Democrats have tried running away from President Obama. They’ve tried shouting “birth control” from the rooftops. They’ve tried lamenting dastardly Republican obstruction. But many Democratic candidates are still struggling in the closing weeks of the midterm electoral season.
In the past week or so, some of them have come to the conclusion that economic populism could save the day for the party. The president may be toxic, and the Democratic and progressive brands might be tarnished by an ever-growing host of scandals, mishaps, and gaffes. But a populist charge, headed by Elizabeth Warren, could turn the tide for Democrats, or so left-leaning operatives hope. This turn to populism might run into the realities of President Obama’s record, but it should also remind Republicans of the importance of attending to their economic message.
As a matter of political strategy, speaking to voters’ economic concerns has much to recommend it. Many Americans feel as if they have experienced a lost economic decade (or even decade and a half). According to a study sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, the median American household is, in inflation-adjusted dollars, worth less now than it was in 1984. This study finds that, just over the past ten years, the median household wealth collapsed by 36 percent. Much of that loss of wealth is explained by the bursting of the housing bubble, but other indicators suggest broader pressures on opportunity and economic achievement for the middle class. When adjusted for inflation, median hourly compensation has grown by only about 8 percent since 1979, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have left the work force in the wake of the Great Recession, leading to significantly lower employment levels. Polls show continued economic pessimism on the part of many Americans.
So it would make sense for the party of FDR to turn to the theme of economic uplift for the average American. Unfortunately for many endangered Democrats, however, the record of the Obama administration may present a number of stumbling blocks.
As much as the president and his allies may complain about income inequality, many indicators suggest that this inequality has worsened on his watch. The president might fan the flames of class warfare, but, all too often, his administration has failed to help advance the interests of the average American.
The White House has chosen to maintain the policy of Too Big to Fail. Former Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner admitted in May that he believes the quest to end Too Big to Fail was “misguided.” The White House has been very sympathetic, then, to policies that allow a few connected financial interests to distort the marketplace. Under Dodd-Frank, the biggest banks have gotten even bigger.
The administration’s health-care policies have been full of deals for special interests, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been marred by numerous broken promises (If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor, among them). According to a recent poll, only 40 percent of Americans believe that the ACA has been good for the country.
On energy policy, the president has persistently attacked efforts that would decrease energy costs, which are both an inhibitor of economic growth and a burden on many American families. President Obama has not totally delivered on his campaign promise to make energy costs “skyrocket,” but he has tried, and residential electricity prices have increased during his administration. From the administration’s opposition to pro-energy efforts like the Keystone pipeline to its desire to raise taxes on various forms of energy production, it has often failed to be the ally of reducing energy costs for American families.
The White House immigration agenda, which every Senate Democrat has endorsed, is both anti-market and anti-worker. The underlying premise of the Senate immigration bill, especially its expansion of guest-worker programs, is that America suffers not from a deficit of opportunity but from a surfeit of unfilled jobs, a belief that might surprise the millions trapped in underemployment and unemployment. Despite the stagnant wages and diminished opportunity for many households, the Senate pushed through a bill that would likely have further undermined the economic position of countless Americans. This undermining of the worker would especially harm the young, who have already felt the bite of economic decline. As a 2013 report put out by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found, even recent graduates in much-vaunted STEM fields face significant risk of unemployment (for instance, in recent years the unemployment rate among recent computer-science graduates at times has been almost 9 percent).
With that immigration bill stymied by popular opposition, the president has proclaimed his willingness to take matters into his own hands and rewrite and selectively nullify immigration law as he sees fit. And, as of now, there is no evidence that Senate Democrats would do anything more than offer pro forma complaints about this radical power grab. This brings us to a deeper, structural challenge for Democrats hoping to rally populist energies: Contemporary bureaucratic progressivism is premised on the idea of a supercompetent and virtuous technocratic elite, which can administer the nation from a few hubs, principally the Beltway. The growing list of recent scandals (such as IRS targeting) undermines the notion of a central bureaucracy’s virtue, and the national conversation in recent months has been full of instances where bureaucracies have performed in a less-than-stellar fashion (the past month or so has witnessed serious problems with both the Secret Service and the administration’s handling of Ebola).
At a time when many Americans are disillusioned with the current governing elite, President Obama seems anxious to give that elite even more power. He and the people around him seem to have an insatiable appetite for ever-more-sweeping executive powers, and it is far from clear that many congressional Democrats are interested in resisting that appetite.
Despite all these obstacles, Democrats may be able to use populist messaging to push themselves over the finish line in a few close races. President Obama’s reelection campaign depended upon a combination of class warfare, withering personal attacks upon Governor Romney, and appeals to demographic polarization (such as the “war on women”). Some Democrats seem to hope that the White House’s 2012 playbook can be useful in 2014. Josh Kraushaar noted last week that some Democrats are turning with at least modest success to economic issues in places as disparate as Illinois, Massachusetts, and Georgia. This success should remind Republicans of the need for the GOP to offer its own message of economic advancement for the middle class.
Luckily for many Republican candidates, pundits and politicians alike have taken a renewed interest in broad-based economic prosperity. Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, among others, have emphasized pro–middle-class messages and policies. The recent policy publication Room to Grow is full of market-oriented suggestions for improving the standing of the economic middle. Beyond debates about the minimum wage, Republicans can emphasize the importance of a vibrant economy, in which incomes of all types can grow. They could argue on behalf of a tax-reform agenda that has benefits for middle-income families. They could defend an energy policy that fuels economic growth and makes energy more affordable for consumers. In contrast to the prevailing doctrine of Too Big to Fail, Republicans could argue for reform that would create a more diffused and market-oriented financial system. In place of the White House’s anti-market and anti-worker immigration agenda, Republicans could argue for an immigration policy that affirms the dignity of all workers and increases economic opportunity for native-born Americans and immigrants alike (so GOPers would be better off not calling for a further increase in guest-worker programs). In addition to criticizing the shortcomings of the ACA, Republicans can lay out their proposals for making the health-care system more affordable and more efficient. Instead of pitting Americans against one another through class warfare, Republicans can defend broad-based economic opportunity, where Americans can work together for the enrichment of all.
In the closing days of the campaign, Republicans cannot afford to surrender economic issues to Democrats. Right now, it seems that the reigning political paradigm has failed in the eyes of many Americans. If Democrats do hold the Senate, they will do so because, in close races, they have put as much distance as possible between themselves and the White House. However, Republicans have not yet entirely succeeded in convincing voters that they offer a persuasive alternative to the status quo. RealClearPolitics is now putting nine Senate races in the “toss-up” category, so Republicans could find themselves with an impressive Senate majority in 2015, or they could find themselves falling just short of victory. In order to win the Senate and take steps toward forging a governing majority, Republicans will have to remind a restless public of the shortcomings of the current administration and point to how they can offer an alternative vision of economic and civil renewal.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.