Trump, GOP Actually Give Room For Democrats To Move Left

Like so many other of his economic proposals, Trump’s latest plan to reduce prescription drug prices landed with a thud. Unsurprisingly, the plan will do nothing to reduce drug prices, only potentially put more money in the pockets of the pharmaceutical monopolies. The plans relies on every other country that actually negotiates the prices of drugs, and that means every other industrialized country in the world, to voluntarily pay more for those drugs, which will put more money into the hands of the Big Pharma and allow them to reduce prices here in the US. It is a bizarre twist on trickle-down economics that will accomplish nothing.

But the plan’s announcement has led many to point out that Trump has broken virtually every economic promise that he made during the campaign. In light of the last 16 months, it is remarkable to remember just how heterodox and even heretical some of Trump’s economic policies were in the Republican party. On some economic issues, Trump managed to get to the left of Hillary Clinton and, incredibly, in light of the way he has governed, he was considered the most moderate Republican candidate in nearly half a century.

During the campaign, Trump often managed to take both sides of any issue, but he was consistent about protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. While satisfying the base that he would repeal Obamacare, he implicitly promised universal coverage with better and less costly insurance. He promised a massive $1 trillion infrastructure investment. He promised higher taxes on the rich. He promised to restrict the power of lobbyists and big business to influence the government. And he promised that the government would bring down drug prices by negotiating directly with pharmaceutical giants.

In fact, both Democrats and Republicans alike were afraid that Trump would govern like the Democrat conservatives believed him to be when he came into office. Conservatives believed he would abandon them, putting together an unstoppable coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Democrats feared he would “steal” their progressive economic message for Republicans. But, in the end, Trump has governed as an ultra-orthodox Republican on economic issues, with the exception of the issue of trade.

As the majority of Americans figured out or knew, Trump was lying and has now broken every single one of those promises as President. He has cut Medicare and Medicaid. The ACA has been weakened and the number of uninsured is rising again. Despite a dozen or so aborted attempts, there is no infrastructure plan. There will be no negotiations with Big Pharma. Taxes were cut, massively, on the rich. And Trump has presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in a century. Trump’s promises were all pithy campaign sound bites, never with any plans or details behind them, lacking in substance, just like the man who uttered them.

The only real economic promise that Trump has even made an attempt to keep is his protectionist rhetoric on trade. He is renegotiating NAFTA, but it will hardly be the radical change that he claimed during the campaign. And his self-imposed tariffs are backfiring, damaging the local economies that comprise the core of his support.

There are two important lessons for Democrats to learn from Trump’s string of broken promises. First, it is a mirage to believe that Trump’s base can be won over by focusing on an economic message. Virtually every action that Trump has taken in the economic sphere has damaged his core constituencies. Primarily because of the Medicaid cuts and lack of expansion, as well as the changes to the ACA, the number of uninsured is rising, with the majority of the newly uninsured coming from red states and specifically Republicans. The budding trade war in China is threatening farms in the heartland with approximately 10% of Iowa farms expected to fail in the upcoming year. The middle class got nothing while the corporations and ultra-rich got a massive tax cut.

Despite the string of broken promises and specific policies that harm their own communities, Trump still enjoys high levels of support among Republicans in his base. This simply reinforces what studies have already show us, namely that racism, xenophobia, and trade policy are what drove these voters to vote for Trump. It will be useless, a waste of time and resources, for Democrats to chase these voters with what’s considered “moderate” economic policies.

On the other hand, Trump’s populist economic rhetoric, combined with the actual way he and the Republicans have governed, have opened up the playing field for Democratic and progressive priorities far more than most realize. The most important lesson for Democrats is that, despite the warnings from the pundit class, there is no harm in running to the left on economic issues. Even in deep red districts, candidates can run on relatively progressive economic policies like higher taxes on the rich, universal or expanding health care, protecting or even expanding Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and allowing the government to negotiate on drug prices, all while claiming to merely be running to accomplish exactly what Trump promised and failed to do.

And, in fact, we have seen Democrats all over the country running and winning on these very issues. Doug Jones in Alabama, Ralph Northam in Virginia, and Conor Lamb all won while focusing on liberal policies, especially health care. In Alabama, Doug Jones supported abortion rights and some limited gun control measures while supporting and even expanding Obamacare. Conor Lamb supported abortion rights, protecting and improving Obamacare, and expanded background checks. His support for collective bargaining in his heavily unionized district was a direct rebuff of right-to-work laws. Ralph Northam supported the $15 minimum wage and a public option on healthcare.

Yesterday, the NY Times ran a story about how the Democratic establishment, especially the DCCC, is counting on “moderates” to win back the House. In particular, the article highlights the campaign of Clarke Tucker in Arkansas, whom the DCCC supports in a primary bid over a more “liberal” opponent in the Democratic primary. But take a look at what Tucker’s actual campaign platform comprises. He supports improving Obamacare and offering a Medicare buy-in for anyone. He wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and invest in rural broadband. He opposes federal dollars going to charter schools, supports non-partisan redistricting and equal pay for equal work, and eliminating voter ID laws. This is no old-style “blue-dog” Democrat. In fact, you could easily see Lamb, Jones, and Tucker all supporting dropping the Medicare eligibility age to 55. Yes, that may not be Medicare-for-all, but it’s a big step closer.

(Just as a side note, what is it about opposing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker that makes someone automatically a “moderate”. There are plenty of progressives who admire and support Pelosi but still believe that it is long past time for a fresh face to represent the House Democratic party.)

House races in particular are dominated by more local concerns and what plays in coastal California will not play in Peoria. But, these days, even the so-called “moderate” Democrats running in solidly red districts have moved significantly to the left. Robert Wheel points out that, in Southern Indiana, a Democratic, running on single-payer healthcare, abolishing ICE, legalizing marijuana, and supporting a federal jobs guarantee as well as Black Lives Matter, got 30% of the Democratic primary vote. The candidate he lost to was no “moderate” either, supporting Medicare-for-all, legalizing marijuana, and allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices. Remember, this is in Southern Indiana.

On the national level, that move has been even more pronounced. Almost every potential candidate for 2020 — Sanders, Warren, Booker, Brown, Harris, and Gillibrand — has embraced some sort of pathway for universal, government-run healthcare. Whether that is Medicare-for-all or some transitional path that includes a public option in addition to private insurance, the goal is universal healthcare. Similarly, decriminalizing marijuana is also broadly supported by these candidates. Most also support some kind of income support, either through a federal jobs guarantee or increasing the EITC to create some level of basic income. Gillibrand has proposed a postal bank. All of them would support negotiating drug prices with Big Pharma, massive infrastructure investment, and higher taxes on the rich and corporations in order to actually fund a tax cut for the middle class.

Moreover, the Republicans’ budget-busting tax plan has (hopefully) put to rest any complaints about Democrats not paying for the programs they pass. Of course, history has shown that Democrats are far more likely to actually fund the policies they enact but now, at least, the “fiscal responsibility” issue has been taken off the table. That again opens up possibilities for expansive Democratic and progressive proposals like single payer or expanding the EITC.

Yes, the major thrust of Trump’s economic populism was built around trade and immigration as well as the usual Republican push for deregulation. But it is remarkable to see that Trump’s adoption of traditionally Democratic positions during the campaign such as protecting the social safety net, implicitly promising universal health care coverage, funding infrastructure investment, and negotiating drug prices were considered “unorthodox” and “heretical” to Republican ideology back then. Now, when Democrats strongly advocate for those positions, it is described as moving too far to the left.

The fact of the matter is that Trump’s earlier economic rhetoric and the way he and the Republicans have actually governed have allowed the Democrats to successfully move to the left without being punished by their own party or, so far, the electorate. The results have shown that no Democrat, even in the reddest districts should fear that move but rather seize the opportunity to embrace liberal policies that Trump himself once espoused.

Originally published at on May 15, 2018.