More than 140 Characters on Last Night's #DemDebate

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It’s probably fate that I became a government teacher. When I was a little kid, I was a “Jack Kemp Republican.” I remember in November 1988 lobbying Mrs. Anderson, my 4th grade teacher, and encouraging her to vote for George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis. She was very patient with my politicking, before eventually asking me to remove my Bush in ‘88-styrofoam-convention hat. I have been politically active since then and my swings to and fro (throughout my life)  along the political continuum inform my practice as a government teacher.  This experience also informs how I approach people whom I disagree with, but would like to (or think I can) persuade.

With this is in mind, I’d like to elaborate on some ideas that I tweeted during the #DemDebate last evening.

The Party of FDR is now to the Right of Nixon: Much has been made in the media about Bernie Sanders’ self-identification as a Democratic-Socialist. Sanders chooses that label, as is his right. However, I think it would be more accurate and useful to describe him as a New Deal Democrat. In doing so, we highlight the lurch to the right of the entire American political spectrum. The tenets of Sanders’ economic policy: higher taxes rates on high income earners, tough regulation of corporations (especially banks), and calls for government programs and subsidies to reduce poverty, are only radical in today’s version of the Democratic Party.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a National Defense Hawk; she voted for the Iraq War (as a Senator from NY) and last night stated that her counsel was not heeded when she called, while serving as Secretary of State under Obama, for early US involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Her economic policies, when viewed historically, put her to the right of Richard Nixon. Nixon (not so famously) proposed in 1969 the creation of a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI). The program, called the Family Assistance Plan, would have replaced the traditional welfare program (Aid for Families with Dependent Children or AFDC) with a guaranteed minimum national income:

For a family of four without any other income, the FAP would provide $1,600 (2013: $10,121). But a family that did have income from employment would get a declining amount of FAP dollars until family income reached $3,920 (2013: $24,798). A family of four that had been earning $12,652 in 2013 dollars would have had its income increased through the FAP to $18,725. Ultimately, the vast majority of benefits would have gone to the “working poor,” a significant departure from then-existing programs that denied welfare benefits to those who were employed. The FAP sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives comfortably, 243 to 155, but stalled in the Senate.

Can you imagine how Clinton or the eventual Republican nominee (Rubio, Cruz, or Trump) would pounce on that idea if proposed today?  Reagan won the last third of the Twentieth Century. The nation and the Democratic Party has shifted to the right. There are Democrats and there are progressives, but it is a mistake to think that all Democrats are progressive.

Clinton’s Stance Against Single PayerSenator Sanders, like Donald Trump, is a supporter of Single Payer--Medicare for all--Canadian-style healthcare. During the debate, Senator Clinton struck from the right of Sanders (and Trump), stating the creation of a Single Payer Healthcare System would cause massive tax increases for American families. 

Sanders rebutted this point, but I think it deserves more elaboration than the moderators allowed for last night. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 the average American household spent $4,290 on health care costs. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reported that expenditures on healthcare when including government spending and subsidies is even higher, reaching near 1/5 of total GDP. “U.S. health care spending grew 5.3 percent in 2014, reaching $3.0 trillion or $9,523 per person.  As a share of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, health spending accounted for 17.5 percent.” Meanwhile, Canada delivers their national healthcare system for roughly $11,00 per family of four.

At nearly $10,000 head, we already spend more on healthcare than any other industrialized nation, yet we have much lower outcomes than similarly wealthy nations. The difference between cost inputs and healthcare quality outputs, is the profit that American health insurance companies, drug manufacturers and hospital chains all reap--a point that Sanders weakly implied and Clinton is obviously aware of.

On a Kinder Gentler Drug War: Toward the end of the debate, the candidates turned their attention to crime and drugs. America is clearly experiencing an opiate crisis. During the debate, a kyron stated in that 2015 there has been 300+ deaths in the state of New Hampshire connected to opiates. That’s a shocking number for a state with only 1.3 million residents. However, I think it's worth pointing out the racial subtext of the issue.

The candidates all took a somber tone whilst discussing the path from "recreational prescription drug” to “heroin habit” to “death from overdose” that has taken so many American lives recently. Governor O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore and inspiration for Tommy Carcetti on HBO’s the Wire (that’s a whole other rabbit hole to go down), got misty on stage in sharing his thoughts on the opiate crisis.

I couldn’t help but think about how different a tune the party sang in the 80s and early 90s during the crack cocaine era. Last night, Clinton did not suggest needing another Crime Bill to solve the opiate problem, like the one her husband signed into law in 1994 and that Senator Sanders voted for. Nor did anyone suggest the need for new federal mandatory minimum sentences, like the ones imposed in the 1980s. Thanks to these policies, today nearly half of all inmates in Federal Custody are there on drug charges and a majority of them had little to minimal prior criminal offenses.

The response to crack in the 80s was an era of mass incarceration of black and brown youth at the Federal Level. But, with opiates politicians are singing a very different tune. One could say that they learned their lessons from the failed policies of the past, but I can’t help but reflect on the demographics of the heroin overdose victims--mostly working class, non-college educated whites, versus those who were perceived to be the victims of the crack boom.

So what? The 2016 election is pivotal. As Matt Yglesias pointed out in Vox in October, Republicans currently control both Houses of Congress, hold a 5-4 majority on Supreme Court appointments, control the majority of State Legislatures and hold 31 Governor's Mansions. With a win in 2016 Republicans would control every aspect of your national government. No party has had that firm a grip on power, ironically since the New Deal Era.

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia