Voters don’t like Donald Trump very much: his approval rating has never been higher than 45%; it’s generally stuck in the low 40s; and it occasionally dips down into the 30s when he is letting his id run the show. The percentage of voters who strongly disapprove of him regularly tops the 50% mark.
But Democrats, who have been known to surprise everyone by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, could still easily lose this election for one major reason: economics. The economy, gliding on the solid economic foundation Obama built and overheated by the massive deficit spending from the Republican tax cuts, seems to be doing great according to a lot of economic benchmarks.
Trump may not, however, get as much credit as pundits think from the economy: most working people are not seeing their wages rise nearly as fast as the cost of living on essentials like housing, groceries, energy, health care, or a college education for their kids. The main problem for Democrats is that many of our presidential candidates are failing to articulate a compelling alternative to Trumponomics. In doing so, Democrats cede the economic conversation to Trump, and leave voters with the impression that he is the only one who cares about how they are doing economically. For example, while his trade negotiation tactics leave much to be desired, many voters like that Trump appears to be taking action to stop the offshoring of their jobs.
Democrats used to be the party that owned the economy as an issue. FDR brought us back from the Great Depression; rebuilt the banking system and reformed Wall Street; passed a minimum wage and labor law reform; and created Social Security. JFK and LBJ presided over the most prosperous economic decade in American history, passing Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, fair housing, and other programs that built that prosperity. Bill Clinton presided over another prosperous decade, as the minimum wage went up; investments in education and R&D paid off; and massive deficits were turned into huge surpluses – although some of the economic deregulation he enacted planted some bad seeds for the future.
But Democrats over the last couple of decades seem to have lost their passion, coherence, and narrative when it comes to talking about the economy. Part of it, as I recount in my book How to Democrat in the Age of Trump, is that Clinton and some other Democrats got too close to Wall Street and big business donors in the 1990s, and our narrative shifted from fighting for working people to something far mushier. It started feeling to working and middle class voters that we had gone from fighting for farmers and tradespeople to helping coastal elites and multinational corporations in big international trade deals. Once we left our roots as the party that fought for working people, we lost our narrative on the economy.
Another part of the problem is that social issues tend to carry more emotion, and get more media attention, than bread-and-butter economics. On top of that, those kinds of social issues have the added benefit of not pissing off the donor class. Maybe there are other reasons in the mix as well, but the bottom line is that most Democrats in their stump speeches and TV ads just don’t talk about kitchen table economics anymore. And that is a huge problem going into 2020.
There are some important exceptions to that trend, and they prove the power of focusing on the economy and having a progressive narrative. That is precisely how Bernie shocked every pundit in America by going from 1% in the polls to getting 46% of the vote against Hillary in the 2016 primary. It’s how Elizabeth Warren created a name for herself even before she became a senator, and why she is surprising people by overcoming her early stumbles to become the clear policy leader, setting a high bar for every other candidate in the 2020 primaries.
Enter Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, who last week rolled out a stunningly bold economic plan. You would think a candidate so focused on one issue, climate change, wouldn’t be making an impression on someone like me so focused on economic issues, but you would be wrong. Climate change and economic policy are inextricably intertwined, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Inslee’s new plan to restructure and rebuild the economy and simultaneously address the climate crisis is one of the best, most comprehensive economic plans I have seen in years from any Democrat. It shows how, by shifting the economy rapidly away from fossil fuels and into green energy, and simultaneously lifting up working families, we can create eight million new jobs, raise pay significantly, and empower workers.
Working people in this country know that the system is rigged. As I’ve said many times before, Elizabeth Warren said the system was rigged back in 2009. Bernie ran on that message, and Trump won on it. Fast forward to 2020, and the other Democrats still need to learn this lesson: that big, bold, progressive ideas focused on restructuring the economy to make it work better for working families are a critical component to a winning policy platform. The only way we will beat a faux populist like Trump is with a real populist, a progressive populist – not a candidate with mushy, timid economic plans that they rarely mention anywhere.
Absent a sudden collapse in the economy, which probably won’t happen before the election, Trump will have plenty of rosy numbers to talk about on the campaign trail. And while most folks may be pretty unhappy about their economic circumstances, if Democrats continue to say little about the economy while offering moderate, incremental “solutions” more appealing to big business than to working folks, those voters will likely stick with the guy they think is shaking up the system. Bold plans like Inslee’s that address big issues, create millions of great new jobs, raise wages, and make working people’s lives better provide a great contrast to Trump’s top-down economy where all the benefits are going to the wealthy. We need more Democrats to follow Inslee’s lead.