Is Progressivism in the Eye of the Beholder?

Thomas Palley recently blogged a post that was cross-posted at Naked Capitalism where I read it. In it, he discussed the question of whether Hillary Clinton’s apparent intention to run as a progressive in 2016 represents a sincere change in her views, or whether it is just a political communications strategy to please the progressive base of the Democratic Party.

In his analysis, Palley points to Clinton’s failure to answer questions of journalists and to be pinned down to specifics on policy questions. He also points to the fact that the economic advisers who are central to Clintonworld still include Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Peter Orszag, and, I think, he reasonably could have added Gene Sperling and Jack Lew, who are still serving President Obama, but who were two of Bill Clinton’s mainstays. These economists, and others associated with the Clintons had a hand in all the economic policy failures of the past 20 years, and continues with this money quote:

In Clintonworld, it seems that playing a central role in catastrophic policy failure or peddling bad economics doesn’t disqualify you from future influence. If anything, a record of being disastrously wrong on economic policy seems to be a required credential.

Mrs. Clinton wants us to think things have changed and that she’s become a real deal populist. Well, talk is cheap. It’s costless to mouth bromides about supporting full employment and reduced income inequality.

That means the challenge for the rest of us is to make presidential candidates commit to policies that are ‘big” enough to determine an administration’s character and specific enough to tie a candidate down.

Here’s my list of three policies that Mrs. Clinton must adopt to show she’s the real thing:

1. Expand Social Security.
2. Add a public option to Obamacare.
3. Reject all trade agreements that lack currency manipulation protections or include investor – state dispute settlement provisions.

I couldn’t agree more with the idea that the rest of us need to make presidential candidates “. . . commit to policies that are ‘big” enough to determine an administration’s character and specific enough to tie a candidate down.” However, I can’t agree that commitment to his three policies should be enough to persuade progressives that Clinton is “. . . the real thing.”

I think these three policies are far from enough to qualify her as a true progressive. The first policy commitment on expanding Social Security would, after all, be met by passing former Senator Tom Harkin’s recent bill providing for a $750 per person annual increase in SS benefits. This is certainly better than nothing.

But it’s not much of a progressive goal in a world where some European welfare states provide pension benefits that are around twice the level of those due to Americans. Before I’d be willing to say that Hillary Clinton was serious about progressive policies, I’d like to see a doubling of SS pension benefits as her goal with a plan to phase them in over three years or so.

Second, I think that adding “. . . a public option to Obamacare” is a bad joke as a progressive standard, after all we’ve been through since 2009. Then, the public option idea was “a trick sparkle pony” used by the Obama administration to split the progressive movement and to divide Washington establishment progressives from the base of the party that has, for years, supported Medicare for All in one form or another.

And the resurrection of the “public option” now would have the same effect, apart from the likelihood that it is a very bad policy idea that is both unlikely to solve the problem of providing health care to everyone as a right and also is likely to postpone the day when that right can be realized by perhaps another 5 – 10 years after it is clear to all that Obamacare as presently constituted still leaves the lives of too many thousands of people annually to the fates to allow it to continue in a civilized society. John Conyers’s enhanced Medicare for All bill (HR 676) should and would have been passed in the Spring of 2009, if the duplicitous Obama had gone full bore for it. I, and many other progressives, would not consider a candidate “progressive” if they failed to commit to end neoliberalism’s “death by spreadsheet” in American health insurance entirely by committing to some variant of Medicare for All, as, by the way, Bernie Sanders did a very long time ago.

Lastly, while I agree with Palley’s third policy commitment to ISDS and currency manipulation-free trade agreements as necessary conditions. I do think that is still weak tea. A progressive candidate in my view must also make a commitment to end Fast Track Congressional-Executive agreements entirely by formulating a Congressional procedure prohibiting them. These agreements are a way of getting around the constitutional requirement that international treaties must be ratified by 2/3 of the Senate. They are an avoidance of constitutional requirements that all progressives ought to be opposed to.

The powers of the Executive Branch in concluding agreements that would become the law of the land in the United States were limited by the Founders for a very good reason, and that is, simply that the Legislative Branch must be the only authority in law making in the United States. Congressional-Executive Fast Track agreements breach the separation of powers, and Congress should have the guts to outlaw them. Certainly it is not progressive to want to continue to use this trick to by-pass the constitution as Bill Clinton did when passing NAFTA.

Finally, even if these three revised commitments were made and kept by Hillary Clinton I still would consider her only mildly progressive. The United States has been avoiding its problems for decades now, and has been allowing these problems to fester and to multiply in severity during all that time. The problems of the environment, climate change, infrastructure, growing inequality, re-invention of energy foundations, inadequate health insurance, a decaying educational system, etc should have seriously addressed beginning in the Carter Administration, and certainly during the Clinton and Obama Administrations. They were not due to an increasingly feckless and perhaps malevolent commitment to government fiscal austerity.

By now, America needs to implement at least the agendas discussed in posts here and here. In comparison to these Palley’s “progressive” commitments seem like weak tea, indeed. He might argue that weak tea or not, they are all that anyone can realistically epect from a new Administration that may have a Republican Congress to work with.

Perhaps that’s true. But I think it is also true that what is realistic depends on the makeup of Congress and is not cast in stone. The progressive candidate we need is one who will lead a progressive movement with goals that will make a big difference in the lives of the 99% and restore America and its blessings to them. Such a movement can ask the voters to elect Congresspeople and Senators to support the movement, and the candidates who will commit to its goals.

Palley’s criteria, as “realistic” as they may be, will never inspire such a movement or elect such a Congress. So, they are not “realistic” from the point of view of fitness for purpose. A truly progressive candidate will offer commitments to goals that can generate such a movement.

Perhaps Sanders is that authentic candidate. But Hillary Clinton, I’m afraid, can never play that role!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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