I tend to pull my hair out when listening to Democrats who engage in endless debates over whether to have a message that appeals to base voters or swing voters. I have been hearing these debates for my entire 40-year career in Democratic and progressive politics, and especially now, with the stakes so damn high, I can’t believe I am hearing them again. We don’t have to choose, folks. In fact, if we do choose an either/or path, we will once again lose an election. And, as we all well know, if we lose this one, democracy in the good old USA is done for, along with any chance of lessening the devastating effects of climate change. So to all my Democratic friends: it’s time to cut the bullshit.
Elections are most assuredly won with both kinds of voters. We can’t win if most of the swing voters go against us. We also can’t win if we don’t get big turnouts from Blacks, Latinos, Latinas, Bernie voters, and Elizabeth voters. I think the data is pretty clear that the second factor matters more than the first in this election, as the biggest worry I see is lack of enthusiasm among young and Latino voters. But the data is equally clear that in those crucial battleground states: we need them all, folks. We need big numbers from all those different kinds of voters, because even if we could squeeze out a narrow victory with just swing voters or just base voters, the way we keep Trump from destroying this country is to beat him and his Republican enablers so thoroughly that they can’t steal this election.
Let's focus for a moment on the idiocy of the either/or thing. Yes, African-Americans, Latinos, and Latinas, and the Bernie and Elizabeth supporters in the Democratic primaries, and the working-class white people in the suburbs and rural America who tend to be swing voters (as opposed to the working-class white people who are strong Trump supporters) all have some ways of looking at the world that are very distinctive. Some of it is cultural; there are language choices that can be important; and some of the differences are on specific issues that matter more to some than to others. It makes sense to talk farm policy and rural economic development in the small town of Ellsworth, Wisconsin; not so much in inner city Milwaukee. In those Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Kenosha, talking about the urgent importance of policing and criminal justice reform is going to be essential; maybe to those folks in Ellsworth, not so much.
But working-class voters of all races and regions have so much more in common than they have differences. Read this powerful column by Stan Greenberg about the focus groups he has been doing with white, working-class voters, and then try to tell me those white, working-class folks have too little in common with working-class people of color or young, working-class Bernie voters for a common message to work. All of those different kinds of voters are hard pressed, squeezed and beaten down by Covid, by rising health costs, by an economy that didn’t feel all that fabulous to them even before COVID, and now has them on the edge of a high cliff about to fall.
The over-arching Democratic message needs to speak directly to the tough economic times facing all these voters. It needs to be clear we will be doing something tangible about those folks’ rising out-of-pocket health care expenses and the urgent troubles of having a secure health care plan if they get laid off or their employer isn’t paying for health care. Such a message is not going to seem like a scary lefty message. It will break through with voters who are desperate for real answers from their political leaders. It’s the kind of message that will not only solidify Biden’s 8-point lead in the polls, it will expand it to more like 10 points. And it will assure victory in both those crucial Midwestern states like the ones where Greenberg did his focus groups, and in the Southern and Southwestern states that are also swing states.
Right now, the one issue area where Trump still seems to have an edge is on is the economy. We have to turn that around.
So far, the Biden campaign has been running on two simultaneous tracks. They have laid out a solid issue agenda on the economy in their Build Back Better program, and that agenda appeals to a wide range of constituencies that will be important to winning the campaign. But most of their overall messaging has been about Joe Biden’s empathy, compassion, and character -- in contrast to the distinct lack of those qualities in Donald Trump. Many of the ads they have run have been genuinely moving, and have done a great job of setting the tone for this campaign. They have been keeping things more general on the issues, because they are trying to satisfy this big tent coalition they have worked so hard to build. All of that is understandable.
But the campaign is going to need to turn to those economic and health care issues that matter heavily to all those working-class voters they need to win this election. Those voters are going to have to stand in long lines to vote, or jump through all those hoops that Republicans working to suppress the vote are putting in their way. For those voters who voted for Trump last time but are over him now, the main thing holding them back is their doubts over whether Biden will deliver for them on the hard economic and health care issues they are facing. To motivate them to vote for Democrats and go through the hassles of voting during a pandemic, these voters need to know more than Biden is a good guy and that Trump is an awful one. They are going to need to know that electing Biden and other Democrats will make a genuine, tangible difference in their lives. They are going to have to inspire and motivate their base voters, and also convince those swing voters it will matter in their lives to vote blue.
I have been heartened to hear from the campaign and see in the press that they will be talking more about the economy and health care in the weeks to come. That is great news, but in addition to rolling out policies, I hope we see ads on the economy and health care that have some edge and grit to them, that speak to all those people who, as Elizabeth Warren puts it, live at the ragged edge of the middle class. With COVID and the economic crisis landing on top of a decades-long squeezing of those folks, a majority of Americans now live on that ragged edge. The Biden campaign, and Democrats in general, need to speak directly to those voters with messaging and policy that recognizes the depth of this economic crisis, and assures people that they really will come through for them.
I need to conclude with some unpleasant business, because this article is circulating widely on every progressive listserv and social media platform I am on, and progressive writers like Bob Kuttner are starting to write columns about it. The article begins with this loveliness:
When Joe Biden released economic recommendations two months ago, they included a few ideas that worried some powerful bankers: allowing banking at the post office, for example, and having the Federal Reserve guarantee all Americans a bank account.
But in private calls with Wall Street leaders, the Biden campaign made it clear those proposals would not be central to Biden’s agenda.
“They basically said, ‘Listen, this is just an exercise to keep the Warren people happy, and don’t read too much into it,’ ” said one investment banker, referring to liberal supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The banker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks, said that message was conveyed on multiple calls.
I am compelled to make some comments on this. First, to my progressive allies out there, know this: these unnamed campaign people being quoted by the unnamed investment banker do not represent the scores of Biden staffers I know who actually support what their boss has been saying on policy, and will fight to get these policies put into law if Democrats win this election.
Beyond that, the cynical insiders promising their Wall Street friends that nothing will change don’t have the power to back up their promises.There is a rising progressive movement in this country, and given how deep a hole we are going to be in when Democrats take office next January, that movement’s demands for big changes are going to be impossible to ignore.
And to the campaign insiders who stab Vice-President Biden in the back and undercut his credibility by making these promises to the big money guys (because they mostly all are guys), you need to just stop. I don’t know whether you said those things to try to raise a few extra bucks, or to try to get high-paying clients when the campaign was over, but what you said was disloyalty pure and simple. When I worked at the Clinton White House or on his campaign, if I had told anyone that Clinton didn’t mean what he said and was going to break the promises he had just made, and the president had heard me say it, I know I would have been fired, and I would have deserved to be. Joe Biden does not deserve that kind of disloyalty.
For another thing, I always question the motivation of anonymous leakers and would never trust the word of regulation-hating Wall Street bankers. A lot of those guys are big Republicans or Republican-leaning or have no real ideology other than making money, and might be lying to the press to divide the Democratic vote to throw the election to Trump and the GOP.
Joe Biden has made the right decisions to work to bring the Democratic Party together, and to promise in this moment of crisis to be the most transformational president since FDR. If pro-Big Business Democrats try to undermine a Biden presidency by blocking needed reforms, they will split this party down the middle and make a successful Biden presidency impossible.
Joe Biden will win this election if those hard-pressed voters (both base and swing) struggling to make ends meet believe he will make changes that make a difference in their lives. They increasingly understand that Trump is a liar who cares nothing for them, and if they are motivated enough to get through the obstacle course to vote, they will sweep Trump and his enablers out of office and give Democrats a chance to govern. If we get that chance, our party needs to be unified enough to deliver real change to those voters, to make their lives substantively better, or there will be hell to pay in the elections to come.