A month ago, Democrats were growing more confident they would have a great election year in 2018. Between the president’s dismal approval rating; big wins in Virginia, Alabama, and elsewhere; and other factors, it was looking pretty good for us. But after a month of scattered Democratic messaging, and after folding like a cheap suit on the shutdown fight, no one is feeling as confident. While I think the Monmouth poll that has made Republicans giddy is worse for Democrats than the findings of a variety of other polls, I definitely agree that there is cause for concern, and I still believe that there is a major opportunity for a big blue wave this cycle. Democrats have the best chance since 2008 for that wave, but they also have a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
There’s no point in exhaustively rehashing the shutdown fight, except to say this: to walk into that battle without better messaging, a better plan for an endgame, or the will to stick with it longer than two days if needed was political malpractice. I say this because we have some very big battles yet to come, and the shutdown fiasco serves as a good lesson as we forge ahead. In every battle, we must have a real plan for each scenario, an understanding of our endgame strategy, and if we get into a brawl, we need to be ready to stand tall and stick it out. If we know in advance there’s no will to hang tough, it requires a completely different sequence of tactics and positioning. Given the Democrats’ reputation for being wimpy, looking weak carries a very steep cost.
Here are some other ways Democrats are screwing themselves right now:
1. Sucking up to big business lobbyists. We live in a populist moment. Donald Trump won by sticking his thumb in the eye of the establishment and promising to "drain the swamp.” Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have won huge, passionate followings among Democrats for being fiery populists railing against the tilted playing field. Now is not the time to be doing favors for the big banks on Wall Street, as a dozen Democrats have done by signing on to the Crapo bill that weakens some of the most important elements of Dodd-Frank for the 30 banks between the size of $50 billion and $250 billion. These 30 banks aren’t exactly local community banks, folks-- this is the worst kind of sweetheart deal. You kind of expect the traditional Democratic friends of Wall Street like Mark Warner and Tom Carper to be on this bill, but there’s no excuse for some of these Dems who have jumped on board. VP candidate Tim Kaine is a co-sponsor. Western “populists” like Jon Tester (MT) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) are on the bill, although no one in their home states benefits from it. Gary Peters (MI), who styles himself as an old-school Midwestern populist, has jumped on as well.
Bills like this are what give Democrats a bad name. If this sell-out to Wall Street passes, it will come back to haunt not only these senators, but the entire party. We have to fight big business special interests, and not just on Wall Street. We have to take on Big Telecom on net neutrality. We have to break up monopolistic business practices among tech companies, airlines, and other market sectors. We have to stand up to Big Oil and Coal on climate change as Trump and his entire administration try to dismantle every environmental protection we have.
2. Not talking about the economy. Democrats are understandably in a constant state of outrage about Trump’s stream of racist, sexist, war-mongering, and insulting tweets and the terrible things his administration is doing. We have watched in horror while Trump tramples the rule of law and attacks law enforcement and intelligence agencies that investigate the Russia collusion scandal. We stand with DACA dreamers, immigrants, and African-Americans when their rights are violated. A person with any conscience has no choice to speak out about all these things. But scanning the news channels and talk shows, it is way too rare that we hear Democrats talking about the basic economic issues that, according to all the polling I have seen, matters more to most Americans (including, by the way, people of color) than anything else. We need to fight for justice everywhere, but let’s not forget to keep talking about the economy.
And we have a strong case to make, one that would be widely popular with voters if they ever heard us make it. For all the increases in the stock market and corporate profits, for all the massive tax cuts corporations received last year, most workers still haven’t seen their wages go up much. As Bernie Sanders put it, "Over the last year, after adjusting for inflation, the average worker in America saw a wage increase of, are you ready for this, 4 cents an hour, or 0.17%. Or, to put it in a different way, that worker received a raise of a little more than $1.60 a week. And, as is often the case, that tiny wage increase disappeared as a result of soaring health care costs.”
As we learned over and over again in the Obama years, voters don’t appreciate incumbent politicians who talk about how great the economy is when their wages aren’t going up. And voters aren’t buying trickle down economic arguments at all. Polling by Democracy Corps and WVWV Action Fund shows that contrasting Democratic economic policies with Trump’s trickle-down policies is the best way to boost turnout among Democratic base groups (people of color, young people, and unmarried women) and build our margins in 2018.
3. Avoiding the issue of escalating health care and drug costs. Democrats decisively won the health care debate of 2017, with voters backing us strongly when we fought against the ACA repeal. The chink in our armor, though, is rising health care and drug costs. If all we do is defend Obamacare, and we never make it clear that we want to cut health care costs, we will lose ground to Trump, who stated in his State of the Union address that he plans to fight Big Pharma to dramatically lower drug prices.
To win the argument for expanding health coverage and lowering drug, hospital, and insurance costs, Democrats must put forth policy ideas and be willing to take on the health care industry’s waste and profiteering. Not every Democrat is comfortable yet with Medicare for All, but every Democrat should certainly be for cracking down on out-of-control drug and hospital prices and giving insurance companies some real competition through a strong public option.
4. Allowing Republicans to create a false choice between economic fairness and economic growth. Voters are with us on most issues around economic inequality. They support higher wages for workers and higher taxes for the wealthy, for example. But if we allow Republicans to paint themselves as the party of growth and Democrats as the party of fairness, we end up losing that debate with key segments of voters. A lot of people assume that a growing economy will help them get better jobs and better wages. They have been conditioned by decades of corporate and Republican messaging to think that fairness and “redistribution” will lead to a more stagnant economy.
We must aggressively engage this debate. The fact is that more fairness-- i.e. lifting wages, taxing the rich at higher rates, and reducing wealth concentration at the top-- has always led to stronger economic growth. The peak of New Deal economic policy in the 1940s, ‘50s, and 60s, along with the 1990s, right after Clinton passed his budget bill increasing taxes on the wealthy and decreasing them on lower incomes, were the most prosperous decades in American history. Largely the result of trickle-down economics, Reagan’s ‘80s and the George W. Bush years were among the weakest, with the latter leading to the biggest financial panic since the Great Depression.
5. Allowing Republicans to paint us as anti-business. I strongly urge Democrats to push for a strong populist agenda that fights for fair taxes and takes the battle to the big business special interests that are distorting our economy, driving down wages, and hurting consumers. But fighting for workers and consumers does not make us anti-business. To the contrary, our message should make it clear that our agenda helps small business and new entrepreneurs far more than Republican policies do, because we level the playing field.
When we push for breaking up the big banks and Big Telecom, for supporting strong anti-trust policy that keeps powerful businesses from distorting markets, we are helping small business people and start-ups to flourish far more than trickle-down policies pushed by Republicans. We are proud to take on the wealthy and powerful when they hurt workers and consumers and unfairly crush smaller competitors. When we push for raising workers’ wages and securing better retirement income, we create more customers with extra money in their pockets. When we push for lower health care costs and more coverage, we are helping small business people whose biggest expense is health care coverage. When we push for bigger investments in infrastructure, solar and wind energy, and education, we help businesses grow as well.
6. Most importantly of all: failing to fire up the base. Midterms are first and foremost about turning out your base voters. Turnout is naturally higher for Presidential elections because they draw a lot of attention from people who don’t tend to follow politics closely. We won’t win unless Democrats are intensely focused on reaching out to and inspiring their younger, poorer, less politically-oriented base voters. If people of color, younger people, and unmarried women turn out to vote in relatively strong numbers this fall, Democrats are going to have a very good year. If not, we will lose.
So Democrats looking like wimps, like we did in the shutdown fight, is not the answer. Democrats spending all their money on TV ads targeted only to swing voters isn’t either. We need to be tough fighters for an agenda that attacks Trump and Republican trickle-down economics, and we need to reach out directly, on the ground, to our voters. We should be investing big dollars registering voters, appealing to them with a bold message built on an economic foundation, and then turning them out to vote. We should be engaging people online with social media, not just ads, but with person-to-person appeals from their friends.
Fortunately, the kind of agenda and strategy I’m talking about works with swing voters as well as base voters. This isn’t either/or politics: we are capable of engaging both. But we do have to reorient our message from the mush it has been back to the real things that matter the most in peoples’ lives.