New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stood on the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington this week and proclaimed that the liberal wave that swept him into office is about to wash over the country.
If his argument is that history repeats itself, he could have a point. The Progressive Era at the start of the 20th century emerged from extremes of wealth and poverty -- comparable to the gaping income inequality of today. De Blasio may also be correctly reading voter demographics. Many more millennials -- those born between 1980 and 1996 -- identify themselves as liberal, according to Gallup: 30 percent of millennials, as opposed to 23 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) and 21 percent of Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964).
A new Progressive Era would be a fine thing if it came to pass. I agree with many of the 13 points on de Blasio's "Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality": universal child care, prekindergarten and after school programs, paid family leave, elimination of tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs overseas, and closed income tax loopholes for hedge fund and private equity managers.
But I'm skeptical that this liberal wave is going to roll itself. If de Blasio's vision -- which he shares with middle-class champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) -- is going to prevail, it's going to take a lot more than issuing a 13-point list and stumping around to Omaha, Nebraska, and Santa Clara, California.
De Blasio compared his list to Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" that helped sweep Republicans into Congress in 1994. Gingrich fired back that Democrats don't have the numbers in Congress to move their agenda forward. Progressives have "intensity," he told Bloomberg News, but "they can't put together a majority that's willing to do something real." This may be the one time I agree with Newt.
If progressives are serious about a national movement, their ideas need a permanent home. Fiscal conservatives did this with the tea party. But there's no equivalent on the left. The "occupy" groups surged here and there after Occupy Wall Street. However, their message is muddled and their intensity burns out.
Progressives also would have to appeal to people in the middle of the political spectrum, said Democratic strategist Bruce Gyory. Issuing a list and lecturing is easy. Persuading people to back your cause is hard. "Most Democrats would not disagree with a higher minimum wage or paid leave, but you've got to show how that would affect real people's lives," he said. "You've got to make yourselves persuasive to the voters who don't instantly nod their heads and join up."
What's more, offering bigger-government solutions is a hard sell given the widespread cynicism over government's ability to spend money effectively. As Democratic analyst Stanley Greenberg wrote in The New York Times, voters think that "government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible." Progressives would have to show evidence that government can also help those who help themselves.
Democratic consultant Joseph Mercurio said de Blasio and his like-minded allies must build a coalition. For example, support congressional candidates who might have a good chance of winning, help Democrats win back state legislative majorities to control redistricting, facilitate fundraising in deep-pocketed New York, and form a new progressive political action committee.
Liberal ideas shouldn't reside only in snowball's-chance presidential campaigns like that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- or on the occasional Washington wish list. Here's wondering whether progressives can get their tea party on.