October 23, 2014

How should Democrats make their case on the economy? In the last days of the election, this isn’t a rhetorical question. For all the furor about Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson, the Secret Service, and Obama, the economy will remain the determining issue in this election. And that is a challenge for Democrats, with polls showing, bizarrely enough, that voters give Republicans the edge on the economy.

Two challenges remain for candidates. They must ignite their base voters and get them out to vote, and they must appeal to the low-information, undecided voters or, rarer, true independents who are just now making up their minds.

President Obama offered his closing argument earlier this month in a speech at Northwestern. He’d like credit for bringing the economy back from the free fall he inherited upon taking office, while arguing that more could be done if only Republicans would get out of the way:

"As Americans, we can and should be proud of the progress that our country has made over these past six years…Here are the facts: When I took office, businesses were laying off 800,000 Americans a month. Today, our businesses are hiring 200,000 Americans a month. (Applause.) The unemployment rate has come down from a high of 10 percent in 2009, to 6.1 percent today. [Now 5.9%] (Applause.) Over the past four and a half years, our businesses have created 10 million new jobs; this is the longest uninterrupted stretch of private sector job creation in our history. Think about that…. All told, the United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined. I want you to think about that.

So it is indisputable that our economy is stronger today than when I took office. By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office.

Understandably, the president would like some applause. The problem is that Americans aren’t feeling that sunny. More than two-thirds thinks the country is on the wrong track. Nearly half thinks the economy is still in recession. Most think things haven’t gotten better for them under Obama. And they’re not wrong. The top 10 percent has captured all the rewards of growth. Median household income is down, not up, since Obama took office. Corporate profits are raking in a record percentage of national income while workers’ wages wallow near record lows. Nearly 20 million people are in need of full-time work. Compared to Europe and Japan, the U.S. economy may be a puddle in a desert, but it is still a puddle, not an oasis.

The president gets this. He goes on to say that the problem is Americans aren’t sharing in the recovery. Then he boasts about a “new foundation for growth” that has been put in place, including education reform, energy independence, progress towards fiscal balance, health care and Wall Street reforms.

But, he adds, progress has been impeded because Republicans stand in the way of common-sense reforms – raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, investment in rebuilding our infrastructure, pay equity for women and paid family leave, investment in clean energy technology, reduction in the burden of student debt, universal preschool, investment in research and development for manufacturing, and more.

There is much light and little fire in the president’s argument. We’re making progress, and if rational folks would just join in doing rational things, we could do much better. For many, this simply sounds out of touch. The economy has been lousy. They are less secure in their jobs, less secure about their futures. Their kids are having a hard time even if they’ve graduated from college. Their homes often still haven’t recovered in value. They see Washington paralyzed by gridlock, and corrupted by big-money politics. And it is the Democratic base – people of color, single women, the young – who have been struggling the most.

Most Democratic senators haven’t echoed the president’s argument about the progress being made. They’ve been reluctant to defend health care reform. Instead they have chosen to focus on clear populist reforms – raising the minimum wage, pay equity, paid family leave – that Republicans have opposed. These are carefully chosen to appeal to the Democratic base – millennials, minorities, single women.

This has the advantage of showing what side Republicans are on, while emphasizing that Democrats are the party of kitchen table concerns. The problem, however, is that these reforms together offer no strategy for making the economy work for the many, and not just the few. They aren’t big enough or bold enough to change our direction. They are good things to do and will appeal to many voters, but they don’t offer a way out.

Contrast those two approaches with that of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has roused crowds campaigning for Senate Democrats in Iowa, Minnesota, Kentucky and New Hampshire.

Warren’s argument is big: This economy isn’t working for most Americans because “the game is rigged, and Republicans rigged it.”

Against the conventional wisdom of political pros, she grounds her case in history. This economy worked for all after World War II when we invested in education and infrastructure, and regulated Wall Street so Main Street could thrive. Unions and a rising minimum wage ensured that people gained a fair share of the profits and productivity they helped to generate. And then, conservatives took over. They deregulated Wall Street, privatized services, and waged war on workers. They slashed taxes on the rich while cutting investment in education and infrastructure. Big money lobbies took over policy. They rigged the rules to benefit the few.

We can change this, Warren argues, but we have to be ready to fight. Warren often lays out an agenda that includes the reforms suggested by the president and Democrats above, adding curbing Wall Street, and not doing trade deals that are negotiated in secret with multinationals at the table and the people locked out.

The spirit, however, is totally different. This isn’t about specific reforms, carefully sculpted to appeal to specific voting blocks. It isn’t about bloodless reforms that would go forward if people were just rational. It’s about a fight with the interests and the privileged that have rigged the game for their own benefit. It gives people a sense of why this thing is so screwed up, of who is to blame, and of the fight they have to join to turn it around. We aren’t “all in this together,” as Hillary says. Some are making out like bandits, and it won’t get better until we take them on.

The president’s message is the message of a rational man bedeviled by an irrational world and a partisan opposition. The argument of many Democrats offers reforms that appear carefully sculpted to appeal to specific groups. Warren offers a big argument, a historic context, and the reality that this isn’t screwed up because people are wrong-headed or irrational. It is screwed up because the rules are rigged by the powerful who are cleaning up. She puts historic context around the exact feelings that voters have. And she invites them to a historic fight against entrenched interests and big money.

Warren’s argument meets immediately with the objection that she is a divider, not a uniter. When she spoke in Iowa, Republicans said it showed that Democratic candidate Bruce Braley couldn’t reach across the aisle to get things done. Polls always show that voters prefer cooperation in Washington.

But now voters are looking for someone who is making sense, who understands what they are experiencing. And they are looking for someone who not only is on their side, but also offers a way out. Warren does just that – while arguing that they have to join to “get this done.” Democratic candidates would be well advised to echo her words in their closing argument.

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