A new populism is dividing Democrats ahead of 2014 and that poses risks for Sen. Al Franken.
WASHINGTON – When President Obama backed entitlement reforms earlier this year as a way to shrink the nation’s long-term debt, some of his Democratic supporters worried that the next big budget deal in Congress might come on the backs of older folks on Social Security, including 927,500 beneficiaries in Minnesota.
They needn’t have worried.
The deal the U.S. House is scheduled to vote on Thursday to avoid another government shutdown is expected to do little to reduce the nation’s long-term debt, and nothing to trim back scheduled cost-of-living increases to the nation’s retirement system.
The budget deal is hardly a victory for conservative deficit hawks on Capitol Hill. Democrats, who would like to have extended jobless benefits, also have their misgivings. But what’s not in the agreement — entitlement cuts — is being hailed by an emboldened network of such congressional liberals as Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, who has been leading a grass-roots effort on Capitol Hill to resist cuts to the safety net programs, extend unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage.
While pressure from the left has aligned with the populist tone of Obama’s recent emphasis on economic inequality, it also has fueled a rift between centrists and leftists in the Democratic Party reminiscent of the split on the right between so-called establishment and Tea Party Republicans.
Some strategists say a new populist streak could rejuvenate the party and excite the base, which has been forced to play defense on the troubled rollout of the new health care law. But others worry that it could threaten Democratic candidates in purple states like Minnesota, where U.S. Sen. Al Franken faces re-election next year.
“There’s been a rise in activism on both the left and the right for the last couple of years,” said Jim Kessler, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank. “And in general, the middle of the country is feeling left behind.”
Kessler has shaken the Democratic firmament by challenging the left’s embrace of a new brand of economic populism, particularly that of a potential 2016 White House run by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wants to increase Social Security benefits. To Kessler, that’s a path off a “fiscal cliff.”
Ellison, who headlined a budget rally in front of the White House last month to protest potential cuts in Social Security, dismisses the criticism that he is helping put the Democrats on the path to ruin.
“My answer to that is if you don’t want us to fight for economic fairness, then you’d better go create some,” Ellison said.
‘We’ve got a movement’
Ellison’s differences with the Obama administration run deeper than just disagreements over trims to entitlements like Social Security. It also has extended to the minimum wage debate, which the political left considers favorable ground for Democrats.
“It’s our base. That’s what gets us in office. That’s what wins national elections,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus with Ellison. “People shouldn’t be afraid of the populist growth in the party.”
The administration, which earlier this year suggested raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, since has backed a $10.10-an-hour proposal put forward by liberal House Democrats. Obama has so far resisted calls by Ellison and Grijalva to use his executive powers to raise wages for some 2 million federal contractor employees — a group larger than the combined workforces of Wal-Mart and McDonalds.
Moments before Obama began a major speech on economic inequality this month, Ellison pressed a letter into his hands seeking an executive order to help federal contract workers. As the president spoke about a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility,” Ellison said he agreed with every word. Still, the congressman said he was haunted by the “nagging thought” that the president has the power, by the stroke of a pen, to raise the pay of thousands of low-wage employees who toil in museums within blocks of the White House.
The next morning, Ellison took part in a boisterous rally of janitors and cafeteria workers at the Smithsonian Institution. Many were black or Hispanic, and most donned Santa hats and chanted in English and in Spanish for Obama to give them a “living wage.”
“Folks,” Ellison told them, “we’ve got a movement.”