Hillary Clinton offered a strong economic platform at last week’s Democratic National Convention. She promised to boost employment and wages with large-scale investments in infrastructure and green jobs. She declared her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), said she would expand Social Security and proposed tuition-free education for the middle class.
This agenda should resonate with voters. The analysts at Moody’s certainly liked it. But times have been tough for a while now, and Americans are in a skeptical mood. This time around, Democrats will need to convince voters they really mean it – especially if the bad news keeps coming.
The day after she accepted the nomination, as Clinton and vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine took their message to the Rust Belt, a new report showed that the economy grew by only a disappointing 1.2 percent last quarter.
There’s a recovery going on, but a lot of people can’t feel it. The middle class is dying. Inequality is getting worse. Wages are stagnating. Labor force participation remains low.
It’s true that Republican nominee Donald Trump’s economic proposals are a grab bag of false promises and giveaways to his fellow oligarchs. But his message is clear and direct: They’re screwing you, and I'll make them stop.
What's Hillary Clinton's economic message? According to her acceptance speech,
“My primary mission as President will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States.”
In normal times that message might be enough. But these are not normal times. A recent poll shows that Americans trust Trump more than they trust Clinton to create good jobs. Another showed that voters thought Trump would be more effective at “improving economic conditions.”
Findings like that seem to induce cognitive dissonance in some Democrats. A number of those I met at the convention seemed incapable of believing that their party could actually lose to a transparent grifter like Trump. Nevertheless, that's a very real possibility. As Toni Monkovic wrote in a recent New York Times analysis, "it’s clear that Donald Trump has a realistic shot to become president."
People haven’t forgotten that Wall Street’s well-documented criminality and greed caused the 2008 financial crisis. It has now been seven years since banks trashed the American economy – and got away with it. In those seven years we have experienced the slowest and weakest recovery, by far, than any since World War II.
A few positive signals in the statistical noise won't impress millions of struggling Americans. Neither will the fact that cuts in government spending, driven more by Republicans than Democrats, contributed to these weak results. Many voters see the economy in more stark terms: the status quo isn't working for them.
They're right about that.
Every major convention speaker paid tribute to Bernie Sanders’ message. But there were also overtures to Republicans who might be disaffected by Trump. The problem is, there aren’t that many of them. Polling shows that the number of likely Republican defectors to the Democrats (and vice versa) is no higher this year than last time around.
A more promising approach can be found in a recent Democracy Corps survey for the Roosevelt Institute. It found that “the public is hungry for politicians to internalize what they have known for some time” – namely, that “the rules of the economy have been written by the wealthy, corporate special interests … so the economy works for them, not the middle class.”
This theme was tested against one featured prominently at the convention, that of building on the progress made under President Obama. It was considerably more effective.
Hillary Clinton said last week that Democrats must do a better job convincing voters that "we get what you're going through.” She's not off to a good start. Last week Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal in history.” By contrast, when The Washington Post asked Clinton whether the country would have been better off without NAFTA and two similar pacts, she said, “I think that’s a hard question to answer.”
“I look at this from both sides,” she added.
Answers like this will only inflame voter mistrust. Clinton has a good chance of winning anyway, given Trump's weaknesses, but it's far from a foregone conclusion. Down-ticket races could also be affected.
In this climate, and given the renewed visibility of deep-pocket Democratic donors, Clinton and Kaine's expressed opposition to the TPP could leave many voters unpersuaded. They could address that by promising to whip against it on Capitol Hill if, as expected, President Obama tries to push it through during the lame-duck session.
It's not enough to say, "Wall Street can never, ever be allowed to wreck Main Street again." That, too, will be met with skepticism. Clinton could give that pledge some teeth by promising not to appoint anyone from Wall Street to a senior position in the Treasury or Justice Departments.
It's not enough to propose raising the minimum wage. Clinton and Kaine could show their support for "$15 and a union" by walking a picket line if the opportunity arises.
There are other steps the campaign could undertake to win skeptical voters. Most importantly, they need to understand that voters are skeptical.
"We begin a new chapter tonight," Clinton said last week. That's the right approach. But some voters may need to be convinced they're not just hearing the same old story.