By James Konow
As we near the next Democratic presidential debate that takes place at my university this coming week, it will be interesting to see whether any of the candidates can latch onto a message that helps one of them stand out as the one, who can decisively beat President Trump. The move toward impeachment has failed thus far to impact significantly support for the President.
The refrain “It’s the economy, stupid” served President Bill Clinton well during his 1992 campaign, but it also does not appear to offer these contenders a winning strategy given the continuing GDP growth, falling unemployment and rising stock market. The Labor Department just reported strong employment figures for November, prompting Trump to co-opt the “economy, stupid” phrase in a tweet. Indeed, many economic forecasters predict a Trump victory in 2020. This seems to undercut the Democrats’ conventional strength as advocates for the economic interests of working people.
The standard refrain gets it almost, but not
quite, right, in my opinion. Democrats’ strength in this election, and I would
argue in any election, rests with the insight that “It’s the swing voters’ economy, stupid!” Or, to
be more precise, it’s the state of economic issues and policies that matter to
Swing voters are open to voting for either party, such as Obama-Trump voters, which some analyses indicate were decisive to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election (although there is some debate about this). If we think of swing voters in a broad sense, though, as including not only the choice of how but also of whether to vote, then the decisiveness of swing voters is trivially true: Party majorities can only change by some voters switching parties and/or by differences in turnout by party loyalists.
A starting point for winning over these voters
is to acknowledge their concerns. They must be disabused of the impression many
have that Democrats consider them collectively ignorant and bigoted, a view
that would be both inaccurate and counterproductive. For example, the estimated
13 percent of those who voted for Obama in 2012
and subsequently voted for Trump in 2016 indicates a willingness to switch parties and
casts doubt on the view that they are all racists.
Many are working people, who form the traditional base of the Democratic party but who have felt neglected by both Democratic and conventional Republican politicians and decided to take a chance on an outsider. They are understandably frustrated with the decades-long erosion of opportunities for working people. Since the 1960s, manufacturing jobs have declined from almost 30 percent to less than 10 percent of employment, and wages have languished.
A winning strategy for Democrats, in my view, is not to treat these voters as evil, stupid or even mistaken. Instead, the successful strategy for Democrats is two-fold. First and foremost, they must outline a positive, forward-looking economic agenda, highlighting the benefits to working Americans. Recent polling points to this as fertile ground for Democrats. Second, they should contrast this agenda with Trump’s track record. Specifically, by comparing Trump’s promises with his accomplishments, blame is deflected from Trump voters to Trump himself. Indeed, both liberal organizations and disaffected Republicans have launched ad campaigns along these lines with the theme “broken promises.” One can only imagine the impact of a series of ads, with airings on Fox News and in states and districts where voters are closely divided, that, issue by issue, catalogue Trump economic promises, in the words of the president, followed by expressions of disappointment with his actions, in the words of Trump voters themselves.
Understood as GDP growth, the economy is usually outside the control of the occupant of the Oval Office. The economy, like the heart, wants what it wants. But Democrats can make a case for their platform based on the economy that working-class voters, including swing voters, actually face, and contrast it with the Trump economic record.
For example, Trump promised to repeal Obamacare
and to replace it with a “beautiful” health care plan “for everybody.” Despite holding
the White House and Republican majorities in the Congress most of the last
three years, this goal is no closer. Indeed, the Administration has undertaken
numerous measures to weaken
health care coverage,
including popular protections for pre-existing conditions.
Democrats can offer plans to expand coverage and protections, while avoiding doctrinaire approaches that throw roughly 150 million Americans off their private plans. They should acknowledge that developed countries around the world have achieved universal and quality coverage in a variety of ways that respect individual choice as, for example, in Germany and Switzerland.
Trump made commitments to workers in numerous economic
sectors, including coal, manufacturing, and agriculture, promising “we’re going
to bring those miners back,” “a victory for the … factory worker,” and “trade deals to help our farmers.”
Nevertheless, coal consumption has reached its lowest
level in nearly 40 years, manufacturing employment has remained
level and, after an initial boost, that sector is now in recession, and farm income is down while
farm bankruptcies have skyrocketed.
Although, as just noted, a president’s actions usually have limited impact on the economy as a whole, Trump’s trade wars and imposition of tariffs have impacted these sectors adversely and, contrary to the president’s claims, fall mostly on American businesses and consumers. Democrats could build support by announcing plans to negotiate trade deals that protect workers and, where necessary, retrain them for employment in growing sectors, such as renewable energy industries.
On entitlements, Trump promised “no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid” but, soon after passing the 2017 tax legislation, began proposing exactly such cuts with congressional Republicans. Trump vowed to “push colleges to cut the skyrocketing cost of tuition” but has instead moved to reduce support for college while his education secretary denied 99 percent of applications for loan forgiveness promised to those who dedicated a decade of their lives to public service. Democrats are more credible as advocates for protections in these areas and as promoters of other unfulfilled promises, including on infrastructure.
Democrats can also leverage the fact that a disproportionate share of GDP growth has accrued to the rich while working class incomes have shown lackluster growth. The 2017 tax bill is responsible for a large share of the recent increase in inequality such that for the first time in 2018 the top 400 income earners paid a lower overall tax rate than any other class. Democrats can argue that the actual class warfare is against workers and champion higher taxation of the corporations and the wealthy, which large majorities support.
It is also important what Democrats avoid stressing. Whereas economic issues unify voters and help Democrats, the relative political advantages of the two parties are reversed on social issues. Recent elections suggest that social issues can unite the Republican base but that they prove divisive to potential Democratic voters. Of course, swing voters are most attracted to candidates with credentials near the political center (apparently, also the geographical center, given the nearly two generations since a coastal Democrat last won the presidency). By shifting their focus, I believe Democrats can not only reclaim the “economy, stupid” phrase but also co-opt a saying of the president and win so much that they will “get tired of winning.”
James Konow is chair of Economics and Ethics at Kiel University and professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University.