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It’s the most wonderful time of the year … unless your unemployment benefits are set to run out three days after Christmas. But there’s a little bit of holiday cheer for the long-term unemployed: Democrats are showing some new spine in fighting to help them.
For decades Democrats have had, at best, a stealth agenda when it comes to fighting poverty. After backing GOP-inspired welfare reform in 1996, most favored work-support programs taxpayers couldn’t necessarily see, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and borrowed Republican rhetoric dividing the deserving from the undeserving poor. Expanding eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid was mainly defended in terms of an agenda to support the working — i.e. “deserving” — poor, and even for someone as ostensibly liberal as President Obama, deficit reduction has been a higher-profile priority than fighting income inequality throughout most of his five years in office, and the word “poverty” rarely crosses his lips at all.
That’s slowly been changing, for Obama and his party. Increasingly Democrats seem to believe poverty and income inequality are not only important issues morally, but politically. Now comes the liberal group Americans United for Change with polling, advertising and a political campaign designed to make sure Republicans suffer for their Scrooge agenda in 2014.
Polling by PPP finds that in four swing House districts currently held by Republicans, at least two-thirds of voters support continuing the expanded unemployment benefits that are set to expire Dec. 28, just three days after Christmas. Even in Speaker John Boehner’s district, 63 percent of voters want benefits extended, including 52 percent of Republicans.
But it’s not just PPP polling. A new Pew poll finds the public supports maintaining programs for the poor over deficit reduction 59-33; among independents it’s 53-38.
Of course, one of the tough things about being a progressive is that you can often find poll data supporting your policy agenda. And yet when push comes to shove in the only polls that matter, the ones that open on Election Day, economic fairness issues haven’t driven liberal voters quite the way social issues have turned out conservatives. Of course that’s because conservatives have had a head start organizing on issues like abortion and gun rights while liberals too often assume the obvious correctness of their world view will prevail over time.
But the fight over unemployment looks different. Americans United for Change, along with labor groups, plans an advertising and media push focused on vulnerable Republicans. Already, an effort to publicize the cost of cutting unemployment in those members’ home districts has paid off in remarkable local media coverage, as Greg Sargent laid out two weeks ago.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already announced that extending unemployment is at the top of his agenda when the Senate reconvenes in January. He’ll of course face pushback from the Tea Party caucus — Sen. Rand Paul continues to insist that extending unemployment is a “disservice” to the unemployed, as if he has any interest in policies that would actually be of “service” to them. Sen. Ted Cruz insists unemployment benefits “exacerbate” joblessness. But vulnerable and moderate Republicans in the House and Senate could conceivably surprise Paul and Cruz — they don’t want to find themselves in the unemployment line come 2015.
Still, it’s not time to celebrate just yet. Democrats weren’t tough enough to insist that an unemployment extension become part of the budget compromise. And there’s been little comparable innovative organizing around restoring food stamp cuts. Of course, a real anti-poverty agenda involves not just improving the safety net but raising the minimum wage, strengthening union rights, increasing spending on both preschool and higher education and restoring fairness and progressivity to the tax code. None of those things is going to happen with the current Congress.
But the Democrats’ new strength and political savvy on unemployment insurance is just more evidence that the party is no longer exclusively playing defense when it comes to an economic populist agenda. If progressives can demonstrate real political benefits to that agenda, expect cowardly Blue Dog Dems and even some Republicans to see the light.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.