Are Democrats the party of future change or the party of past accomplishment? Are they fighting for what needs to be done or touting what has already been done? Is the economy on the right track or is it rigged to benefit the few and not the many? Are Democrats responsible for current conditions or has Republican obstruction stood in the way? Who is on your side? Who is fighting for you and who is in the pocket of special interests and big money and part of the problem?
Every electoral campaign is different. Local issues, individual personalities, money and organization count big time. But to generate momentum across the country, for every candidate, it helps for a party to have a clear set of themes, a narrative, an argument that will help voters understand what the stakes are, and who is fighting for them.
The Hill, a beltway newspaper, now reports that the White House has distributed a 22 page message document on the economy to Democratic candidates, designed to be “useful as you travel in your states and districts this month.” The document apparently urges Democrats to catch the wave of the economy and answer Republicans arguing that Obama has failed, in part, by touting the progress that has been made.
The president tried out these themes in an address in Kansas City in late July. His “morning in America” message was clear. The economy was back on its feet; there are good reasons to be optimistic about America, but much has to be done to make certain the prosperity is widely shared – and Republicans are obstructing all that:
We have got back off our feet, we have dusted ourselves off. Today, our businesses have added nearly 10 million new jobs over the past 52 months. (Applause.) Construction is up. Manufacturing is back. Our energy, our technology, our auto industries, they’re all booming.
The unemployment rate is at its lowest point since September of 2008. (Applause.) It’s dropped faster than any time in 30 years….
So the decisions that we made — to rescue our economy, to rescue the auto industry, to rebuild the economy on a new foundation, to invest in research and infrastructure, education — all those things are starting to pay off…
Our high school graduation rate is at a record high. More young people are earning their college degrees than ever before. (Applause.) 401(k)s have recovered their value. Home prices are rising. And, yes, millions of families now have the peace of mind….of getting quality, affordable health care when you need it. It makes a difference in people’s lives. (Applause.)
And, look, Kansas City, none of this is an accident. It’s thanks to the resilience and resolve of the American people. It’s also thanks to some decisions that we made early on. And now America has recovered faster and come farther than just about any other advanced country on Earth….
… We hold the best cards. Things are getting better. The decisions we make now can make things even better than that. In fact, the decisions we make now will determine whether the economic gains that we’re generating are broad based, whether they just go to a few at the top or whether we got an economy in which the middle class is growing and folks who are trying to get into the middle class have more rungs on the ladder; whether ordinary folks are benefiting from growth.
It’s a seductive message. Voters hold the president responsible for the economy. Republicans will pound on the failed economy this fall, particularly as health care reforms reach more people and grow less unpopular. The economy has picked up. Why not brag on this a bit?
Three problems with the argument. First, Americans don’t see it. While there is some sense the economy is improving, nearly half still think the economy is in recession. A CBS poll shows over three-fourths think the economy is not improving. That’s why the approval ratings of the president and the Congress are in the sewer.
These opinions are grounded in reality. The jobs being created tend to be part-time and low pay. Good jobs remain scarce. Household incomes are down not up. The wealthiest few are capturing an obscene percentage of the income growth, while the vast majority of Americans struggle with incomes that aren’t keeping up with costs. Over two-thirds of the country is still dealing with the effects of the crash. Politicians run the real risk of simply looking out of touch if they are touting this economy.
Second, the argument cedes the mantle of change to Republicans. The reality is that this economy doesn’t work for working people. And Republicans have blocked every effort to change that. They blocked an increase in the minimum wage. They blocked pay equity. They abandoned the unemployed. They cut taxes on the rich while blocking votes on pre-K and affordable day care. They protected multinationals abandoning the country to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, while blocking even a down payment on rebuilding our decrepit and increasingly dangerous infrastructure. They passed a budget that would end Medicare as we know it, savage education and support for the vulnerable, even while cutting taxes on the top. Democrats shouldn’t be trying to convince Americans things are better than they think. They should be trying to show Americans who is on their side and who is standing in the way.
Third, it leads to incoherence. The president makes a smooth transition in his Kansas City speech from touting the economy to talking about the steps that have to be taken to ensure that “ordinary folks” are benefiting from growth – and describing how Republicans are obstructing that. But in debates, or interviews or in less skilled hands, incoherence is a real danger. For example, here’s how the White House document makes the transition, as reported by the Hill:
The document tells lawmakers that their “efforts to pass legislation that rewards hard work with fair wages, invests in education, expands apprenticeship and job training, builds on our automobile and manufacturing boom, and ensures those at the top pay their fair share of taxes will continue to be critical to moving our country forward.”
Part Obama, part Pangloss, part Warren – this porridge won’t sit well.
Democrats would be much better advised to be clear tribunes of change. Elizabeth Warren’s clarity gets it right: we stand for this value. We start with this reform. And we’re going to fight against the entrenched interests and Republican obstruction to get it done.
– “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage.”
– “We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”
– “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt.”
– “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions.”
Obama’s record exceeds that of Bush in virtually every regard. Democrats shouldn’t hesitate to point that out. But the country needs fundamental reform. Americans are looking for change. And Democrats will fare better in ill winds if they are clear that they are the tribunes of that change.