A version of this piece first appeared at digby's Hullabaloo. GP article archive here. Image: Rep. Chris Van Hollen at the 2012 Pete Peterson "Fiscal Summit".
I've been noticing Chris Van Hollen lately, first with his proposal on carbon emissions, and now with his proposal on a "Robin Hood" Wall Street transaction tax, to finance a middle-class tax cut. Van Hollen initially got on my radar as someone who appears at Pete Peterson deficit "summits," like this one in 2012, along with "liberal" stalwarts like Bill Clinton (see image above).
At the same time, I've been wondering when the ad campaign would start, the one where post-election Democrats would tell their base, "Dear Progressives, forget 2014. We really do love you best after all." I'm willing to believe the words, so long as they're backed by deeds.
Which brings us back to Van Hollen. The problem is, now that Steve Israel in the House and Michael Bennet in the Senate have lost the House and the Senate — kicking progressives to the side of the road in the process — there's no way any pleasing words can be backed by deeds. Nothing they propose has a prayer of passing; most of their bills won't even see the floor. (The exception to that is Alan Grayson, who's been remarkably effective at getting bills and amendments passed. More on that later.)
The consequence is, neoliberal-leaning Democrats can now say anything they want. It seems that George Zornick at The Nation has spotted this as well (h/t the writer Masaccio for the link; my emphases):
Perhaps the Most Important Question About the Democratic Party Right Now
Over at U.S. News & World Report, Pat Garofalo has a very interesting piece up that asks “Are Democrats Trolling the Left?” This question deserves some serious consideration, because the answer could tell us a huge amount about American politics over the next several years.
In recent weeks, once had Washington re-formed with a Republican Congress, Democrats made a sudden left turn on economic policy. House Democrats, led by Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, proposed a middle-class tax cut that would be financed by higher taxes on wealthy CEOs along with a small tax on financial transactions. Meanwhile, President Obama is preparing to ask Congress for a bill that would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days per year.
Zornick catches the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand aspect of this behavior:
There’s an optimistic way to look at this: Democrats learned a lesson during the 2014 midterms about failing to offer a bold economic agenda, and have finally seen the light on some good policies that tackle income inequality and an ever-growing financial sector directly.
That's the one hand. Here's the other, quoting the article by Pat Garofalo that Zornick referenced:
A less charitable reading, though, is that the Democrats are seizing on the opportunity to be progressive at a moment when it's cheap and easy; being out of power (or in Obama's case, term-limited) they won't have to pay the price in campaign dollars or blowback that would come from pursuing these policies in an environment in which they could actually become law. After all, when Democrats controlled all of Congress and the presidency, it's not like they made a move on paid sick leave or a financial transactions tax or any of a host of other ideas that would have helped out the middle class
The tell — "It's not like they made a move on paid sick leave or a financial transactions tax" when they could have done anything about it.
Color Me Sceptical
Which leads me here: Normally, if you keep the same leaders, you get the same policies when they're back in power. As I wrote earlier:
[T]he 2014 elections showed that the voting layer [of the left coalition] — people who go to the polls, choose progressive policies, and don't choose Democratic candidates — know in increasing numbers that the party has largely abandoned them. Since in fact the party has abandoned them, the voter split can only be healed by an ad campaign, a change of policy, or both.
That ad campaign would be a cynical can of lies without the change of policy. And a change of policy can only be accomplished by (a) aggressively defeating current "Democratic party" leaders, depriving them of any position of power; and (b) convincing fence-straddlers in the current generation of progressive activists to stop supporting the "lesser evil" and start supporting the "greater good."
So what do you think — change of heart, or can of lies? I guess we'll see. My suggestion, don't fall in love with just words, no matter how welcome (that's 2016 advice as well). Tell them, "Deeds, or no deal" — deeds they can actually do.
As for Van Hollen, he's in House leadership now. Does he have eyes on Pelosi's chair when Pelosi steps away? If so, this is a good move in that direction. And I still worry about those Peterson "summit" appearances. After all, we know where Clinton stands on issues like austerity and Social Security. Peterson as well. Is Van Hollen another?
Lots to think about.