Just a few years ago, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the liberal agenda had run its course. With near-universal health care — the unfinished business of the 20th-century Democratic Party — enacted, there was no obvious next step in the party’s mission of expanding the safety net. The big Democratic policies yet to be fully addressed, like immigration overhaul and restrictions on carbon emissions, pitted the party’s new progressive constituencies against its traditional, white working-class base.
Yet in the months after last year’s midterm elections, a reinvigorated liberal agenda has started to emerge. Few of the pieces of this agenda were discussed in the 2012 presidential elections or last year’s midterms. But they have rapidly moved from various liberal intellectual publications into President Barack Obama’s speeches and budget, as well as Hillary Clinton’s speeches.
The emerging Democratic agenda is meant to appeal to parents. The policies under discussion — paid family leave; universal preschool; an expanded earned-income tax credit and child tax credit; free community college and perhaps free four-year college in time — are intended both to alleviate the burdens on middle-class families and to expand educational opportunity for children. The result is a thematic platform addressing some of the biggest sources of anxiety about the future of the middle class.
It’s far too early to know how these themes will resonate with voters, or even the extent to which Clinton will emphasize this agenda, but it does have the potential to give the Democrats a more coherent message for the middle class than the party had in 2014 or even 2012.
It could give them a better chance of reclaiming their support among traditionally Democratic white working-class voters who supported Obama in 2012 but now disapprove of his performance. Yet it would still appeal to many affluent families who feel burdened by the costs of college, child care and the challenge of raising children with two parents working outside the home.
The most obvious places to see the new focus have been in Obama’s State of the Union address and his budget. The central characters in his speech to Congress were Rebekah and Ben Erler, the struggling parents of two young children in Minneapolis.
"Affordable, high-quality child care," Obama said, is "not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have." He added, "It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us."
His budget — more of a wish list than a policy document, given Republican control of Congress — includes $200 billion over the next decade for child care and early education, along with $60 billion for free community college. He has already proposed expanding the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit.
Beyond Washington, dozens of states have pursued expanded preschool in the past few years. Although Republicans have pushed some of the expansions, Democrats — like Bill de Blasio, the New York mayor, who made the plan a centerpiece of his campaign — have been behind most of them.
And Clinton has signaled that many and perhaps even all of these proposals will be part of her likely campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2016. A recent commission on "inclusive prosperity," containing several Clinton allies, emphasized many of these proposals.
"The United States, unfortunately, is one of a handful of developed countries without paid family leave," Clinton said in September. "If we give parents the flexibility on the job and paid family leave, it actually helps productivity, which in turn helps all of us."
If embraced by Clinton, the agenda could pose real challenges for the Republicans in 2016. It would adjust the focus away from income redistribution — through higher taxes on the rich, although such taxes may be needed to fund the new proposals — and toward expanded opportunity. It also has the potential to move the Democrats from seeming to focus on the poor, through the Affordable Care Act and the minimum wage, and toward the middle class. Yet its ambition would probably be enough to appease an increasingly liberal Democratic coalition.
In Washington and on the campaign trail, Democrats have struggled to formulate a policy agenda focused on the middle class. The party has instead focused on several issues that are incidental — or sometimes even inimical — to the perceived economic interests of many voters, like immigration overhaul, gun control or restrictions on carbon emissions.
These policies have helped Democrats mobilize the "new" coalition of young, secular and nonwhite voters that have allowed them to win recent presidential elections. But the same policies have hurt them among the traditionally Democratic but increasingly Republican Southern and Appalachian white voters who have allowed Republicans to take the House and the Senate.
The parental agenda has the potential to resonate among the large group of voters with children younger than 18 at home, 36 percent of the electorate in 2012. It might also resonate among the already Democratic-leaning young voters of the Obama era, 18 to 29 years old in 2008, who are now entering prime childbearing years. The birthrate among millennials has dropped to near-record or record lows, depending on the age cohort, probably in part because of economic insecurity. Weekly earnings for full-time workers ages 25 to 34 are down 3.8 percent since 2000.
Early polling data suggests there could be strong public support for many elements of Obama’s agenda including free community college, child care spending, and paid leave — although it remains to be seen whether support will endure after Republicans respond.
But the policies seem less vulnerable to the critiques that have endangered support for past Democratic initiatives. Far more families seem poised to benefit from these initiatives in the short term than the Affordable Care Act, which offered its biggest immediate benefits to the poor. The parental agenda also has far fewer losers — like people who might fear losing their doctors or coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act. The proposals are not especially complex, either.
This emerging Democratic agenda has already co-opted the message of "reform conservatives," who argue that the GOP needs to come up with policies to help families. Democrats have the ideological flexibility to embrace just about any proposal from reform conservatives that might seem politically threatening, as they already have on the earned income and college tax credits. In other words, they are willing to use conservative means to accomplish liberal ends.
Partly as a result, the Republican response has been muddled. Some Republicans have come out against the parent-focused proposals as more big government. Others have focused on the costs of Obama’s program, even though public concern about the deficit has waned in recent years, or said they support the goals but believe states, rather than Washington, should lead the way.
Control of Congress has allowed the Republican Party to defer its public campaign against Obama’s initiatives, since they are dead on arrival. But the GOP will not have that luxury in 2016, when it will need to offer a more cogent and specific response than it has so far.