Bernie Sanders’ recent op-ed warning Democrats to answer GOP attacks on the economy—and not rely solely on the abortion issue to rally voters—strikes at the heart of the dilemma Democrats face in the closing weeks before the midterms.
An internal strategy memo tells Democrats not to talk about the record number of jobs President Joe Biden has created (10 million in two years) because voters already know unemployment is low. Voters are, instead, worried about inflation—which Democrats don’t want to talk about.
The polls put inflation and the economy at the top of voter concerns, with abortion moving further down the list. Pro-choice advocates thought there would be more horror stories about women trying to access reproductive healthcare in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe, and while there have been some terrible, high-profile cases—these stories haven’t moved the needle to the point that abortion is the issue this election, rather than just one of many.
“In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered,” Sanders writes in an op-ed that first appeared in The Guardian. “Now is the time for Democrats to take the fight to the reactionary Republican Party and expose their anti-worker views on the most important issues facing ordinary Americans. That is both the right thing to do from a policy perspective and good politics.”
Sanders has ridden the same hobby horse of economic inequality for decades with limited success, but he is right to sound the alarm that outrage over Roe’s demise is not enough for Democrats to win in November and that GOP attacks on the economy that go unanswered will take hold.
“It’s not an either/or,” says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “They can’t win on that one issue alone—it will help them substantially, but they need other arrows in their quiver.”
On the economy, Democrats need to be careful in the framing. “If they say inflation is coming down, people will hear prices are coming down,” and that’s not happening, says Pitney. “A decline in the rate of increase [in inflation] isn’t a great talking point.”
A great line of attack would be to hit Florida Republican Rick Scott’s 11-point American Rescue plan, which proposes “sunsetting” social security, Medicare, and Medicaid every five years for review and a vote in Congress. Scott isn’t just one of 50 Republicans. He chairs the NRSC (National Republican Senatorial Committee) and he’s a member of the leadership. A former health insurance CEO, Scott would also like to see more Americans pay income tax. (More than half of Americans don’t earn enough to pay income tax.)
Taking millions of Americans off the tax rolls was one of the great accomplishments of the Reagan administration, and Scott is suggesting lower-income Americans be put back on the tax rolls, says Pitney. “I don’t know why [Democrats] haven’t exploited this. If the Republicans could exploit just a handful of voices talking about defunding the police, why can’t the Democrats exploit Republicans monkeying around with these programs?”
In his op-ed, Sanders puts the blame on “the advice that many Democratic candidates are getting from establishment consultants and directors of well-funded super PACs that the closing argument of Democrats should focus only on abortion. Cut the 30-second abortion ads and coast to victory.”
He has a point, says Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group that is not often aligned with Sanders. “I’ve never seen a Democratic administration told to not talk about job creation,” Bennett told The Daily Beast. He added: “I get it. We have really low unemployment, and most people have other things on their mind. While I don’t disagree with Bernie about putting too many eggs in the abortion basket, it’s not easy to figure out what to say about the economy.”
Sanders’ advice is essentially that his party should list popular legislation that not a single Republican voted for: $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, making corporations pay their fair share, lowering prescription drug costs, and on and on.
“He’s been saying the same things since the 1970s, and some of the things he says are dead-on,” Bennett concedes.
Much of the dispute surfacing among Democrats has to do with the ads that voters see in the final weeks. Sanders wants the economy to get its due, and Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network (NDN), which advocates for centrist progressives, agrees. “On a strategy level, I agree with Bernie. We shouldn’t be losing this argument to them (Republicans).”
Rosenberg would like to see Democrats draw a bright line to contrast Biden’s record of adding ten million jobs in 20 months with the last three Republican presidents, two Bushes and Trump, who collectively added just 1.9 million. “I agree [with Bernie] that we have to make the basic argument that we’ve made the country better. We’re not winning the economic argument and the gap is too big to be comfortable.”
“Biden has done a lot,” Rosenberg continues. “The economy has boomed, and we have a lot to tell.”
How do you tell the story to voters? “The way you move any argument in politics, use all available resources—advertising, candidate events. It’s got to be an important point how we close.”
Bernie’s never been popular among the Democratic establishment. But in this case, he’s absolutely right. Are the Democratic consultants listening?