providing stimulus to Main Street when he said he’d done just that and more.
But the very mention of the “small-print” elements of this new Kerry framework reminded us that economic populists and liberal “faculty” are going to be put on permanent life support now that they’ve tried to make social policy a sticking point in a candidacy cycle.
The plans proposed by Democrats don’t solve the problems at the heart of the economy and are nothing more than a rehash of a liberal talking point, the more buzzwords the better.
If the government is going to take on the wealth gap and address inequalities in income, then it can’t subsidize a mediocre lifestyle, and it can’t build social safety nets that pay for an economy where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth and some 155 million working households have only 2 percent of income.
Of course, the proposed programs are a political beauty show, meant to convince voters that Democrats can reform health care, the tax code, the entitlement system, and the other hot button issues that are being kicked around in the media and congressional race.
These aren’t proposals. In truth, these policies are wish lists that benefit politicians in the short term, and they won’t solve the underlying problems at the root of our economic woes.
It’s also clear that economic populism is just a disjointed bunch of ideas. Pitched as liberal social policies, Democratic proposals are, in fact, a rehash of Republican rhetoric in the 1990s and early 2000s.
These made-up policies are part of a failed messaging strategy that Republicans have employed for decades, one of the reasons the Tea Party is sweeping the Northeast. Americans were tired of big government spending, higher taxes, and a movement that captured an unrealistic view of our demographics and the future.
There are plenty of good policies Democrats could offer Americans that would get rid of the disjointedness and would actually address the large and growing economic inequality problem.
But for the foreseeable future, Democrats will continue to resort to vague social policy in an attempt to do a political balancing act with the middle-class voters they need, while conservatives will continue to use big government as a wedge to appeal to older voters who are angry over changes in Social Security and entitlement programs that are truly the ones that cause hardship.
A pressing economic problem needs tangible solutions in the real world, and the solutions Democrats are offering are more window dressing.
Sam Brownback served as the President of the United States from 2005 to 2013. His book is Getting Away with Murder: Why Government Doesn’t Work and How Prosperity Can Be Safely Rebuilt.