Politics & Policy

Dem’s Middle-Class Problem

The message of doom and gloom falls flat.

All things considered, Democrats would rather be talking about the economy; they think it is favorable ground for them. Yet Democrats are often undone by talking about the economy — more precisely, by how they talk about the economy.

That is the argument of a persuasive paper by Anne Kim and Jim Kessler for the moderate Democrat outfit Third Way. They note that, for a self-styled “party of the middle class,” the Democrats don’t win many middle-class voters. Democrats tell themselves bedtime stories about why this is so, including the thesis advanced by Thomas Frank, author of What’s Wrong With Kansas?, that middle-class voters get lured into voting against their own economic interests by the GOP cultural message; or the argument that Republicans scare the middle class out of voting its bread-and-butter concerns with the issue of national security.

The evidence suggests, to the contrary, that what’s “wrong” with Kansas is that it doesn’t buy the Democrats’ economic message. Kim and Kessler define the middle class as voters with household incomes between $30,000 and $75,000. Kerry lost it by 6 points, and by an astonishing 22 points among the white voters who “represent one-third of the voting population and three-fourths of the middle class.” The tipping point at which a white voter became more likely to vote in a congressional race for a Republican over a Democrat was $23,700 — “not that far above the poverty line.”

In 2000, national security didn’t loom large, but Al Gore still lost the middle class by 2 points and the white middle class by 15 points. In 1996, when Bill Clinton had defused hot-button issues by signing welfare-reform and tough-on-crime initiatives, congressional Democrats still lost middle-class and white-middle-class voters by 3 points and 12 points, respectively. It was in that year that Bill Clinton had the best Democratic performance among middle-class voters in three decades by winning them by a mere one point.

For the Democrats, the Dust Bowl is ever-blowing. Their economic message is perpetually premised on pessimism and decline (John Kerry: “Our great middle class is shrinking.”), together with promises of economic security and the flaying of big business (Al Gore: “Powerful interests stand in your way.”). None of this resonates with a public that knows it lives in a rich, wide-open country.

How does the Democratic message fall flat? Kim and Kessler count the ways. The public doesn’t buy heedless pessimism; 80 percent believe it is “still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich.” It prefers opportunity over economic security; only about a quarter of Americans say that they prefer a low-income, high-security job. It doesn’t like corporation-bashing; only 27 percent say big business is the biggest threat to America’s future, compared with 61 percent who say big government is.

Programmatically, Democrats essentially offer the middle class a nullity. Kim and Kessler run through the greatest hits of Democratic policy. The average family income for Pell Grant recipients is $19,460. Head Start is for poor children. A married family of four can make a maximum of only $37,263 to still be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (to the tune of $1). Only 2.7 percent of American workers make the minimum wage, and half of them are under age 25. Giving health care to the uninsured affects only 15.7 percent of Americans, and many of them aren’t middle class.

Kim and Kessler recommend a Clinton-style, hopeful message focused on promoting middle-class aspiration through making college more affordable, helping working families, and encouraging savings and investment. Democrats are indeed calling for a college-tuition tax break this year, but otherwise are advocating their usual farrago of corporate-hating, minimum-wage-boosting doom-and-gloom. It might work, given the anti-Republican political climate. Over the long term, however, pessimistic, anti-corporate Democrats will continue to be alienated from middle-class voters, and will need still more excuses as to why they can’t reach them. 

 – Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

© 2006 by King Features Syndicate

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