What’s the Democratic Agenda?

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If you’re a Democratic candidate this fall, unemployment and the stalled economy are already making your life miserable. But you’ve also got another big campaign challenge: What’s your agenda? For many Democrats this year, it’s simply not clear. Let’s take a tour: The party has already used up one of its most reliable issues over the past decade—health care—with decidedly mixed political results. Reforming Wall Street after the 2008 financial crash is also a checked box. Other domestic issues are not the stuff of campaign ads in swing districts. Talk of major new greenhouse-gas regulation to slow global warming, once a key applause line for candidate Obama and the Democrats, is now politically toxic. With voters highly skeptical of government spending, few Democrats are echoing president Obama’s new call for a $50 billion infrastructure bank. Social issues like abortion and gun control are on the back burner. And foreign policy is tricky. President Obama has touted the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, neutralizing the issue that fueled the 2006 Democratic takeover, and Afghanistan is a muddle that has the Democratic party internally divided. (In the process of writing this item I found that Nate Silver made a similar argument just yesterday.) This is why so much Democratic campaign rhetoric is focused on Tea Party foibles, memories of George Bush, and GOP ties to Wall Street.

It may also provide important context for President Obama’s speech today calling for an end to the Bush tax cuts for couples with incomes over $250,000 (and $200,000 for individuals). While everyone from House Republican leader John Boehner to centrist economic uber-pundit Mark Zandi to Obama’s recently departed budget director Peter Orszag have suggested that those high-income tax cuts be extended for another two years, Obama is drawing a line that will allow Democrats to contrast themselves with Republicans on one of the core issues–income taxes–that define voters’ behavior.

But even the tax cut fight could have a limited impact for Democrats. For one thing, the party was never able to turn public opinion against the original Bush plan back in 2001 (albeit under very different budgetary and economic circumstances). For another, because the Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of this year, their fate will be debated and settled before the new Congress is sworn in. Meaning that Democratic candidates will still be left searching for a clear and compelling political agenda.