I think millions of people who identify as Democrats mean well. I think a number of Congressional progressive Democrats generally do their best in the system they’re working in. I think identifying as a Republican is even more inexcusably immoral than ever. I also think the central excuses used by the leadership of the Democratic Party for its failure over the past year to do most of what it campaigned on in 2020 are as believable as the existence of Iraq’s WMDs or Trump’s pee tape.
In 2009, my Democratic Congress member voted for an IMF-banker-bailout bill he had been opposing. As a reward, he got front-page news-making positive events in his district from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, White House Advisor Van Jones, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. I don’t recall seeing such characters around here before or since. Their visits were pretty transparently part of a deal — just like the over $1 million from the Democratic Party that he’d gotten for the 2008 election. You do what you’re told, and good things happen.
In 2015, three Republicans in Congress voted against their Party’s wishes on a corporate trade agreement and were stripped of their leadership positions, but four Democrats voted the way their Party wanted, and they were given a ride on a presidential airplane to a G7 meeting, photos with the president, and at least one of them apparently a goofy shirt with a Native American mascot.
When the Democratic Party, in 2016, thought Bernie Sanders might win a nomination, it organized efforts to get him called an atheist, pitched stories to the press about his campaign being a mess, rallied the superdelegates, and did everything it could to help his opponent win.
When Congressman Dennis Kucinich was holding out for single-payer health coverage in 2010, he caved in after unknown threats and/or promises on a presidential airplane ride, following numerous meetings with President Obama and an Obama event in Kucinich’s district that helped frame the media narrative into a distortion of Kucinich’s position.
Congress members almost always do what their Parties demand. They can vote the wrong way if there’s a sufficient majority for it not to matter. A safe number of progressives, for example, can vote no on an infrastructure bill (in the absence of a build-back-better bill), but not all the progressives who promised to do that can keep their promise, not if it might be enough to actually change the outcome. The Party could take you out as easily as it did Kucinich or as it just shut out Nina Turner or India Walton.
Sometimes Congress members have to negotiate whose turn it is to get to cast useless votes for the positions they favor. And when push comes to shove, there are plenty of carrots and sticks that can be used. Congress Members who vote the way their Party wants often get special projects in their states and districts, public events with cabinet members, committee assignments, or election funding. Those who oppose their Party often have such things taken away, and even have primary challengers funded, advertising purchased against them, and at a minimum public denunciation of the error of their ways.
For the past year we’ve had a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress generally failing to keep dozens of promises (see a highlight list of broken ones below) — promises that were made on that president’s campaign website and in that Party’s platform. And those promises — insufficient and weak as they may have been, in comparison with Bernie Sanders’ or with what we might have ideally wanted — were promises that generally went against decades of position-taking by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Steny Hoyer, and the leaders of the Democratic Party. Many of the 2020 promises were deeply opposed by the top funders of Democrats’ election campaigns.
We’ve seen ample use of the filibuster excuse and, even more so, of the Manchin and Sinema excuses. But if there have been any really serious efforts to move Manchin or Sinema, word hasn’t leaked out. In fact, we’ve been told that such efforts would be a bad idea because they’d risk losing one or both of those senators to the Republican Party. This isn’t called “appeasement” in the corporate media — that language is reserved for any failure to risk World War III in Ukraine.
But guess who — judging by approval ratings — seems to notice that the Democrats aren’t really trying? Guess who appears not to care about the excuses? I don’t think I’m alone. I think the U.S. public is fed up. If you’re not going to give us goofy fascist bluster, you have to at least make our lives better: that seems to be the general response.
The pandemic is worse now. We don’t have a dumb sadist talking about drinking bleach, but if we can’t have the racism and sexism, at least make the pandemic go away — why can’t your serious enlightened bureaucracy do that: this seems to be how a good chunk of the U.S. public is taking things. And, apart from that segment of the public that’s actually attracted to Trumpism, I think the public is pretty much right.
Imagine if it were Bernie Sanders in the Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema role. Do you suppose for a moment that a year would have gone by without major public (and some would-be private but exposed) use of massive carrots and vicious sticks?
So, a year in, I have a proposal for the leadership of the Democratic Party. Pick one of the following 25 promises to keep. This is a selective list that could be made much larger. Campaigns are packed with promises. But I’m providing a good deal of variety, and asking only that you pick one and keep it.
Some of them President Biden could do instantly on his own, meaning that the Sine-Manchin excuse doesn’t even apply.
- Undo all of your new drilling permits to stop breaking your promise of “No more drilling on federal lands, period.” This is in Biden’s power.
- Create free college for families paid less than $125,000 a year. (Party platform.) (Campaign website.) Biden can do this alone.
- Provide $10,000 in student debt relief per borrower. (Party platform.) (Campaign website.) Biden has claimed he has the power to cancel $10,000 but not $50,000, yet failed to actually cancel $10,000.
- “[E]nd support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and help bring the war to an end.” (Party platform.) (Also: Campaign website.) I mean actually do it. That means stop sending weapons to Saudi Arabia. This is in Biden’s power. He could also simply give his Party members in Congress permission to end the war with legislation as they did when Trump was president, and then not veto it as Trump did.
- “Immediately end the horrific practice of separating families at our border and holding immigrant children in for-profit prisons.” (Campaign website.) Biden could do this now. He hasn’t fully done it. He also promised to compensate separated families and could keep that promise right now but is choosing to break it.
- Create a $15/hour minimum wage. This was promised on Biden’s campaign website and in the Party platform. We’ve seen no sign of it, and already it will be worth less than it would have been in Biden’s first year. (The senseless ongoing failure to tie the minimum wage to the cost of living is why an adjustment is needed in the first place.)
- Provide paid sick and family leave. This bit of the Party platform sounded really good back in 2020: “Democrats will implement paid sick days and a high-quality, comprehensive, and inclusive paid family and medical leave system that protects workers from the unfair choice between attending to urgent health or caretaking needs and earning a paycheck. We will fight to ensure workers are guaranteed at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers and family units, to enable new parents to recover from childbirth and bond with their newborns, foster or adopted children, and allow all workers to take extended time off to care for themselves or ailing loved ones.” See also: Campaign website.
- Remove the cap on Social Security taxes so that the rich pay their share, and expand Social Security benefits. These changes, laid out on Biden’s campaign website, and carefully analyzed by academics would help millions of people if, you know, Democrats actually made them.
- “Provide Section 8 housing vouchers to every eligible family so that no one has to pay more than 30% of their income for rental housing.” That’s a quote from Biden’s campaign website. Here’s a quote from The Princess Bride: “I’m waiting!”
- Reduce the military spending that you’ve already increased. This is a tricky demand, given that the Democrats have already done the opposite of what was promised in their Party platform, (Biden asked Congress for a big increase and Congress increased it beyond what he asked for) but it can be done. These words from that platform may inspire Democrats to action: “We spend 13 times more on the military than we do on diplomacy. We spend five times more in Afghanistan each year than we do on global public health and preventing the next pandemic. We can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less.”
- Create free community college for two years. (Party platform.) (Campaign website.)
- “Provide high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten for all three- and four-year-olds.” (Campaign website.) (Party platform.)
- Belatedly do the “Year One Legislative Agenda on Climate Change.” (Campaign website.) Here’s an excerpt: “Biden will make the largest-ever investment in clean energy research and innovation. After World War II, public investment in research and collaboration between universities and the private sector spurred American innovation, led to rapid economic and job growth, and helped build a strong middle class. The Biden plan will double down on this approach to create the industries of the future by investing $400 billion over ten years. That’s twice the investment of the Apollo program which put a man on the moon, in today’s dollars. This investment will enable us to develop new technological break-throughs that will create jobs and drastically reduce emissions.”
- Put $2 trillion into clean energy. (Campaign website.) “Biden will make a $2 trillion accelerated investment, with a plan to deploy those resources over his first term, setting us on an irreversible course to meet the ambitious climate progress that science demands.”
- “Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities – ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.” (Campaign website.)
- [R]epeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force. (Party platform.)
- Create a healthcare “public option.” (Campaign website.) (Party platform.)
- Lower the age for Medicare. (Party platform.)
- Expand voting rights, including for people convicted of felonies. (Party platform.) The promised changes included automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, early voting, universal vote-from-home and vote-by-mail options, and an election day holiday.
- Reform campaign financing. (Campaign website.) “Biden will: Introduce a constitutional amendment to entirely eliminate private dollars from our federal elections. . . . Enact legislation to provide voluntary matching public funds for federal candidates receiving small dollar donations. . . . Restrict SuperPACs. . . . End dark money groups. . . . Ban corporate PAC contributions to candidates, and prohibit lobbyist contributions to those who they lobby.” Mr. President, if you want to cause havoc in my betting pool, pick this one. I dare you.
- Get weapons of war off streets. (Campaign website.) “In 2005, then-Senator Biden voted against the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, but gun manufacturers successfully lobbied Congress to secure its passage. This law protects these manufacturers from being held civilly liable for their products – a protection granted to no other industry. Biden will prioritize repealing this protection. Get weapons of war off our streets. The bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that Biden, along with Senator Feinstein, secured in 1994 reduced the lethality of mass shootings. But, in order to secure the passage of the bans, they had to agree to a 10-year sunset provision and when the time came, the Bush Administration failed to extend them. As president, Biden will: Ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. . . . Buy back the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines already in our communities.”
- Allow union organizing. (Campaign website.) (Party platform.) “Biden will go beyond the PRO Act by enacting legislation to impose even stiffer penalties on corporations and to hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional . . . . A co-sponsor of the original Employee Free Choice Act, Biden supports workers choosing to form a union if a majority signs authorization cards empowering a union to represent them. He will go beyond the PRO Act by allowing workers to use this process, called ‘card check,’ as an initial option for forming a union, not merely an option granted when the employer has illegally interfered in the election process. . . . Ban state laws prohibiting unions from collecting dues or comparable payments from all workers who benefit from union representation that unions are legally obligated to provide.”
- Eliminate cash bail, mandatory minimums, the death penalty, or the criminalization of marijuana. Pick one. They’re all on Biden’s campaign website.
- Make D.C. a state. (Party platform.)
- Tax the oligarchs. (Party platform.) (Campaign website.) “Democrats will take action to reverse the Trump Administration’s tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest Americans and rewarding corporations for shipping American jobs overseas. We will crack down on overseas tax havens and close loopholes that are exploited by the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations. We will make sure the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes. We will make sure investors pay the same tax rates as workers and bring an end to expensive and unproductive tax loopholes, including the carried interest loophole. Corporate tax rates, which were cut sharply by the 2017 Republican tax cut, must be raised, and “trickle-down” tax cuts must be rejected. Estate taxes should also be raised back to the historical norm.”