Yes, they could have, but they didn’t

By Mike Tudoreanu

It is common knowledge that the Democrats can expect a disaster at the polls next month.

The only question is, will the Republicans sweep into power or will the Democrats hang on with a much smaller majority? I do not know the answer, but I believe it matters less than most people think. Judging by the behavior of the Democrats so far, even if their majorities survive in the House and Senate we can still expect conservative policies – because they will argue that the Republicans need to be appeased rather than confronted. So let’s put aside the question of what will happen in November and talk about how we got here.

For one year, 2009, the Democratic Party had absolute control of the executive and legislative branches of government, complete with a supermajority in the Senate. That supermajority was lost after Scott Brown was elected in 2010, but the Democrats still held more seats in the Senate than the Republicans ever had at any point since the 1920s. And what did they do with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Well, they spent the first half of 2009 making hard choices about Obama’s new dog. And bailing out banks – just like Bush did. Then they finally got around to discussing some real “change we can believe in” over the summer – the health care reform – and spent the next six months crafting a non-reform bill that was far more right-wing than the health care policies of conservative parties in Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan.

Let me emphasize that, despite all the crazy talk from teary-eyed conservative talk show hosts, “Obama-care” is more market-oriented and involves less government intervention than anything supported by mainstream right-wing parties anywhere else in the developed world. In fact, it is even less progressive than a health reform proposal once made by the Nixon administration.

Finally, after they were done pretending to reform health care, the Democrats gave Wall Street a slap on the wrist and told them to play nice next time. I can definitely see their logic here: After this terrible recession, we can rest assured that the banks will never again be so reckless as to take huge risks that might crash the economy and force the government to give billions of dollars to the banks… Oh wait, never mind.

Throughout all this, the Democrats did very little to help working people who had lost their jobs or homes. If they were going to bail out the banks anyway, they could have done it by buying up all the foreclosed homes and letting their occupants stay there. Not only would this have been the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but it would have also helped the economy. After all, it’s a lot easier to find and keep a steady job if you have a home to live in. To deal with the record levels of unemployment (officially hovering around 10 percent, but unofficially around 16 percent when you count the underemployed and the “discouraged workers”), the Democrats could have started a massive government jobs program like in the New Deal. The government could have employed people to build public transport networks, which are sorely needed in this country. Or there could have been a jobs boom in health care if they actually created a public option.

To pay for it all, they could have raised taxes on the wealthy.  There are two main reasons why the U.S. government is experiencing record deficits right now, and one of them is that taxes are absurdly low by historical standards (the other reason is the bloated defense budget). The top marginal income tax rate – the tax rate paid by the richest Americans – was 63 percent during FDR’s first term, 79 percent during his second term, 91 percent under Eisenhower, 70 percent under Nixon, and 50 percent under Ronald Reagan. It is 35 percent under Obama. Don’t tell me that taxes are too high. They are at their second lowest point in almost 80 years.

But the Democrats did not help working people, did not pursue any meaningful reform of health care or Wall Street, and did not punish those who caused the Great Recession (in fact, they rewarded them). So now they are going to be swept out of office by a wave of public anger, and they have only themselves to blame. Right-wing commentators insist that the mistake of the Democrats was going “too far to the left,” but that is absurd. On all the key issues, the Democrats were too far to the right; they could have secured more votes by going further left. For example, does anyone really believe that the American people would have been opposed to the government inflicting severe punishment on Wall Street? If the Democrats had taken a more left-wing stance against the banks, they would have won more popular support, not less. Or imagine if Obama actually created a system of “socialized health care” like the British NHS, meaning that anyone could walk into a hospital and get treatment for any serious illness at little or no cost. Is there any doubt that he would have earned the eternal support – and votes – of the tens of millions of uninsured, and the other tens of millions of people with bad insurance, high deductibles or co-pays, or pre-existing conditions? And if the Democrats created a government jobs program that put millions of people back to work, is there any doubt that all those people would have voted for them this November?

Whatever you think about which policies are best, there can be no doubt that more progressive policies would have earned the Democrats more votes. But instead, they chose to fiddle while the economy burned.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].