As Democrats mutter privately that their Senate majority is sinking beneath the waves, their leadership has sent out an SOS. It’s all hands on deck, unless those hands belong to the President of the United States. Because only Michigan Rep. Gary Peters among Democratic candidates for the Senate wants Obama in his state campaigning, the challenge of saving the Senate has fallen to another president.
I heard from a Democratic senator this week that influential Democrats are pressuring Bill Clinton to frame a closing argument for the Democrats that focuses on the economy. In his 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton became Obama’s “Secretary for Explaining Stuff” (although the word wasn’t stuff). This is more explicit and humiliating for the incumbent. The president and former president, who once despised each other, are cordial but far from friendly. Now Obama needs his predecessor to help prevent a solid Republican Congress from hassling him all the way to January 20, 2017.
As important as the messenger is here, the message—jobs—is even more so. The Democrats’ inability to stress what voters keep telling them is their biggest concern is perplexing. I understand why the White House has trouble getting credit for improving the economy when wages are stagnant and life is still so hard for so many in the shrinking middle class. And I get why Democratic candidates don’t want to lash themselves to the economic policies of an unpopular president.
What I can’t fathom is why Democrats don’t pick low-hanging fruit—the jobs issues that poll after poll shows are much more critical to voters than ISIS, Ebola, and the Keystone pipeline, not to mention vaginal probes and whether some candidate voted for Obama. Yes, many Democratic candidates are pushing for a much-needed increase in the minimum wage. But that is of most interest either to hardcore Democrats or to non-voters clinging to the bottom of the economy.
The voters Democrats are in trouble with are white non-college educated blue-collar workers who are often unemployed, and whose friends have crappy jobs in the service sector or mid-level positions in office parks. These mostly male voters—the ones poised to turn the Senate Republican by rejecting anyone with a “D” after their name—don’t care much about the minimum wage, but many of them sure would like a new job.
There’s a particular jobs issue that they respond to and it has a big, boring name: infrastructure. As long as they don’t call it that, Democrats have a chance to win a greater share of these white male voters. At worst, Republicans will hear the argument that their leaders couldn’t care less about rebuilding the country. That might convince even more of them that neither party represents their interests. If these white voters stay home (as millions did in 2012) and blacks vote in high enough numbers (especially in North Carolina and Georgia), the Democrats might yet squeak through.
But that requires framing the jobs issue properly. Fortunately for Democrats, they have a weapon in the American Jobs Act (AJA), an Obama bill that failed to win 60 votes in the Senate three years ago. With enormous support in the polls, the AJA consisted of rebuilding roads, bridges, and schools and investing in first responders , all projects that Republicans have supported in the past but now shun for no other reason than that the president backs them. A political party founded in 1856 in part on the old Whig issue of “internal improvements” (i.e. government-built bridges and canals)—a position second only to opposing slavery in the territories as its reason for being—in 2011 and 2012 rejected even the most common-sense investment in the future.
Instead of fighting over this with the GOP, which favors only tax cuts for business to create jobs, Obama has mostly dropped his jobs agenda. He mentions the issue in speeches—in fact, he has talked about infrastructure more often than other president—but hasn’t made it a centerpiece of the Democratic campaign. Another political blunder.
Democratic candidates—running for cover in a tough year—have preferred to campaign on women’s health, radical right “personhood” amendments, and the environment. All are important for mobilizing base voters to show up for midterm elections that they often skip, but after tens of thousands of ads, these lines of attack are largely tapped out. The women and liberals who might respond to such messages have already done so, voting early or planning to go to the polls on Election Day to vote Democratic.
That means going for the tried-and-true economic argument (used since at least 1932) designed to “bring home” working-class voters in the homestretch. The decline of unions—the usual excuse of rich Democratic consultants and pollsters for why jobs bills don’t count for much—isn’t relevant. Nor is the deficit, which has lost its saliency since it was cut in half to $500 billion. People want better jobs—period. And with so many Republicans on record opposing their creation, Democrats have an opening.
Will they seize it? Senator Al Franken quipped in 2009 that Republicans have a bumper sticker with one word on it: “No.” Democrats have a bunch of words on the bumper sticker ending with: “Continued on next bumper sticker.”
This message for Democratic candidates can fit on a GOP-size bumper sticker:
I want to rebuild America—my opponent doesn't.
From there, the message continues: I voted to rebuild our country, and he (or his party) voted against it--against money to re-pave roads, repair bridges, fix schools, help first responders we might need for an epidemic.
I want to invest in the future and the Republicans are stuck in the past.
These charges are all easily backed up by referring to where Republican candidates stood in 2011 on the AJA. Almost all of them had to comment one way or the other.
As elections approach, time compresses. A political turn of events that would play out over a month earlier in the campaign, can unfold in a week or even a day at crunch time. That’s another way of saying that 12 days is plenty of time for an effective closing argument. As long as Democrats don't mention the clunky word "infrastructure" too much, they should pivot hard to jobs.
Ebola will fade enough for the Democrats to make this pitch by next week. It probably won't get them over the goal line, but a streamlined and pointed jobs agenda—first rammed through the clutter by an impassioned Bill Clinton—is their only way to hold the Senate.