Middle-Class Messaging And The One Chance Democrats Have

Democracy Corps is out with a new poll and memo analyzing the data. The numbers are likely to give you a little bit of whiplash, because on some areas of economic policy, voters overwhelmingly agree with progressives, and in others they agree by big

Democracy Corps is out with a new poll and memo analyzing the data. The numbers are likely to give you a little bit of whiplash, because on some areas of economic policy, voters overwhelmingly agree with progressives, and in others they agree by big numbers with hard-right statements. Hang on to your hat, because the contradictions here are tough to figure out:

Q.65 Now I am going to read you a few statements about the American economy and government. After I read each one, please tell me whether you agree or disagree.

[500 Respondents]
65 (SPLIT C) The big banks got bailed out but the middle class got left behind. Our economy works for Wall Street CEOs but not for the middle class. America isn't supposed to only work for the top one percent. ................................
Strng Agree 54
Smwt Agree 21
Smwt Dis 9
Strong Dis 12
DK/RF 5
Total Agree 75
Total Dis 20
Agree – Dis 55

[500 Respondents]
66 (SPLIT C) Young people are coming out of school saddled with student loan debt, most of which is financed by big banks who make billions in interest on this debt. This generation already faces high unemployment. They will never be able to get on track unless we reduce young people's debt burden.....................
Strng Agree 50
Smwt Agree 23
Smwt Dis 12
Strong Dis 12
DK/RF 3
Total Agree 73
Total Dis 24
Agree – Dis 48

[500 Respondents]
67 (SPLIT D) Our economy is upside down. The majority of America is in a recession, but Wall Street is doing better than ever. Regular people work harder and harder for less and less while Wall Street CEOs enjoy bigger bonuses than ever. If American's economy isn't working for the 99 percent, it's not working. ..........................
Strng Agree 57
Smwt Agree 24
Smwt Dis 8
Strong Dis 6
DK/RF 4
Total Agree 81
Total Dis 15
Agree – Dis 66

[500 Respondents]
68 (SPLIT D) The only way to create prosperity in America is to give our economy back to the free market, not try to destroy it. The liberal elite who are now occupying Wall Street do not understand how capitalism and business work. ........................................
Strng Agree 32
Smwt Agree 29
Smwt Dis 15
Strong Dis 14
DK/RF 10
Total Agree 62
Total Dis 29
Agree – Dis 33

69 America has succeeded because of hard work and competition, not because we expect government to give us things for free. For too long, Americans have spent money they couldn't afford, driving up personal and government debt. .......................................................
Strng Agree 60
Smwt Agree 25
Smwt Dis 6
Strong Dis 5
DK/RF 4
Total Agree 85
Total Dis 11
Agree – Dis 75

[500 Respondents]
70 (SPLIT D) The promise of the American Dream is that if you work hard and play by the rules you can make a good life for you and your family. But right now, 99 percent of Americans only see the rich getting richer and everyone else getting crushed. And they're right......
Strng Agree 49
Smwt Agree 23
Smwt Dis 13
Strong Dis 12
DK/RF 3
Total Agree 72
Total Dis 25
Agree – Dis 47

[500 Respondents]
71 (SPLIT C) The top 1 percent are the ones who create jobs in this country. They are already overburdened with job-killing regulations and high corporate taxes. We need to create a climate that encourages business, not one that gives in to protestors. .................
Strng Agree 35
Smwt Agree 26
Smwt Dis 13
Strong Dis 19
DK/RF 7
Total Agree 61
Total Dis 32
Agree – Dis 28

There are two lessons you can take not only from this poll, but from pretty much every poll you look at right now.

The first is that none of us in politics, on either side of the partisan or ideological divide, should be under any illusion that “the people” are completely “with us” on the economy. In fact, the (many) voters who veered wildly from one ideological pole back to the other several times in one survey (and who went from supporting Barack Obama in 2008 to tea party candidates in 2010) are very conflicted and very troubled by what is going on economically, and they don’t know who to trust. They are convinced that neither party is taking of them or even looking out for them. They know that they are getting badly screwed by the powers that be, and that things in this country are out of control, but their blame is cast widely. They trust neither government nor Wall Street and big business, and they are discouraged because they have no clear idea at all how to get out of this mess. They are open to populist approaches from either side but have no faith in either side. And they don't have an underlying or cohesive story they understand about the economy in general — in great part because, while they don't entirely buy what the Republicans are selling, progressives have failed to give them a coherent narrative about how the economy works.

The second is that us Democrats should not be comforting ourselves with how goofy the Republican Presidential primary process is. As a 30-year, full-time political professional, I feel like I can say with assurance that in my career this is the weakest field of Presidential candidates either party has ever offered up in a primary contest, and I feel great about that on one level. In a normal year, we could beat any of these candidates like a drum. But this economy is making people feel miserable, and even if they have no regard for the other party, when swing voters feel miserable, they tend to vote against the incumbent — and when a party’s base voters feel miserable, they tend not to vote. Given that it is the Democratic base voters — blacks, Hispanics, youth, single women, the poor — who have been most hammered by this economy, it will make things doubly difficult to turn them out.

I agree with Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert in their memo that our best chance to win is an argument focused on fighting for the middle class and the people trying to work their way into it, and on taking on Wall Street's grip on D.C.by picking big important fights with them. In fact, I would argue not only this this is our best chance to win, but may well be our only chance to win absent one of the crazier Republican candidates emerging. A more standard message strategy like the ones the Obama White House team has experimented with like “winning the future” or carefully positioning himself as the most centrist, reasonable man in the room is not likely to work when people are in a both parties suck, throw the bums out mood. And while the President’s campaign operatives are hoping they can turn this election into a choice between Obama and a bad Republican, when voters are this mad, elections tend to be about punishing the incumbent.

The only message with a chance of working has to be that Democrats will fight for a middle class that is under assault from Wall Street and the other wealthy special interests strangling our economy and democracy. The middle class we are fighting for is the small businesspeople who serve their community and country by hiring workers to make and sell the products people want to buy; the teachers, firefighters, and cops serving the public interest; the young people who desperately want to find a good job and work their way into the middle class; the people thrown out of work by the mess Wall Street made over the last few years who have looked everywhere for a job and just can't find one; the underwater homeowners desperately trying to keep their homes; the parents working three different part-time jobs because they can't find a full time one with decent wages or benefits; the people living in small towns whose communities are withering away in front of their eyes; the retirees who keep seeing politicians come after the Social Security and Medicare they depend on to live. We have to keep our focus on those kinds of people, the ones we should be fighting for.

Democrats need to be clearly, unquestionably on the side of these folks, but we have to be willing to take on the plutocrats to do it. That's why some of the policy choices some Democrats are pushing make no sense, either from a policy point of view or from a political one. A lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill are saying we have to be going for a grand deficit bargain that cuts Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, even though doing those things is widely and intensely unpopular with the exact middle-class voters we need to win the election. They say things like "the market will react badly to no deal." Why do they say something like that in spite of the fact the market bounces wildly like a pinball machine from day to day depending on the news of the day? Do they have no memory of the fact that the market actually went down immediately after the last big deficit deal got done this summer? No, because corporate lobbyists say inane things like "the market will react badly to no deal," with no evidence, and too many politicians take it on faith. And that, combined with them wanting to get the praise of all the elites in D.C. about doing the responsible thing and cutting the deficit is enough to make them want to slash Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age for hard working blue-collar people, and make them pay more for their Medicare coverage.

I believe long-term deficits need to be cut, but this is the wrong way to do it. And it's also political suicide, pure and simple. In a political environment where voters are incredibly hard pressed and desperate for politicians who will fight for their core economic interests, for Democrats to run on cutting Social Security and Medicare is signing their death certificate. From everything I am hearing, too many Senate Democrats including those on the super-committee by and large seem to be happy to walk right off this cliff, and they need to rethink what they are doing NOW.

You know what else is political suicide? Doing anything that reeks of sweetheart deals with Wall Street. These settlement talks between the big banks, the state AGs, and the Obama administration that I wrote about last week continue to make me extremely nervous. I have had a series of off-the-record conversations with several administration officials since my piece came out last Monday, and they assure me that the details of this deal will turn out better than I fear. I don't doubt that some of them are working in good faith, and if people like New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman end up signing off on the deal, I will remain open-minded about it. But there are people in this administration, including Tim Geithner and the Acting Comptroller of the Currency John Walsh, who are far too close to Wall Street and are doing their best to undermine the parts of this deal that will actually hold the banks accountable and force them to do bigger writedowns of mortgage debt. Beyond that factor, I remain concerned that in spite of the President's frequently repeated mantra that he "did not run for President to do small things,” that administration officials are thinking far too small and narrowly about this deal. They should be rejecting a narrowly written deal with these massive banks, who have almost certainly broken the law again and again on a wide range of things, that will give them legal immunity in exchange for an amount of money that may only cover about 5 percent of the underwater mortgage problem. Toughen up this deal, and make it a lot bigger, or put it away: Wall Street has been let off the hook enough.

Democrats need to have their message and their policy aligned. They should be thinking big, they should be taking on Wall Street and the other massive special interests distorting both our economy and our democracy, and they should be fighting like bulldogs for the middle class, for the 99 percent. Deals that make the elites happy, like cutting the deficits on the backs of senior citizens and giving sweetheart deals to Wall Street, should be thrown out the window. That is the Democrats' only hope in 2012. Let's hope, for the sake of them and the country, that they follow that path.

About Mike Lux

Mike Lux's picture
Author, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.