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Democrats' Agenda Is Getting Stale

Hold the applause on Elizabeth Warren's Netroots speech

Getty Images/Alex Wong

On Friday, Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered an animated speech at Netroots Nation, urging the raucous crowd to fight for progressive priorities. “This is the future of America,” she said. “This is where we decide that we the people will fight for what we believe in. We’re going to do this and we are going to win.” For liberals who watched, it was hard not to come away re-energized for the midterm elections.

But despite the soaring rhetoric, Warren’s speech also illustrated a growing problem for the Democratic Party: Their ideas are growing stale. In her speech, Warren declared support for a long list of progressive priorities, including tough financial regulation, policies to combat climate change, raising the minimum wage, the rights of labor unions, an affordable college education, a secure retirement, and immigration reform. The purpose of Warren’s speech was meant to rally the party base, not to propose new policy solutions. But even if she had wanted to include specific policy solutions, it's not exactly clear what she might have offered: On the issues Warren outlined, Democrats are short on far-reaching, fresh ideas.

Republicans, by contrast, have actively been taking on these matters. Senator Marco Rubio has led the charge. He has proposed reforming Social Security by opening up government retirement plans to all Americans, eliminating payroll taxes for those over the age of 65, and means-testing. To combat poverty, he wants to combine all anti-poverty spending into a Flex Fund and distribute to the states as well as convert the Earned Income Tax Credit into a wage subsidy. Last week, Rubio introduced a bill with Senator Mark Warner that would allow students to pay back their student loans as a fixed percentage of their income each month. Rubio is also working with Senator Mike Lee on a tax plan that would expand the child tax credit and, with Representative Paul Ryan, on an Obamacare replacement. Some of Rubio’s proposals are good ideas. Many of them aren’t. But he has spent the past year giving wonky policy speeches, and laying the groundwork for his domestic policy platform.

He’s not alone in the Republican Party, either. Senator Rand Paul has done considerable work on prison reform. He’s been very active on civil liberties—NSA spying being the most prominent—as well. On Thursday, Paul Ryan is releasing his own anti-poverty agenda. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has also released an Obamacare replacement, although it received tepid support even among conservatives.

Many observers believe that Rubio, Paul, Jindal, and others are offering new ideas in preparation for a competitive 2016 presidential primary. On the Democratic side, though, Hillary Clinton is expected to run more or less uncontested. She faces no pressure to propose any specific policies. Many liberals had hoped Warren would run for president—and the Netroots crowd interrupted her frequently with cheers of “Run, Liz, Run.” But, as Phillip Rucker and Robert Costa reported in the Washington Post last week, Warren really has not set up much campaign infrastructure. Other potential candidates, like Senator Amy Klobuchar, Governor Martin O’Malley, and Vice President Joe Biden, are making stops in early battleground states, but they’re still just testing the waters.

None of this is to say that Democrats have no new ideas whatsoever. Senator Cory Booker has partnered with Rand Paul on prison reform. Senators Patty Murray and Mark Begich introduced a bill to reform Social Security. President Barack Obama wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and invest $302 billion in improving the country’s infrastructure. Warren, for her part, put forward legislation to help students pay back their student loans. (Republicans filibustered it.)

Yet, in comparison to what Republicans have proposed, these ideas look small. Murray and Begich’s Social Security plan, while smart, would only extend the life of the Social Security Trust Fund by a year. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit would be an improvement as well, but that is only one part of the U.S.’s anti-poverty safety net.

These proposals leave many other issues unresolved. What would liberal tax reform look like? Raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, supporting labor unions, workplace equality, and combatting climate change have long been Democratic priorities. Yet, Democrats have offered little new on any of these issues. Protecting Medicare and Social Security is a laudable goal, but 13 percent of seniors lived in poverty in 2012. How can we further reduce that number? Obama and Warren have argued that the top banks on Wall Street are still Too Big To Fail, but it’s been awhile since anyone’s had a good idea on how to end that. Democrats often demand solutions to these problems, but have been much slower to offer them.

After eight years of Obama, the Democratic Party could use a debate over the right way forward. But the inevitability of Hillary Clinton has prevented that from happening. That’s a major liability for the 2016 presidential election. If Republican candidates undertake a thorough debate on policy solutions for tax reform, entitlement programs, and the U.S.’s antipoverty system, the GOP could suddenly look like the party of ideas—ideas that could dismantle Obama’s greatest achievements.