To unveil their new policy agenda on July 24, several top congressional Democrats took a road trip to Berryville, Virginia.
The choice of a small town was a intentional, of course. Just 80 miles west of Washington, D.C., Berryville—population 4,100—isn't exactly the heart of Donald Trump's America, but it's hardly a liberal stronghold either. By going to the seat of Clarke County, where Hilary Clinton had won less than 38 percent of the vote in November, those Democrats were hoping to demonstrate their commitment to the blue collar, rural voters who have received so much attention since Donald Trump's stunning victory last year.
After reflecting on the lost election, Schumer said, Democrats realized the biggest mistake they made in 2014 and 2016 was not presenting "a strong, bold economic agenda to working Americans so that their hope for the future might return again."
"We are here today to tell the people of Berryville, and the working people of America: Someone has your back," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told a crowd gathered in a small park.
Despite the carefully crafted roll-out, though, the Democrats' new platform seems more focused on Washington than anything else.
The proposal, "A Better Deal," remains a bit sketchy. It can be interpreted as a dig at Trump's book and self-proclaimed status as a master deal-maker. Or as an attempt to troll Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's equally focus-grouped "A Better Way" agenda. Or as a nod to FDR's New Deal or Teddy's Square Deal.
The July 24 kickoff event in Berryville was mostly devoid of specifics, but a white paper is reportedly being crafted and parts of it are being strategically released to the press. Proposals leaked so far are unanimously aimed at growing the size of government and its role in regulating the decisions made by American businesses.
Fittingly, top Democrats were back in D.C. this week to offer more detail on "A Better Deal." At a Wednesday press conference in front of the Capitol, they outlined plans for an "independent trade prosecutor" to investigate businesses that shift jobs overseas, and an unelected "American Jobs Council" to investigate foreign investments in American businesses.
The American Jobs Council, Schumer said, will "slam the door shut on foreign companies who want to buy-up American businesses and harm our workers." The council appears to be the centerpiece of a seven-point plan that includes penalties for federal contractors who outsource jobs, guarantees that taxpayer-funded subsidies flow only to American-based companies, and creates a public "shame list" for companies that move jobs offshore, according to The Washington Post's Dave Weigel, who reported on some of the details of the Better Deal plan this week.
In other words, more bureaucracy and more regulations aimed at trying to freeze a dynamic economy and halt the flow of capital and goods around the world.
Maybe this is, as Slate has suggested, the basis of a plan "to campaign against cable companies, airlines, and other things everyone hates," but I'm not seeing it. It seems more like the basis for a campaign that says government bureaucrats know what's best for a country, or one that promises to centralize more rulemaking at the expense of businesses and workers.
The focus on preventing outsourcing—something Trump and the Democrats have in common—ignores the benefits of being able to produce goods in places where labor is more inexpensive. That makes it possible for Americans to buy products that would otherwise be unaffordable, but it also allows global supply chains to lower the cost of living for everyone. Government controls over trade drive up costs and raise prices for the very low- and middle-income workers the Democrats (and Trump) claim to be trying to help.
As a purely political matter, if Democrats are trying to turn Trump's economic populism their direction, this seems like a misguided effort.
Trump's path to the White House had two (often conflicting) economic messages that have carried over into his first six months in office. He promised to "drain the swamp" and cut regulations to allow American businesses more freedom, while promising a bigger, more muscular government to stop outsourcing, limit immigration and reward right-thinking American companies with subsidies.
The "Better Deal" plan shows Democrats learning the wrong lessons from the Trump era. An agenda that includes a "trade prosecutor" and a Soviet-sounding "Jobs Council" suggests they are about to go all-in on economic protectionism without so much as an acknowledgment of the deregulatory, pro-freedom part of Trump's message.
American workers want to believe someone has their back, Democrats say, but the "Better Deal" proposal sounds like it would mean more government officials looking over our shoulders.