“Running As Dems While Sounding Republican.” Hey, What Could Go Wrong?
Credit: Jeffrey Beall
August 12, 2014

They say that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one Politico story certainly doesn’t make a campaign season. But if a recent article there is correct – if the Democratic Party’s strategy this year really is “Running as a Dem (while) sounding like a Republican” – then the party may be headed for a disaster of epic but eminently predictable proportions.

“It’s one thing for Democrats running in red parts of the country to sound like Republicans on the campaign trail,” writes Alex Isenstadt. “It’s another when Democrats running in purple or even blue territory try to do so. Yet that’s what’s happening in race after race this season.”

Red Dems

Certainly this isn’t true of every race. Populist Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been brought in to help with Senate contests in several red states, for example. And a recent commentary (in Politico, come to think of it) argued that “an ascendant progressive and populist movement … is on the verge of taking over the party.”

So which is it? Are Dems tacking left or veering right? The answer isn’t clear yet. But Isenstadt offers some worrisome anecdotes. He points to several Democratic candidates who are recycling Republican rhetoric, even in districts that went for Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

Isenstadt highlights, for example, a campaign video and accompanying material from Colorado Democrat Andrew Romanoff. Romanoff’s video is indistinguishable from a Republican’s, complete with a Paul Ryan-style graph of “soaring” federal debt and admonitions that “you don’t buy things you can’t pay for.”

Iowa State Sen. Staci Appel, running for a congressional seat there, is touting her record of opposition to government spending. Isenstadt also cites an Arizona candidate whose ads emphasize added border patrols, and an Arkansas candidate whose TV spot emphasizes a balanced budget and reducing regulations.

Past Shock

You’ve heard of “future shock”? These stories bring on a sensation that might be called “past shock.” That’s the sense that recent history is reappearing at a troubling and lightning-fast speed. These stories are likely to trigger a severe case of déjà vu in anyone who has followed U.S. politics for very long.

Democratic rhetoric began echoing GOP talking points in 1994 under President Bill Clinton – and Democrats lost control of the House. When Democratic rhetoric once again tacked right in 2010 under President Barack Obama, Republicans ran to their left with a “Seniors’ Bill of Rights” – and the Democrats lost the House once more.

They can’t lose it again, since they no longer hold it. But they can lose more seats, and they can give up the Senate, too.

They already have their work cut out for them. President Obama, their party’s leader, may very well spend the next 90 days defending renewed military action in Iraq. Hillary Clinton, the party’s presumptive 2016 candidate, is likely to spend the time between now and Election Day repeating her Republican-like, hawkish foreign policy talk. And these Democratic Congressional candidates will be repeating GOP economic talking points on the home front, too.

That’s not “change you can believe in” – unless you’re talking about a change in Senate leadership.

Talk vs. Numbers

For rationales, Politico offers up typical fare from a covey of “Democratic consultants.”

“It’s a different kind of electorate,” says San Francisco pollster Ben Tulchin. “There’s an opening among moderates that mainstream Democrats are well positioned to fill,” says former party operative Robby Mook.

But that’s just talk. The data tell a very different story. The Campaign for America’s Future has been compiling poll results that shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the conservative economic agenda is unpopular with voters. Despite what the talking heads say, government spending isn’t the public’s most immediate fear.

Here are some of the results from recent polls:

• Two-thirds of those polled in April believe the U.S. needs to increase investments in infrastructure and education rather than worrying about long-term debt.

• 59 percent favor prioritizing new investments in education and infrastructure over further budget cuts – a margin of nearly two to one over those who want further budget cuts.

• 71 percent support increasing government investment to build and repair roads, bridges, high-speed rail, smart electric grid technology and other infrastructure needs.

• 59 percent believe that it is more important to keep spending for programs that help the poor and needy at current levels than to reduce the deficit.

(As we’ve now seen, these policies would also do more to reduce the long-term deficit.)

It’s the Economy, Stupid

A poll conducted earlier this year showed that Americans who think our most urgent national problem is either “jobs” or “the economy” outnumber those who prioritized “the deficit” by more than five to one. More than half favor reducing the “sequester” spending cuts by half and replacing them with new revenue from the wealthy and corporations.

Fifty-five percent of those polled in April said the United States was headed in the wrong direction when it comes to job creation and economic growth.

Seventy-eight percent of millennials believe that the government should be more involved in creating jobs, according to polls, while 72 percent believe that the government should be more involved in the economy. Eighty-four percent support creating subsidized jobs for low-income and long-term unemployed workers.

In another key demographic, 53 percent of unmarried women believe we must raise taxes on those with the highest incomes while closing corporate tax loopholes and special interest subsidies.Two-thirds of those polled in March believe it’s important for the government to implement policies that reduce inequality. Sixty percent believe our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. Seventy-one percent think the government believes it’s more important to help major corporations than to help the poor.

The Politico article makes much of President Obama’s low approval ratings. But those ratings stem in part from public fears about the economy – fears that are also reflected in the data. Sixty-four percent of Americans say they are suffering or struggling with their financial well-being, according to a June Gallup poll, and their views on the economic future are grim. And 86 percent of voters say the economy will be an important factor when deciding who to vote for in November.

The polling numbers make it clear: These “Republican-sounding” Democrats aren’t just rejecting liberal orthodoxy. They’re defying the electorate.

Abandoning Their Posts

The game plan for candidates like Romanoff appears to be: Adopt your competition’s failed economic agenda, make yourself your opponent’s pallid shadow, and base your campaign on issues, positions and priorities that have little or no support among voters.

That’s not just a bad strategy. It will also be very difficult to execute. As will inevitably happen in many Democratic races, the National Republican Congressional Committee pointed to Romanoff’s past support for the stimulus and said, “It’s dishonest for Andrew Romanoff to criticize the mountain of government debt he helped create.”

The “government debt” canard is a silly critique, one that Romanoff could easily refute – if he hadn’t already abandoned his ideological post by running away from much-needed government investment. The stimulus didn’t create debt. It helped reduce long-term debt by spurring modest growth and offsetting the job losses caused by the financial crisis. What’s more, its objectives were consistent with the electorate’s priorities. Its only problem, as any good economist will tell you, is that it wasn’t large enough.

Candidates like Andrew Romanoff could choose to campaign on jobs and growth. That would be a winning approach, even in red districts, with voters who are fearful of the economic future. But when they choose to echo Republican messaging instead, they leave themselves defenseless against attacks like the one Romanoff is facing.

If this were to become a common pattern among Democrats, voters would lose an essential feature of democracy: the ability to choose between two competing visions. The nation would be deprived of a debate on critical economic issues, and the future would become darker for everyone.It would also raise a compelling question about a lot of Democratic politicians and strategists: When will they ever learn?

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