The Democrats’ Winning Populism

The Democrats are on the right side of income inequality, unemployment insurance and other issues.


Try to imagine what's going through the mind a single mother who lost her job nine months ago and has two children to support. Today would have been the day she would have received her unemployment check. But Congress went home and left her and 1.3 million other long term unemployed Americans in the lurch. 

In 2014, the first order of business for President Obama and congressional Democrats will be to restore those benefits. The Senate will vote today on the benefits extension and the president will address the issue on Tuesday. And before anybody tells me we can't afford it, let me note that congressional Republicans have ignored the president's requests to end the $4 billion in tax freebies that the feds hand out to the oil companies every year.

In 2013, economic inequality reached the critical mass necessary to become a front burner issue in 2014. Last year Pope Francis and President Obama called for action to fight poverty and trickledown economics. In 2013, New York City (Bill de Blasio) and Boston (Marty Walsh) elected mayors who are economic populists devoted to fighting poverty. De Blasio's visibility as mayor of the Big Apple will give the problem the attention it deserves. Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's declaration of war on poverty and this is the first time since then that Democrats have put the problem on the front burner.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The gap between rich and poor has become too glaring for people to ignore. The conversation about income inequality started with Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and gets louder every day. 2013 was the best of years for Wall Street and the worst of years for working families. In 2013, Wall Street had its best year since 1997 but income for middle class families remained stagnant as it has for years.

An increase in the minimum wage is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Expect to hear the president renew his call for an increase in the minimum wage in his State of the Union address on January 28th. Republicans ignore the president at their own peril. A minimum wage increase is very popular with voters and Democrats will make the issue the foundation of the party's overarching economic message in the midterm elections.

The budget wars will also start early this year and the real fireworks will be in February, the deadline for Congress to raise the debt limit is the 7th day of the month.

In 2013 the GOP used the debate over the debt limit in a futile attempt to kill health care reform. Now 2014 will be the year when millions of Americans will have health insurance for the first time. Republicans lost their chance last year to strangle Obamacares in its crib and they risk ruin if they repeat their blackmail scheme. It is difficult to take things away once people get them. This year, Americans will tell Republicans "you can pry my health insurance out of my hot live hands." 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

If they can't blackmail Americans over their health and well being, the House Republicans can always demonstrate their impotence by voting over and over again to defund the Affordable Care Act. The law may be unpopular but there are very few Americans who want repeal it. When Americans hear GOP calls to repeal it, they listen and then ask Republicans what they plan to replace it with. So far, the GOP hasn't come up with an answer. Until the party offers an alternative, the only thing the GOP can do is to pound sand.

We will quickly see if congressional Republicans in general and the tea partyers specifically have learned their lesson. The debate over the debt limit will also be an early test of House Speaker John Boehner's capacity to control his caucus. If Republicans harm the U.S. economy again, Americans will harm the Republicans in November.

  • Read Nina Rees: Common Core, Charter Schools and 3 Other Key Education Stories in 2014
  • Read Peter Roff: Obama's TV Connection
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.