One would think that slogging through seven years of the deepest recession since the Great Depression would force Washington to pay close attention to the needs of the working class. For Republicans, it took much longer than it should have for the light bulb to come on and remember that we needed to focus on the kitchen table issues that were impacting families. For Democrats, that light bulb remained dim until the electric shock of the midterm elections sent a flicker through the liberal agenda.
The problems were always clear to see: Not enough jobs were being created, entrepreneurship was being dampened, wage growth was stagnant, and things like the skyrocketing cost of higher education were eroding buying power. Despite all that, Democrats ran on a slate of issues like health care reform, which actually increased insurance costs for many families, environmental regulations, which threatened to eliminate jobs and raise power bills, gun control, has nothing to do with job creation, and abortion, which again made them look out of touch with key concerns of the working class.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake articulated this view nicely for the Washington Post.
“We have a huge problem: People do not think the recovery has affected them, and this is particularly true of blue collar white voters,” Lake told the Post’s Greg Sargent. “What is the Democratic economic platform for guaranteeing a chance at prosperity for everyone? Voters can’t articulate it. In the absence of that, you vote for change.”
Although Democrats are coming around to the idea that you can’t ignore working class voters if you want to win elections, the lessons they are taking away from the election are all wrong.
For instance, Kevin Drum argues that “full-throated economic populism . . . might work.” But what does that look like? Drum writes:
This is going to require policy wonks to swallow hard. Remember Cash 4 Clunkers? Economically, that was probably a dumb program that accomplished little. But it didn’t do any harm, and people sure loved it. Multiply that by a hundred and you’re on the right track.
Or Glenn Harland Reynolds, who argues that President Obama’s second stimulus plan offers a good model, if only it hadn’t been derailed by feminists:
One person who has some ideas in this direction is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who suggests that the government invest heavily in infrastructure, which would create a lot of blue-collar jobs.
That was actually an original part of Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, but it was derailed by feminists within the Obama coalition who thought it would produce too many jobs for men. Christina Romer, then-chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, reported: “The very first email I got … was from a women’s group saying ‘We don’t want this stimulus package to just create jobs for burly men.’ “
Taken together, you can see the problem with Democrats’ ideas to transform their platform to regain their working class bona fides – they’re using the government to target benefits at a specific group regardless of the larger economic impact.
The problems with that approach are twofold. First, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman tells the Washington Post, nobody trusts the government to accomplish anything.
“People are deeply suspicious that government can deliver on these problems,” Mellman says. “And they are not wrong. We’ve been promising that government can be a tool to improve people’s economic situation for decades, and by and large, it hasn’t happened.”
And second, identity politics, in which the White House targets government benefits at specific constituencies in order to get them to vote, has already failed spectacularly. Inevitably, it failed to live up to its promises, a group got left out, or its message became muddled, to the point where the whole scheme collapses.
The better strategy is to pursue reforms that improve the broad economic tide in such a way that it lifts all boats. That’s the path that Republicans have pursued and that’s the path that led them to historic victories in the midterms.