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Politics

While You Were Watching Trump, The Democratic Party Changed

Bernie Sanders lost the primary but reshaped his party.

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Donald Trump has already changed the Democratic Party more than his own Republican Party.

While the president has merely reduced his own party into a panicked mess, the Democrats’ trajectory seems to have moved subtly and decisively away from the center-left Clinton liberalism toward a politics whose planks make Barack Obama look like Al Gore.

I know, it’s been a distracting month. So you’re forgiven if you missed the big development on the Democratic Party policy front: the call for “a large-scale, permanent program of public employment and infrastructure investment.” That plan, titled “A Marshall Plan for America,” came not from Bernie Sanders but from the Center for American Progress, the Clintonite Washington think tank John Podesta led. The proposal breaks in tone and substance with the Clinton–Obama focus on an economy led and dominated by the private sector.

The plan’s radicalism, CAP President Neera Tanden told me, is aimed at a jobs crisis that they’re talking about with an urgency that was absent from the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration.

“The problem is gigantic. And we can't be indifferent to it. If we continue to be than both the economy and the democracy will unravel,” Tanden said. And the spur, she said, isn’t just the current president: “It's Trumpism, Brexiters, National Frontism.”

Democrats’ opportunity is to deliver on the explicit and implicit promises that Trump abandoned once he was elected: expanded and improved health care and large-scale jobs programs, cost no object. And that opportunity comes as the party’s economic left — its social democratic wing, as it used to be called — finds new footing. Sanders proved Democrats could pitch unabashed government action in the economy without upsetting primary voters — or even, almost inexplicably, getting criticized for plans to raise taxes. And the new plan from CAP drew grudging praise even from thinkers who had basically given up on the established Democratic Party.

“Some Democratic leaders are beginning to realize that Trump is a symptom of a political and commercial system that they had a role in mismanaging,” said Matt Stoller, a former Sanders aide in the Senate now at the New America Foundation. “As a result they are inching their way toward rethinking their agenda.”

The jobs plan is the bluntest sign of this shift, but the party appears to be inching its way toward another pillar of social democracy: government-funded health care.

“What happened in the presidential campaign is that Bernie ran explicitly in support of a Medicare-for-all approach” — a simple framework for single-payer — “and what the politicians saw is that voters were fine with that,” said Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a longtime advocate of single payer.

“It’s inclusive and it doesn’t get us into the identity politics divisions that are problematic,” he said. “It gets us into inclusive politics.”

And if Sanders made single-payer safe for Democrats, Trump’s extremely unpopular foray into health care policy with the American Health Care Act has created a new landscape. Democrats’ blend of private-sector structures with government money and incentives, Obamacare, never became truly popular. A Republican version of that hybrid system, tilted toward the markets and away from guarantees, isn’t popular either.

“Then the default becomes, well the private market doesn’t work, the next thing is single-payer,” said an insurance industry executive close to the politics of the issue, who noted that the CEO of Aetna recently shocked the industry by calling for a serious debate about what single-payer would look like. (To the insurance industry, it could look like a new sluice of predictable revenue.)

“This is probably going to be like what happened with Republicans on immigration,” the insurance industry official said. “You may even have a bigger swath of Democrats who are not for single-payer but the single-payer group is becoming so outspoken that other voices are muted.”

The shape of this new Democratic Party will emerge in concrete terms in primary battles over the next 18 months, as candidates fight for places in what they believe are promising midterm elections. They may lean heavily on what is the third and largest pillar of the Trump-era Democratic Party — calls for investigating or impeaching Trump.

But the party that emerges may wind up advancing something a lot more like Donald Trump’s campaign promises of government-supported jobs and health care than anything Trump or his party have suggested.

Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.

Contact Ben Smith at ben@buzzfeed.com.

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