Democrats hear opportunity knocking
By Peter A. Brown
It’s obvious from watching congressional Democrats and their presidential candidates that they have decided the political environment has changed dramatically since Bill Clinton told the country that the era of big government was over.
They are again offering spending programs and calling for measures that would lead to tax increases of the type that they began shying away from after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
They changed their ways after 1994 for some time, of course, because voters had made clear that they thought that government was doing too many things with too much tax money. It was that realization that led a contrite Clinton to make clear in his annual State of the Union address that he, and his party, understood.
But, clearly, times have changed. Democrats are not only offering up programs that would enlarge the reach of the federal government and collect more money from taxpayers, but doing so enthusiastically, confident the American people are on their side.
The reason for this new Democratic boldness is polls showing Americans disillusioned with Bush and Republicans in general. Democratic Party identification is up, GOP identification is down. But it is more than a partisan swing; a recent Pew poll found that support was the highest in 20 years for government efforts to create a safety net for the poor.
Much, if not most, of this political movement away from the GOP stems from public disenchantment with Bush’s war in Iraq. Yet, Democrats are taking the numbers as a more general endorsement of their views and values on domestic matters.
The current high-profile fight between congressional Democrats (with some GOP support) and the White House and most Republicans over the parameters for the federal program to provide health insurance to children not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid is just one example.
On the campaign trail all the major Democratic contenders call for not extending Bush’s tax cuts when they expire, which Republicans portray as raise levies. In the recent past, such GOP charges might have given Democrats pause, but now they are confident that the public is on their side of the tax-issue divide.
Then, there is presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton proposing that the government give every child born in the United States a $5,000 bond to help save for his or her future — the type of enlarged federal role that only a decade ago would have seemed very risky politically. She subsequently dropped the idea, but is now proposing that the government give every American $1,000 annually in matching funds for a retirement account — another big government idea that in past years might have been political suicide.
And all of the major Democratic contenders are calling for health care reform. Although it’s not the federal takeover that was at the heart of Sen. Clinton’s 1993 proposal when she was First Lady, all would substantially increase the government role and its power over the private sector.
However these issues play out on the campaign trail and in Congress, it is clear that Democrats see them as political winners and are not apprehensive about being branded tax-and-spend liberals. That might be because federal spending under Bush has increased dramatically.
The battle over what is known as the SCHIP program illustrates this best. The program was created a decade ago to offer federally subsidized health insurance for kids whose parents can’t afford private cover but made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor.
The current $25 billion program is now up for reauthorization. Bush wants a $5 billion increase; the Democratic plan calls for a $35 billion boost to $60 billion over five years.
Everyone knows that voters’ eyes glaze over when they see such large price tags and tend not to focus on details. Democrats love the newspaper headlines that said Bush has vetoed legislation to provide health coverage to children.
The White House and Republicans want to make the fight about federal excess. They argue that what the Democrats are doing is trying to open up the program to children from families with incomes of slightly more than $60,000 — in other words those who make roughly a third more than the average American family.
Democrats say the high cost of private health insurance means many of these families have no other way to cover their kids. Republicans argue that when the government begins insuring the middle class, that will provide a disincentive for such people to buy their own coverage and lead to a federally run health care system.
This is at its heart a political, not a policy argument, and the fact that the Democrats are picking the fight says volumes about how much they think that public attitudes have changed in recent years.
Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. This article first appeared on Politico.com.