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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

In lifting Democrats, Chris Murphy urges focus on themes, not litmus tests

Senator Chris Murphy called for Congress to act on laws to prevent gun violence during a press conference last month.Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register via AP

Ask US Senator Chris Murphy about national ambitions, and the Connecticut Democrat gives a sensible answer: He is laser-focused on winning reelection in 2018. Fair enough. But others may look for more.

Murphy was direct and thoughtful on a wide range of issues during a recent interview. He has clearly considered what direction Democrats, and the country, should take. He is willing to argue for policies which, at first blush, may not fit the mood of the moment. He seems well prepared to emerge as a national leader.

Take the core message of his party. Murphy cares deeply about issues that animate the base. In 2002, as a young state legislator, he endorsed same-sex marriage. He strongly supports diversity, equality, and reproductive rights. Following the massacre at Sandy Hook, he became a leading voice in efforts to curb gun violence.


But however compelling, Murphy says, these issues alone cannot define Democrats. His party should not have a close race for Virginia’s governorship — but it does. Why? One reason, he says, is that Democrats “continually get dragged into fights over social and cultural issues which are not central to the concerns of average voters.”

In Connecticut, Murphy observes, “No one asks me about Russia or the [national] anthem. The chief concerns are bread-and-butter issues like health care, taxes, and retirement security.” More than merely denouncing President Trump, Democrats must find clear and persuasive answers to these everyday worries.

But too many voters, Murphy believes, hear the Democrats’ economic message as simply taking from someone to give to someone else. Instead, Democrats must talk about how they are going to put more money in the pockets of average people by helping the economy grow.

This message should center on a few bold, clear ideas. This, Murphy believes, is where Bernie Sanders had it right. Donald Trump understood this, too — that’s how he became president. But his bold ideas were based on fantasy. Going forward, the Democrats should rally around proposals like universal health care, job retraining, and free college, which address the average citizen’s pressing needs in an achievable and realistic way — while growing the economy by creating more participants in prosperity.


Here Murphy differentiates themes from litmus tests. The party’s message should be clear. But Democrats are strongest, Murphy argues, when they allow competing ideas to contend within an inclusive framework. The party built up large congressional majorities in 2006 and 2008 by opening themselves up to candidates who had different approaches to Democratic priorities. No single issue, however important, should automatically define what it means to be a Democrat.

Health care provides one example. While Murphy believes that the Affordable Care Act was a vast improvement over the status quo, he concludes that there is almost no way to truly fix health care based on the existing platform. Indeed, in some particulars such an effort simply “creates new ways for insurance companies and drug companies to game the system.”

Nor should Democrats make single-payer health care an absolute litmus test, resting their approach solely on transitioning the entire health care system into Medicare. Murphy advocates a universal Medicare buy-in available to both individuals and businesses. This proposal gives people a choice many Americans seem to want, and provides universally available access to health care while testing the premise that enacting single-payer is the best and only solution.


Similarly, Murphy advocates building up the party in all 50 states, recruiting a strong bench of homegrown progressives to win state and local elections. This reflects his experience within the Democratic caucus, where Democrats across the spectrum have united against Trump’s proposals on health care and the budget. But he also believes that Democrats have become too enamored of computer modeling and base-focused turnout efforts at the expense of broadening their appeal, as well as a “paternalistic” overreliance on federal solutions to problems in which progressive state and local governments also could play a constructive role.

There is more than one way, he argues, to help protect people in red states from trickle-down economics, or from gutting voting rights and environmental protection. Democrats should not dismiss the importance of local government — especially given that many voters place more trust in officials who are closer at hand. But that means winning elections.

Which, again, requires a clear message on core issues. From 2006 to 2008, Democrats won special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi — even though they were on the cusp of proposing a major health care overhaul. That was Chris Murphy’s first term in Congress, and he remembers still.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.