Democrats say they’ve finally found a compass that will lead them out of the wilderness — and that the journey starts with a new slogan, “A Better Deal.”
Sure, why not. Teddy Roosevelt had his Square Deal, FDR had his New Deal, Harry Truman had his Fair Deal. Although, at the risk of sounding cynical, “A Better Deal” sounds a bit like Robert Redford’s slogan when he played a Senate candidate who heralded “A Better Way.”
But, hey, it’s a start. “A Better Deal,” unveiled yesterday by Chuck Schumer and the usual congressional suspects, is the name for a progressive-populist agenda that’s clearly inspired by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The message is that Democrats do indeed stand for something. Which is sorely needed, because a new national poll says that only 37 percent of Americans believe the Democrats stand for something — while 52 percent believe the party “just stands against Trump.”
If the Democrats are going to recoup in the 2018 midterms — they have a decent shot at taking the House — reconnecting with swing voters is essential. As Schumer said in an interview the other day, referring to the ’16 results, “When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things — Comey, Russia. You blame yourself. So what did we do wrong? People didn’t know what we stood for …. And [they] still believe that.”
It’s amazing that the Democrats had to conduct months of polling and focus groups to arrive at the obvious, but at least they got there. They recognize that they need to win back the working-stiff, lower-middle-class, economically imperiled voters in small communities between the coasts. As Thomas Edsall, one of the smartest analysts of that voting cohort, explains, fear is rampant in communities “where jobs, industries, and a whole way of life have slowly receded.” These people used to believe, virtually as an article of faith, that the Democrats were on their side.
And these people, who feel alienated from the Washington status quo, who now view the Democrats as the status quo party, were the swing voters of 2016. They flipped from Obama to Trump in sufficient numbers to put six states in the red column — Florida, Iowa, Michighan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and put a dangerous demagogue in the White House. Fear made these voters desperate. Democrats are partly to blame for this disaster.
The bipartisan Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll (co-conducted by a Democratic pollster and a Republican pollster) recently crunched the numbers in a cross-section of counties that flipped from Obama in ’12 to Trump in ’16. More than half the folks in those “flip counties” said the political and economic systems are stacked against them; 66 percent said somebody in the household has lost a job in the last five years; 71 percent said their children would not have a better life than them; 75 percent said somebody in the household had at least 20 grand in student debt.
So the way back, for Democrats, is to fill the ever-widening gap that separates Trump’s populist promises from his failures to deliver. The way back is to demonstrate that while Trump’s populism is manifestly phony (which it is), theirs is actually real (a message they’ll need to demonstrate daily, to dispel the swing voters’ suspicion that Democrats are hostage to big corporate donors). For instance:
While Trump fails to deliver on jobs and higher wages, the “Better Deal” Democrats have unveiled a plan to create 10 million jobs and raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15. (The ruling congressional Republicans won’t cooperate, so Democrats will say that’s all the more reason to give them the House.)
And while Trump fails to deliver on a promise he has already abandoned – negotiating for lower drug prescription prices – the “Better Deal” Democrats want to create strong federal enforcement of lower prices.
And while Trump’s Justice Department does little or nothing to curb corporate mergers, the “Better Deal” Democrats want to block mergers that curb competitiveness. Some of their new rhetoric — about the need to “crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power” that “benefits the special interests and very wealthy” — sounds like Teddy Roosevelt crossed with Warren and Bernie.
And while Trump does nothing on the issue of paid family leave (beyond indulging Ivanka’s empty talk), the Democratic plan would cover not just new fathers and mothers, but also stressed adults who care for their aging parents.
More ideas — about combating “unfair foreign trade,” helping with college tuition costs — are reportedly in the pipeline. All told, as Schumer said yesterday, Democrats are trying “to articulate a strong, bold, economic program for the middle class and those working hard to get there.” The Democratic plan is to hammer the upbeat message while Trump delivers nothing and continues his downward spiral.
No need to talk about impeachment. The Trump-Russia scandal will get incrementally worse all by itself — the latest is that ex-Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort has been subpoened by the Senate Judiciary Committee — so the Democratic plan is to give alientated voters a positive place to land when Trump and the Republicans hit bottom.
Although we shouldn’t assume the GOP will hit bottom. Republicans have long worked their midterm magic, persuading people to vote against their own economic interests, and Trump has been pronounced politically dead since the day he announced for president. “Better Deal” is a decent reboot for the Democrats, but they should heed the cautionary warning coined in 1785 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry.”
Hat tip to my summer research assistant, Dominic Casciato.