The Democrats did even worse in the midterm elections than most observers expected. Many of the Republicans’ class-of-2010 governors (e.g. Paul LePage, Rick Snyder, and Scott Walker) got re-elected, and a whole new crew of GOP rakeshames is headed to Washington. There has been a lot written about the causes of the Democrats’ electoral woes, but one question has yet to be answered fully. On election night, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show asked Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, ““Were you surprised that the Democrats’ strategy seemed to be—again, I’m not a political strategist—curling up in a ball and hoping you didn’t kick them in the face too hard?” Priebus said that he was surprised, but that only makes the Democrats’ behavior seem more bizarre.
Commentators such as Bill Maher, have chided the Dems for failing to tout the economic improvements under Obama: unemployment falling from 10.2% in October 2009 to 5.9% in October 2014, new highs on the stock market, and a federal budget deficit that is less than half what it was during Obama’s first year in office. Why didn’t Democratic candidates campaign on those facts?
I believe they planned to do just that. I’m sure that President Obama and his team have studied the economic forecasts carefully and often. They expected the economy to be where it is now, and expected it to carry the party through the ’14 election. But I would bet that when the Democratic candidates started polling that message, they found that the people had no interest in hearing how well off they allegedly were. Shorn of an economic appeal, Democrats went back to their default message: “We’re Republican-Lite.” It worked as well as it always does.
Why was the cheery economic message a non-starter? Because, for the vast majority of working-class people, the economy still isn’t any good. Democrats looked at indicators like unemployment, the stock market, and the deficit, while ignoring the real suffering of recent years. Having a job is generally better than the alternative, but if your wages, benefits, and prospects are poor, you will rightly believe that the economy isn’t working for you. The truth is that most working people have not been able to dig out from the economic disasters of Bush II’s final year in office.
In early 2008, we had staggeringly high costs of gasoline and heating fuel. Many people had to borrow to make ends meet and were therefore already in the red when the 2008 crash hit. The huge increase in unemployment resulting from the crash has consequences that are still being felt. (Among people I know, the unemployment rate was about 50%. People who had never been out of work in the years I had known them were unemployed for six months or more.) Long-term unemployment causes more debt, often in the form of credit cards issued by bailed-out financial institutions.
In many cases, it also means lost assets, possibly even a repossessed house. Then you have the problems faced by recent college graduates who have student-loan debt and entered an economy with very little hiring. With real wages stagnating, debt rising, and nearly all new wealth going to the already wealthy, there is little reason for most people to celebrate improvements in the economic indicators that obsess Washington.
It didn’t have to be that way, of course. Back in 2009, when Democrats had big congressional majorities, they could have listened to the real economists. Joseph Stiglitz, among others, strongly urged them to pass a stimulus plan substantial enough to get the economy working again. That would have ended the long, destructive siege on working-class livelihoods that dominated the early years in Obama’s presidency. Obama & Co. could also have sided with the people by prosecuting Wall Street criminals, passing real financial reform, and breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks. But that would have offended the Democrats’ rich backers, who are also the Republicans’ rich backers. Isn’t that right, Mr. Geithner? It’s true that the Republicans are worse, but the Democrats refused to take the necessary action on the economy.
The success of ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage in states like Arkansas, where the Republicans won handily, proves that an economic-populist message was a winner. But, unfortunately for the Democrats, you can’t claim it unless you actually deliver on economic populism.