The lead story on the front page of the Washington Post last Saturday was a remarkable piece by Zachary Goldfarb headlined "A Striking Pivot on Income Inequality," with sub-headlines "Obama Turns Focus To Middle Class" and "Shift in message highlights divide in Democratic party." My first thought upon reading the article was that the WP decided that with all their discussion of the Tea Party vs. establishment divide in the Republican party, that to be balanced they had better highlight a divide in the Democratic party, too. That might be the case, but I think there is something more important going on in an article like this, which is that the DC establishment doesn't understand either the real divisions in the Democratic party or the real nature of effective Democratic party political messaging.
Goodness knows there is a serious, substantive division in the Democratic party, which is split right down the middle in terms of Democratic politicians who are more pro-Wall Street and pro-big business in general, and those who are more serious about reforming Wall Street and taking on the wealthy and powerful corporate special interests. Everyday inside the Democratic party, there is a pitched battle- sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes noisy- between folks like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and the labor movement and the Netroots on one side, and those like Andrew Cuomo, Tim Geithner, Mark Warner, and Third Way on the other. Both in terms of policy and politics, those differences are real and they matter: does the Democratic party fight for the 99% and tame the wealthy special interests, or does it accommodate Wall Street and the big business lobbyists on K St with weaker regulations and sweetheart deals?
Honestly, though, the whole message shift/message division thing Goldfarb describes in his piece is neither that big a shift or that big a division. Goldfarb's chief argument is that Obama was using the income inequality phrase a fair amount last year, and he no longer is. As a charter member of the populist wing of the Democratic party, I can say without reservation that I find that completely untroubling. Look, income inequality is a policy term, not a political one, so it isn't a big surprise that Obama was using it in a non-election year and is not using it in an election year. It is a phrase designed to highlight an issue for policy makers and the media to discuss; it is a phrase which focuses attention on a crisis in our economic system that needs to be dealt with substantively and with a great deal of urgency. But income inequality is not a phrase that many real people use, and it shouldn't be used much in an election year.
When I go home and hang around in the cafes and neighborhood bars of the Midwest, or when I go door-knocking in swing states in different parts of the country, I don't hear people talking about income inequality. I do hear them talking about how they haven't gotten a raise in years; how they have to work 3 jobs to make ends meet; how the cost of groceries and health care and college tuition and utilities keep going up; how much they depend on their Social Security checks and their Medicare health coverage. And yes, I also hear small businesspeople complain about how hard it is to compete with Walmart and Amazon; how Wall Street crashed the economy and got to keep their jobs and bonuses; and how the wealthiest people seem to get all the breaks from government while they don't. I hear all that - real people talking about the real issues that affect their lives. A wonk in DC might call all that a discussion of income inequality. To a regular person, they just call it talking about the facts of life.
Goldfarb talks about Obama shifting "from income inequality to the more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class," and goes on to mention issues like the minimum wage, the gender pay gap, and infrastructure spending. He talks about Democrats wanting to emphasize more centrist sounding themes like "the opportunity to get ahead or a fair shot".
Really, these are the centrist victories over the lefties? This is just silliness. Progressive populist politicians and organizations have made raising the minimum wage all year long, with the gender pay gap and infrastructure spending not far behind. Elizabeth Warren has given speech after speech about there is stacked deck against the middle class, and how working people need a fair shot. And by the way, who is being invited to messaging events all over the country, including Kentucky and West Virginia, to give her populist version of this message? None other than that crazy lefty Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile, Harry Reid and Democratic campaigns all over the country attack the Koch brothers and other big money special interests, and as Bob Borosage points out, making the wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share in taxes still ranks as one of the highest ranking issues for Democrats in polling.
The DC establishment just doesn't get it. Democratic politicians sure do fight over some important policy issues from time to time, but on message, good old fashioned progressive populism is winning the day. And it might just carry us to a surprisingly good election year in a very challenging political environment.