Under the bright sun in Berryville, Va., on Monday afternoon, the congressional Democrats demonstrated that they can change. Or, at least, they can paper over their differences.
At the beginning of an hourlong rollout of their 2018 economic agenda, “A Better Deal,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer labeled as a “false choice” the debate over “whether Democrats should spend all our energy focusing on the diverse Obama coalition or the blue-collar Americans in the heartland who voted for Trump.”
There is an inherent awkwardness in any party trying to forge a unifying national agenda for nearly 470 individual congressional elections. Even when Newt Gingrich unveiled the “Contract with America” on the steps of the Capitol in late September 1994, the most tangible thing that the GOP House minority leader could point to was an upcoming full-page ad in TV Guide.
For all the political opportunities offered by the age of Trump, his in-your-face presidency makes it hard for the Democrats to offer a positive agenda. As Schumer admitted as he kicked off the Democratic branding event, “Too many Americans don’t know what we stand for.”
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Being anti-Trump is not enough, as Hillary Clinton learned to her lifelong regret. And, while Republican polls suggest that 2018 numbers are bleak for many GOP incumbents, these party surveys also pick up that the Democrats are losing support because of what is viewed as their obsession with the president’s Russia connection.
Any hopes that Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi may have nurtured that “A Better Deal” might get a few hours of uninterrupted news play were dashed when Jared Kushner spoke on Russia at the same time in front of the White House. Following the ill-advised rhetorical model of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” the president’s son-in-law said in headline-making language, “I did not collude with Russia.”
There was a back-to-the-future quality to the Democratic event. As Schumer put it, “a Better Deal is a phrase that intentionally evokes the New Deal.” But, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren hinted later in the news conference, a better model may have been Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal.”
At the heart of the updated Democratic agenda is aggressive antitrust enforcement – an issue that seems almost as venerable as Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill.
“Make no mistake, these are pro-market changes, the kind that Teddy Roosevelt advocated when he broke up the big trusts,” Warren declared during the fieriest portion of the rollout.
Yes, at first glance, the issue seems abstruse. But, as both Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar stressed, it relates directly to a lack of consumer choice when it comes time to buy an airline ticket, pay a cable TV bill or pick up a prescription at a chain drugstore.
Even though Klobuchar briefly flicked at possible new antitrust legislation, aggressive antitrust enforcement will never be on the agenda as long as the Republicans control the White House and the likes of Jeff Sessions are attorney general.
But this populist theme is important for the Democrats for another reason – it papers over the party’s bitter divisions over Wall Street. No longer are Democrats arguing over speeches to Goldman Sachs or the failure of any major financial figure to pay a price for the 2008 economic meltdown.
As a New York senator, Schumer knows better than most how much the Democratic Party still depends on Wall Street funding. But he also knows that investment bankers and hedge fund operators care far more about financial regulations than they do about the government enforcing competition among breweries and airlines.
It is easy to mock the lack of creativity behind the new Democratic slogan, “A Better Deal” – or, for that matter, Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way.”
As a former White House speechwriter who was part of a group trying to concoct a slogan to define Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I recognize how hard it is to come up with anything fresh. The best we could do was “The New Foundation,” which became the centerpiece of Carter’s 1979 State of the Union address: “Join me in building that new foundation – a better foundation for our country and our world.” By 1980, even Carter had abandoned that ungainly line.
So I am in no position to cast aspersions. But I do find it intriguing that all these references to “Square” or “New” or “Fair” or “Better” deals have their roots in 19th-century poker games and cardsharps.
The late William Safire, the greatest modern student of political language, traced the New Deal back to such antecedents as Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Trying to explain democracy, Twain’s time-traveler hero says, “In a country where only six people out of a thousand have any voice in government, what the 994 dupes need is a new deal.”
With little voice in government in Washington, the Democrats also need a new deal. And, even more urgently, a new set of issues. Too often, the Democratic agenda sounds like bits and pieces left on the cutting-room floor by the Obama and Clinton administrations.
That’s why even a glimmer of fresh thinking on antitrust is worthy of note. As a Democratic fact sheet points out, “Five breweries controlled over 50 percent of global beer production” and craft breweries are “under threat from large legacy brewers that are acquiring their craft competitors.”
It has been a long time since any political party appealed so directly to that mythical voter known as Joe Sixpack.
The writer is a columnist for CQ-Roll Call.