Why the Economy Is the Dominant Issue for Democrats In the Midterms

Why the Economy Is the Dominant Issue for Democrats In the Midterms

Why the Economy Is the Dominant Issue for Democrats In the Midterms

Wages aren’t keeping up with prices, and that’s voters’ biggest concern.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full archive of Katrina’s Post columns here.

As early voting gets started in some states, Republicans are focusing their closing argument on the economy, American voters’ biggest concern and the subject of the majority of GOP ad buys. The Democrats’ closing argument, meanwhile, features abortion, the stripping away of women’s right to choose.

But a recent New York Times/Siena College poll shows economic concerns driving a significant shift of independent voters—including women—toward Republicans. The message to Democrats should be loud and clear: Change course, now.

Democratic campaign operatives make a sensible argument for featuring the GOP assault on abortion. In our era of bitter partisan division, midterm elections tend to be determined by turnout. With President Biden unpopular and much of his program blocked by Senate Republicans—along with two Democrats—Democratic demoralization was widespread even before the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court peremptorily struck down the right to abortion. The surprising results of an abortion referendum in Kansas and a special election in New York that featured the issue showed its power to galvanize voters, particularly women and the young, who historically under-participate in midterms.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that voters hold the sitting president and his party responsible for the economy, even if it is governed by forces out of their control. Biden inherited a shuttered economy, opened it up and has enjoyed record job recovery. But that rapidly recovering economy then got hit with widespread supply chain problems, aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which caused gas and food prices to spike. An abrupt turnaround by the Federal Reserve, hiking interest rates at a breakneck pace to tamp down inflation, tanked the stock market. Now voters blame Biden for their pain.

So Democrats are following the conventional wisdom of election campaigning—elevate the issues that favor your side, not the ones that favor the other. With polls showing that voters give Republicans a marked edge on handling the economy, Democrats are focusing on the threat Republicans pose to abortion and to democracy.

In a speech to the Maryland AFL-CIO last week, Representative Jamie B. Raskin, one of the most popular Democratic leaders, laid out the situation. “Democracy is on the ballot,” he said, invoking not just former president Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election but also the continuing Republican efforts to spread the Big Lie, suppress the vote, and put partisans in charge of elections. “Justice is on the ballot,” Raskin said, including not just the outrageous Dobbs decision on abortion but also the continuing assault on civil rights, on affirmative action, on the power to protect consumers and the environment from corporate malfeasance. “Progress is on the ballot,” he added, contrasting Biden’s success in passing long-overdue legislation to rebuild our infrastructure and invest in renewable energy with Trump’s inability or unwillingness to act on either issue.

All this is true—and compelling—but it doesn’t address the rising prices that voters are struggling with. Failing to address inflation gives Republicans a pass on the question, even though they offer little about what they would do to address it. Their ads rail against price increases, blame their opponents for causing them, and promise to fight them. But the only policy clue they provide is hidden in the talk of creating a crisis over the debt ceiling to force Biden to join in weakening “entitlement programs”—read Social Security and Medicare. If this is their plan, they aren’t going to admit it before November.

Stan Greenberg, the legendary Democratic pollster, warns that Democrats will pay a price for ignoring the economy. Once again, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shows Democrats how to make the case. Corporations, he states, are pocketing record profits, while workers’ wages aren’t keeping up with rising prices. When Democrats push to lower drug prices, Republicans stand with the drug companies. When Democrats push to extend the child tax credit to help working families with rising prices, and to pay for it by taxing the corporations that are making out like bandits, Republicans stand with the corporations. They want to use economic troubles to roll back Social Security and Medicare, which they have opposed from the start. Democrats want to respond to economic pain by helping working families and taking on the predatory corporations and chief executives pocketing record profits.

In the end, pocketbook issues—the economy, stupid—still dominate elections. While Democrats are right that democracy and justice are on the ballot, they will be able to fend off the assault on both only if they demonstrate convincingly that they stand with working people—and are willing to take on the corporations, entrenched interests and Republicans that stand in the way.

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