The Democratic Dilemma: It’s Still the Economy

Robert Borosage

Democrats are enjoying the spectacle of Republican disarray. All of Washington is sinking in popularity, but Republicans rank lowest in public esteem. The old right-wing wedge issues – guns, gays, racial division, the war on women – now bolster Democrats rather than weaken them. Republicans in Congress are so divided, they can barely unite around naming post offices. They may not even be able to come together around an immigration reform that almost all agree is vital for the party’s future prospects.

But for all of the Republican disarray, Democrats are in trouble. The bi-elections in 2014 come in the president’s sixth year in office. The economy and jobs will be the overwhelming issues. Voters will hold the president’s party accountable for the state of the economy. And this economy still is not working for working people.

Yes, the stock market is hitting new heights. Corporate profits are at record levels as a percentage of the economy. We’ve witnessed, as the White House repeats, 38 straight months of private sector jobs growth. Low interest rates are bringing housing back. The private economy thus far has been strong enough to overcome the austerity – tax hikes and spending cuts – that Washington is inflicting on it.

That leaves Democrats tempted to repeat the same mistake they made in 2010, trying to sell the economy we have, hoping that the economy will continue to gain momentum and arguing that we are on the right track.

Only one problem with that strategy: voters aren’t likely to buy the patter. We’re still suffering mass unemployment – over 20 million people in need of full-time work. The base of the Democratic Party – the young, people of color, single women – have been hit the hardest in the recession, and have struggled in the recovery. Wages are near record lows as a portion of the economy – and aren’t likely to rise until we get a lot closer to full employment.

And Republicans are likely to throw more obstacles in the way of recovery. The sequester cuts – designed to be abhorrent – are the default position of a dysfunctional Republican caucus. No negotiations are going on about next year’s budget. House Republicans are now talking about using the debt ceiling to exact corporate tax reform that will ask the corporations to contribute nothing to deficit reduction, while pushing for more domestic spending cuts.

The president’s position – still looking for a grand bargain – is electoral poison. He’s threatening to become the champion of cutting Social Security and Medicare in exchange for a “balanced” austerity agenda. The senior vote looms even larger in bi-elections.

The Democratic Hope

The only hope for Democrats is to make it clear which party is for jobs and which party is standing in the way. That requires more than rhetoric in an election campaign. Democrats have to champion jobs measures visibly again and again, drive them into the House Republican majority, and show over and over which party is blocking progress.

That can begin by taking up the popular parts of the agenda the president put forth in his State of the Union. Push to pass an increase in the minimum wage in the Senate. Start a discharge petition in the House, mobilize activists to demand that every legislator of both parties sign up to put the measure before the House.  Engage Organizing for America in a fight that will rouse the Democratic base.

Push an education package that pays for universal preschool by closing tax havens abroad, and provides resources to put teachers back to work. Wage a campaign across the country for an infrastructure bank that will rebuild our decrepit infrastructure, as a centerpiece of a strategy to revive manufacturing in the U.S. Take up the president’s call for retrofitting buildings and stump on it across the country.

If Democrats continue to be mired in a debate with Republicans about austerity, giving voters the choice of a “balanced” plan versus the Republican spending- cuts-only position, they are likely to win the editorial pages and lose the coming elections, erasing any hope for the last years of the Obama presidency.

This effort would best be led by the president who has the bully pulpit. He has been notoriously unwilling to drive campaigns that he thinks can’t be won. And he’s showed little concern about electing Democrats in any of his campaigns. But his own reelection gained momentum when the president put out a jobs agenda that had no chance in Congress in the fall of 2011 and went to Osawatomie, Kansas to define the election as a battle for the middle class.

He’s going to get nothing beyond punitive immigration reform and extended grief from this dysfunctional Republican Congress. He’d be better off hitting the stump than taking the advice of Washington pundits and having a drink with Mitch McConnell. The president has to stop peddling austerity and start talking jobs.  But this will take more than sporadic events and a few good speeches.

Senate Democrats have to drive the agenda; the president has to help sell it; and fierce pressure must be put on the House Republican majority (and the Senate obstructionist minority) to pass it – or to be exposed as obstructing even common-sense measures moving forward.

Even if the president chooses to stay above the fray, Democrats in the Congress must rouse themselves to act. Faced with a choice of Democrats trying to sell this economy as on the right track and Republican zealots, voters are likely to stay home in large numbers. Most of those coming out will be voting to throw the bums out.  Democrats ought to try to make clear just who the bums are.

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