Offering the unemployment insurance extension and the minimum wage increase represents a low-risk platform for Democrats.
After a particularly trying 2013 — in which the Democrats took a beating regarding the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and a litany of White House scandals, including revelations of widespread potential domestic and international spying by the National Security Agency — the Democrats seek to strike a populist tone entering the 2014 midterm election season. The Democrats not only seek to protect their control of the Senate, but also to win seats in the House.
With Democrats traditionally not voting in record numbers during off-years, there is the potential that 2014 will look like 2010, in which the tea party was able to sweep in with overwhelming numbers. With the Senate scheduled to vote on a bill to revive emergency unemployment benefits — which were allowed to lapse last month — and the president to campaign for a raise in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, the Democrats feel that pursuing the economic disparity angle will not only set their ACA defense in the best light, but also place the Republicans on defense for not fighting for lower-income Americans.
“Our Republican colleagues should take note. Certainly we’re going to build on the progress we’ve made to reduce the deficit, but it is no longer the most important issue that we face,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in laying out Senate Democrats’ agenda for the coming year. “Issues like job creation, minimum wage and unemployment insurance are going to weigh on the minds of voters far more than Obamacare by the time the 2014 elections roll around.”
The Democrats may be aiming toward keeping or expanding their presence in the Southern states, where the minimum-wage earning population is — by percentage of the general population — greater than the national average.
“In all the battleground states, I think that it will be not only a rallying cry for the Democratic base but also an important appeal to voters in the middle,” said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This is not a 50/50 issue; this is not a 55/45 issue. It’s a 70/30. It puts Republicans squarely on the side of wealthy special interests.”
However, there are many voters who are saying that they’ve heard all of this before. Recently, Bill de Blasio became the first Democratic mayor for overwhelmingly-Democratic New York City in 20 years on the promise of progressive reform, starting with universal pre-K and a tax increase on the rich to pay for it. De Blasio’s populist approach was key to breaking through the seeming prerequisite of being favored by Wall Street in order to govern the nation’s largest city, but many argue that de Blasio’s idealism may come up short to the realism of New York City politics.
For example, de Blasio’s predecessor, independent Michael Bloomberg, came into power on the back of populist election promises. However, over his 12-year tenure, the income disparency in the city skyrocketed. The Bloomberg administration defended this by pointing out that more wealthy people found the city attractive and moved in, which helped to raise the city’s revenues.
“Other cities have much lower inequality levels,” Bloomberg’s press secretary, Marc LaVorgna, said in 2013, citing Detroit, Mich. and Camden, N.J. “Are those better places for low-income families to live? Or would they be better off if they had more wealthy people, and a larger income gap, to provide a larger tax base to support a police department that keeps low income communities safe, funds good public schools and pays for a vast social services network like we do in New York City?”
LaVorgna argued that New York City’s income disparency is a good thing, as the increase in wealth concentration infuses more money into the local economy and offers more avenues for economic promotion.
Similarly, President Barack Obama has faced pushback in the House for his suite of income equality measures he successfully campaigned for reelection on. On issues such as expanding unemployment insurance, protecting the food safety net programs, job creation, increasing the minimum wage and safeguarding Medicare/Medicaid, there seems to be a consensus among Republicans that increasing the tax burden on those that can pay does not justify the gains these programs offer. In fact, the House Republicans have actually proposed deep cuts to these programs to lower the national debt or to make room for Republican-friendly spending, such as increasing the military budget.
In light of this deep partisan divide, one must ask what is the reality behind such campaign promises?
An opportune time for an old trick
The recovery from the Great Recession has been one of the worst in history. Currently, approximately four million Americans are long-term unemployed — or still looking for a job after more than 27 weeks of being unemployed. This represents more than a third of the nation’s total unemployment rate. In New Jersey, Florida and the District of Columbia, the long-term unemployed exceed 45 percent of the state’s total unemployed, with 10 additional states reporting rates greater than 40 percent.
The Congressional Democrats chose not to add emergency unemployment compensation to the federal budget in a hope that the House Republicans would accept the budget more readily without the cantankerous issue attached. However, without an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, approximately 1.3 million Americans have been affected.
Even though job creation rates have spiked and nearly a third of the long-term unemployed have been hired since 2010, the time it takes to get hired has increased by three months from pre-recession levels to eight months. In addition, the long-term unemployed rate does not include those who abandoned the job hunt or who took part-time work. This has created a false impression that the economy is improving, which prompted the first failed renewal of emergency unemployment insurance since 2008.
Last Sunday, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., indicated that he would be willing to support a temporary extension of long-term unemployment benefits, but only if the Democrats give up on some concessions, such as certain regulations or cuts to make up the cost of the expansion. The White House has, however, rejected the notion of adding conditions to the renewal.
Regardless of the fate of these proposals, introducing them represents a safe bet for the Democrats. Typically, the Democrats can count on income inequality campaign issues to draw votes, said Politix’s editor-in-chief David Mark to Mint Press News.
“These are ‘oldies-but-goodies’ for the Democrats, in regards to raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance. These are things we have heard from Democrats for many years. The reason we continue to hear this from them because it is a winning issue for them; they realize that public opinion is on their side with this, and that’s why they continue to use it.”
While it is likely that the unemployment insurance extension and the minimum wage increase will both pass, offering them represents a low-risk platform for the Democrats.
Populism in America
However, as Mark furthered elaborated on, in a capitalist system, there are “winners and losers.” A truly populist agenda cannot succeed in the U.S., as there are too many players in place which favor the continuation of the free market. For example, both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association — both major contributors to the Republican Party — have came out in opposition of the Fair Minimum Wage Act.
While Mark argues that the Republicans must push back from the “business first’ approach that has defined its politics, he equally feels that the embracing of a populist agenda by the Democrats may be an equally-flawed approach. There must be a “fine balance” between populism and capitalism.
“For many Americans, anything less than capitalism is socialism, and that’s unacceptable to them,” Mark added.
But despite the seeming permanence of capitalism in America, there has been cause to stop and evaluate the system for what it is. In November, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation in which he stated that unfettered capitalism is “a new tyranny” and asked “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”, questioning humanity’s lowered status to capitalism.
One potential major donor to the $180 million restoration fund for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York anonymously commented that the pope’s comments that the rich must give more to the poor, and that the market economies have assumed an undue place in society were “exclusionary” and hurtful. In response, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, “corrected” the pope’s words, saying it was a misunderstanding.
Speaking to CNBC in regards to a conversation with Ken Langone, the founder of Home Depot, who brought the comment to Dolan’s attention, Dolan said, “’Well, Ken, that would be a misunderstanding of the Holy Father’s message. The pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people.’ … So I said, ‘Ken, thanks for bringing it to my attention. We’ve gotta correct to make sure this gentleman understands the Holy Father’s message properly.’ And then I think he’s gonna say, ‘Oh, ok. If that’s the case, count me in for St. Patrick’s Cathedral.’ ”
A new look at this nation’s relationship with money may be in order.