Column: The left needs to find its populist voice
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Where have all the Democrats gone?
And this tops a full list of similar gestures: curtailing preschool for poor kids; cutting nutrition assistance for pregnant women and babies; and opposing an increase in the minimum wage, which has lost 6 percent of its purchasing power in the past four years. House Republicans sought last year to reduce food stamp benefits by $40 billion, but they may be persuaded by Senate Democrats to accept only $9 billion in cuts.
You don’t have to be a Huey Long to recognize that there’s an opening for populist outrage here: The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and Republicans seem content to widen the divide.
But in the two hours the Senate spent debating unemployment insurance Monday afternoon, only three Democrats showed up to talk: Harry Reid of Nevada, the soft-spoken majority leader, read a brief yet somniferous speech. Patrick Leahy of Vermont offered a few words — on immigration. Jack Reed of Rhode Island delivered a professorial 20-minute lecture in support of extending jobless benefits. And then the chamber went silent for the next hour and 20 minutes — in a quorum call because nobody else wanted to talk.
The presiding officer, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., read a briefing book and studied a map on his smartphone.
It was typical of the Democrats’ tepid acceptance of the political present Republicans have given them. If Democrats had some sense, they’d talk about nothing else until they bludgeoned Republicans into supporting unemployment benefits.
Surely, the late Ted Kennedy, or even Paul Wellstone, would have fought the Republicans with glee. But there is no liberal lion today to give a populist roar. Freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.? Too cerebral. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent? Too much of a gadfly. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa? Easing into retirement. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., might have given voice to outrage, but he was a victim of the air-travel delays that led the Senate to temporarily postpone Monday night’s vote on a three-month extension.
It shouldn’t be hard to make the case. The jobless rate for the long-term unemployed — those affected by the cutoff — is 2.6 percent. That’s at least twice the level it was when extended benefits were ended after all previous recessions going back more than half a century. Benefits average just $300 a week, about a third of a worker’s lost wages, and the beneficiaries come from all classes and races. In most cases, they’re without work through no fault of their own, and there has been little help from Washington for the sort of training that would reduce long-term unemployment.
But after previous recessions, there was no similar sort of ideological zeal to shrink the government. Republicans are under pressure from conservative groups to oppose the $6.5 billion extension. Heritage Action, for instance, calls this lifeline for the jobless an “ineffective and wasteful program” that is unaffordable “even if lawmakers attempt to offset this new spending with real cuts.”
Democrats have their opponents in a tough spot — and yet the Senate floor was empty Monday afternoon.
Reid began the debate by calling the lapse in the program “outrageous” and “unconscionable,” but his speech was more an economic pitch than a moral argument. “Each dollar that we spend on unemployment insurance benefits increases gross domestic product by $1.50,” he argued.
After two hours of “debate” on joblessness (only 40 minutes of which involved actual talking), the senators moved on to other matters. A couple of them discussed the nomination of Janet Yellen to be the new Federal Reserve chairman. Murphy spoke about gun control. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., attempted to argue that the recent cold snap disproves global-warming theories.
The lone Republican to speak in favor of extending benefits was Dean Heller, who like Reid is from Nevada, where the 9 percent unemployment rate is tied for worst in the nation. “Helping those in need should not be a partisan issue,” Heller said.
His fellow Republicans will regret having made it one — if Democrats can find their lost populist voice.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.