There is no deluge

Ross Douthat has a column at the New York Times arguing that Democratic presidential hopes hinge entirely on Hillary Clinton’s decision to run or not. Her potential candidacy, Douthat writes, “converges almost perfectly with the interests of her party, even if not every liberal quite realizes it yet. That’s because Clinton’s iconic status is, increasingly, the only clear advantage the Democratic Party has.”

Should Clinton decide not to run, Douthat argues, the weakness of the Democratic coalition will be exposed. Well, of course. If a party’s strongest candidate steps aside, that party’s electoral outlook will always diminish.

Not only will liberal electoral weakness be exposed, Douthat writes, but its policy void will be too. Under his analysis, “[p]olitical skill builds majorities, but popular policy successes cement them — and that is what has consistently eluded Obama.”

Conservatives still maintain that Obamacare is a policy deadweight for Obama’s legacy, but there are signs that this conventional wisdom is ebbing. The law’s component parts have long polled much better than the vilified monolith “Obamacare” has. The deep well of disapproval against the law as a whole — driven by both flawed liberal communication and deliberate conservative misinformation — built up in the years before the law’s 2014 launch date. It’s telling that a conspicuous conservative quietude around Obamacare has set in precisely when the law is having very real and positive effects in the lives of millions of newly insured Americans.

The supposed absence of a cohesive liberal policy agenda is something of an emerging critique from conservative reformers. Douthat characterizes the liberal agenda as a stale discordant mishmash — “immigration reform, climate-change regulations, some jaw-jaw about inequality” — that “doesn’t really align with those unhappy voters’ immediate priorities.” Yuval Levin of the National Review similarly argues that “one of the most extraordinary features of this moment in our politics is that many serious liberals seem genuinely not to grasp the intellectual exhaustion of the left.”

An honest evaluation of the liberal policy agenda, however, shows a good deal more intellectual cohesion than these critics would have us believe. The liberal vision is socially progressive and economically egalitarian. It believes in robust public action to mitigate vulnerabilities to harm inflicted by both the market and sheer chance. It insures us against poor health and combats the inequitable threats of climate change.

The core liberal aspiration is a more just community in both senses: enhancing justice while expanding our sense of community and nationhood. As President Obama put it when advocating health reform to Congress in 2009, liberal reform is animated by a sense that “we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”

Obamacare made our health insurance system fairer to more Americans, asking us to have a stake in the care of those denied access to decent insurance. Liberal climate change policy expands our sense of community obligation by asking us to do justice by a future set of Americans who would bear the dire brunt of present inaction.

Liberal leaders concede that these lofty goals can be a tough immediate electoral sell. President Obama told Thomas Friedman, “I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.”

So liberals often pitch community- and justice-building initiatives in more modest terms. That’s how the EPA power plant rule became a tool to lessen child asthma attacks and other pollutant-inflicted health risks. It’s also how healthcare reform became a law meant to “bend the cost curve” on what Americans pay for healthcare. By locating the benefits of liberal policy proposals in the center of our conception of community — present-day, middle-class Americans — liberals expect greater political support than more aspirational justifications might gain.

These present-day benefits are certainly worthy, pragmatic goals. But they are hardly the stuff that stirs liberal ambitions. Perhaps the most eloquent articulation of the community justice principles animating liberal thought is from Elizabeth Warren’s viral living room address during her Senate campaign. There, she forcefully argued that “nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” Factory owners depended on public roads, on protections of property, and on publicly educated workers. “[P]art of the underlying social contract,” she told us, “is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren makes the moral case for redistribution. And she grounds it in a social contract that is meant to preserve competitive markets and displace incumbents — a social contract that asks the successful to pay it forward. She opposes concentration in income and market power, urging that our policy clear the way for “the next kid who comes along” to own a good factory or start a new tech firm.

This moral case emphasizes our community ties — the interdependence of our lives and fortunes as Americans that we often hardly even notice. It rejects the social isolationism that we’ve heard from retrenching conservatives during the Obama years — the let-him-die heartlessness toward the uninsured, the toss-the-losers-to-the-street callousness toward struggling homeowners. A man is not an island, liberals tell us. In countless ways, we rise and fall together. This togetherness in turn yields the social obligations driving liberal policy.

The contrast of the liberal and conservative social visions is a reminder that, when those like Douthat warn of the fragility of the liberal coalition, we must compare it to the alternative. We will likely have to wait until the Republican presidential primaries to see how much headway well-meaning reformers of the right have made in taming the uglier impulses of the grassroots. Indeed, a too-narrow sense of community among conservatives that rejects bringing undocumented immigrants aboveground in our nation is one of the chief inhibitors of conservative electoral success.

So where does all this leave the Democratic coalition, and in particular, where does this leave Clinton? Any intellectual vision needs an effective spokesperson to command a strong coalition. Obama seized this role in 2008. Perhaps it will be Clinton’s time in 2016.

As Secretary of State, Clinton lofted above domestic politics during the Obama years, so we know little about where she now stands on these matters. But there are signs that Clinton foreign policy work has only ingrained the egalitarian community vision that we’ve heard from liberals like Obama and Warren. She too has recently warned of the concentration of wealth in the upper echelons of our income brackets, connecting it to her work abroad. “As Secretary of State,” she said, “I saw the way extreme inequality has corrupted other societies, hobbled growth and left entire generations alienated and unmoored.”

We don’t yet know what Clinton will run on (if she runs at all). But conservatives underestimate the depth of the liberal vision by dismissing the left’s policy proposals as a hodgepodge of interest group panders on immigration, climate change, and inequality. It would be easy to imagine Clinton centering her campaign on a significant social insurance scheme like paid family leave in the way that Obama made health insurance reform the center of his. Indeed, this would be a logical outgrowth of basic liberal principles.

Yes, Democrats hope Clinton runs in 2016. But Douthat’s (lack of) alternative is too harsh. He foresees a “deluge” without her, exposing a shallow liberal coalition and policy agenda. Color me skeptical. Liberals present a vision of the public sphere that believes we can come together as a community and ward off some of the hazards of modern life. Conservatives might call this misguided. But they write it off as intellectually empty at their own risk.

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