Toward an Economic Message for Democrats

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on July 27, 2010

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The Gulf oil spill, Shirley Sherrod, and Afghanistan may have chased some of the economic news off of the front pages, but everyone nonetheless knows the economy will be at the top of the voters’ agenda for the fall election, and Democrats are slipping in public opinion polls when on the question of which party is trusted to do a better job on the economy. On the one hand this is not surprising; job creation continues to languish and Democrats are in control of Washington. But on the other hand, to reject the Democrats on this question poll respondents have to choose the Republicans, a party without a credible economic plan. Ask a Republican to name a single economic program they support that was not part of George W. Bush’s economic plan just before the economy collapsed, and wait for the answer.

You will hear crickets chirping.

This helps explain why Democrats still lead Republicans when it comes to fixing the economy even if our support on the issue falls far short of a majority. The Washington Post, ABC News Poll asked the question this month and found 42% trusting the Democrats to do a better job handling the economy, with 34% trusting the Republicans and 17% volunteering that they do not trust either party to fix the economy.

Democrats actually have a lot to say about the economy, but they struggle to connect with available swing voters, get tripped up over details, and sound tentative in their desire help people while boxed in by the expanding federal deficit. First let’s address some of the logical aspects to this communications challenge, which is largely a timing and verb tense problem, then we will address the other levels of the challenge to connect with voters when it comes to their economic realities heading into the fall election.

What have you done for me lately?

These days Democrats are getting tripped up over timing issues. We have done a lot to improve the economy but a lot of it was in the first few months of 2009 when we passed the Recovery Act with almost no Republican support. There is also a lot we want to do to improve the economy, but with nearly unified Republican opposition, and divisions among Democrats on Capitol Hill, there are continuing doubts about what we can get passed through Congress, and anything that costs money raises deficit concerns.

All of this adds complexity to our message, and makes it difficult to explain what we are for without inviting questions like, “Haven’t you already tried that?” and “Do you realistically think that will pass?” And “How are you going to pay for that?”

First let’s deal with what we will call the “verb tense” problem, and the key to avoiding this trap is to return the discussion of the strategy. The solution to this problem is no more complicated than accurately describing the current reality, which is that the Democrats have an economic strategy to fix the broken economy we inherited, and to rebuild a solid foundation for long term economic success. We developed this strategy before Barack Obama was sworn into office and have been working hard to implement the strategy from day one. We will continue to implement the strategy until the economy is stable and Americans are working again.

Articulating the strategy helps solve the verb tense complexity problem because each element of the strategy spans the full time horizon. Once voters understand the strategy, they can see how the Administration and Congress have been working to put the strategy it in place since before taking office in 2009, how we are trying to move forward now, and that what is at stake in November is whether we continue forward or turn back to the Bush Cheney economic policies. When our Democratic Leaders are in an interview about the economy, and feel a question really is a version of the timing trap, they should get in the habit of turning the discussion back to the strategy.

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

What the Democrats need is a strong Five Point Plan to Fix the Economy, and as Tom Lehrer might say, the good news is we already have one. The President gave a major economic address at Georgetown University in the spring of 2009 where he did just that, laying out the path to economic recovery. It would be good if the President could give another speech updating the plan but the Five Pillars he laid out more than a year ago are still quite workable:

1) New rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation, not reckless risk-taking.

2) New investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive.

3) New investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and new industries.

4) New investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses.

5) New savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations.

Now most voters know that we passed a major stimulus bill, health care reform, and more recently a package of financial reform and regulations, so no one is going to say this is a “do nothing Congress” and that alone sets up a good contrast with the “party of no.” Most people may not know all of the elements of these major initiatives especially the many investments in energy savings and green technology that were part of the Recovery Act. Environmentalists are not likely to get any form of an energy bill before the election, so any plan to put a price on carbon emissions will have to wait ’til next year, but in the meantime the EPA will be regulating carbon emissions.

Voters are not going to know a lot about the Race to the Top education reforms and the tax credits for college education. But just because the details are on our side the message cannot be about policy details. The point is to move the conversation to the breadth and depth of the strategy. The voters are disappointed that the economy is not fixed now, and we will have no credibility telling them it is better than they think it is. But we can tell them we are doing something about it, and something is a lot better than the other side’s nothing.

The challenge is in explaining the last two elements of the plan, health care reform, and how it fits into the economic plan, and what we are going to do about the deficit. The two are closely related substantively, in that the deficit that matters is the long term deficit, and the key driver of success in reducing the long term deficit is taming rising health care costs. Anyone who thinks health care reform should be talked about using the past tense does not know how Washington works. Health care is far from done. Regulations are being written that will define the way that the legislation is implemented in ways that will impact the quality coverage and cost of future care.

There is no easy solution to the challenge of explaining to voters that short term deficits were and still are needed to continue to steer the economy away from a far deeper recession but that shrinking deficits and eventually reaching a balanced budget is the needed prescription for the long term. It is a complex position to take, but we have little choice other than to rely on American voters to understand this level of complexity. The Democrats’ economic policy is based on balancing spending money now on effective stimulus like extending unemployment benefits and repealing only part of the Bush tax cuts which are due to expire while finding the resolve to really take on long term deficits that eluded the Republicans when they were in charge.

This Will Not Work Unless Democrats Can Connect With Voters

But no amount of policy clarity will be successful unless our leaders connect with voters on a human level. Voters are still in a state of worry and shock over the sense that the bad economic news is settling and long term unemployment is a reality many families understand. They need to know their elected leaders get it. It’s still scary out there.

Just after the Gulf Oil spill happened, Democrats may have gained the policy upper hand, but politicians no more talented than Bobby Jindal and David Vitter cleaned Obama’s clock in their ability to connect with the locals. People just wanted to know that their leaders understood what they had lost and would work to help them get it back. Despite everything going on in the Gulf region, just like everywhere else, what people want is secure employment. That’s how people keep their family’s respect and their self respect. They need to know Democrats understand this, and then we can tell them about our strategy to get things moving forward again.

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