Liberals Admit The Democratic Party Is Out Of Ideas

Conn Carroll
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Posted: Nov 11, 2014 12:55 PM
Liberals Admit The Democratic Party Is Out Of Ideas

How badly did Democrats lose last Tuesday? So badly that a growing number of liberals are questioning whether or not their party is out of ideas.

The day after the election, The American Prospect's Harold Meyerson wrote:

A defeat this comprehensive should compel the Democrats to acknowledge that their problems go beyond the six-year jinx—the year in a two-term presidency that usually sees a rout of the president’s party in Congress—the smaller electorates of midterm elections, the Republican suppression of the minority and youth vote, and even the flood of money that has deformed our democracy. A defeat of this magnitude suggests that the Democrats are in the same fix as most of the center-left parties of Europe—parties that purport to be the economic advocates of the middle and working classes, but preside over abysmal economies with no clear sense of how to make them better. 
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the Democrats’ failure isn’t just the result of Republican negativity. It’s also intellectual and ideological. What, besides raising the minimum wage, do the Democrats propose to do about the shift in income from wages to profits, from labor to capital, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent? How do they deliver for an embattled middle class in a globalized, de-unionized, far-from-full-employment economy, where workers have lost the power they once wielded to ensure a more equitable distribution of income and wealth? What Democrat, besides Elizabeth Warren, campaigned this year to diminish the sway of the banks? Who proposed policies that would give workers the power to win more stable employment and higher incomes, not just at the level of the minimum wage but across the economic spectrum?

That same day, The Washington Post's Greg Sargent talked to a slew of Democratic pollsters and reported:

The most common explanation we’re hearing for the GOP sweep of a dozen Senate races last night is that an already-treacherous map for Democrats was made a lot worse by the failure of core Dem voter groups to show up.

But multiple Democratic pollsters involved in these races identify another problem: The failure of the Democrats’ economic message to win overpersuadable voters, ones outside the ascendant Democratic coalition, in the numbers needed to offset the structural disadvantages Democratic incumbents and candidates faced. These pollsters describe this as a serious problem afflicting the Democratic Party that must be addressed heading into 2016.
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The exit polls show that candidates like Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Bruce Braley and Mark Udall lost by anywhere from large to truly massive margins among non-college whites and older voters. That’s also true of the overall national electorate. You should treat these exit polls with a grain of salt, but the pollsters I spoke to agree that this gets at a fundamental problem Democrats face.

These pollsters argued that this was above all the result of a failure to connect with these voters’ economic concerns. At the root of these concerns, Mellman says, are stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve wider, more equitable distribution. Democrats campaigned on a range of economic issues — the minimum wage, pay equity, student loan affordability, expanded pre-kindergarten education — but these didn’t cut through people’s economic anxieties, because they didn’t believe government can successfully address them.

“People are deeply suspicious that government can deliver on these problems,” Mellman says, in a reference to the voter groups that continue to elude Democrats. “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 yesterday Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall added:

The great political reality of our time is that Democrats don't know (and nobody else does either) how to get wage growth and productivity growth or economic growth lines back into sync. ... Minimum wage increases help those at the very bottom of the income scale and they have a lifting effect up the wage scale as the floor gets pushed up. But it is at best a small part of the puzzle. Clamping down on tax dodges by the extremely wealthy claws back some resources for the treasury and sends an important message, as might some restrictions on ridiculously high CEO pay. But again, these are important changes at the margins that do not fundamentally change the equation. Economic populism or another comparable politics with a different tonality won't get you very far if you can get beyond beating up on the winners to providing concrete improvements to those losing out in today's economy.

Again, a stark reality: Democrats don't have a set of policies to turn around this trend. 

The New York Times David Leonhardt also notes that there is a "Great Wage Slowdown Looming Over Politics," but he thinks, at least politically, that either party could win over voters with a perennial American favorite: tax cuts.

Any presidential candidate — from either party — who can claim the mantle of middle-class tax cutter is likely to benefit from it. ... The details could be straightforward. The cut could be temporary or permanent. It could involve a decline in marginal tax rates for the middle class or an expansion of tax credits. ... Because the long-term budget deficit remains a problem, any such tax cut could be paired with a tax increase for top earners, who — even after the expiration of some Bush-era tax cuts — still face lower rates than they have for most of recent history. “Taxes for high-earning Americans are too low,” argues Roger Altman, the Wall Street executive and Democratic adviser. Most Americans favor tax increases on the well-off, polls show.

But after 15 years of disappointing income growth, many voters are skeptical of sophisticated economic plans with uncertain, long-term payoffs. They’re looking for simple ideas that can help people immediately.

Leonhardt is right about polls showing that Americans believe the current tax system favors the wealthy. And Americans are right: it does. 

But that doesn't mean conservatives should raise tax rates on anybody. Instead, conservatives could eliminate or reduce a slew of tax expenditures that primarily benefit wealthy Americans, and then use that revenue to give every working American a raise by cutting the payroll tax

Such a move would not only immediately put more cash into every working American's paycheck, but it would also create thousands of new jobs by lowering the cost of employment.