vision 2020

The Democrats’ Best Economic Message for 2020 Isn’t a Mystery

A woman who knows what she’s talking about. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Donald Trump has a gift for not quite squandering the prosperity he inherits. For all his failed casinos and busted bait-and-switch schemes, the mogul never quite burned through the fortune his father left him. And for all his ill-considered trade wars and assaults on financial regulation, the president hasn’t made a dent in the expansion that began under his predecessor.

In fact, since Washington’s deficit and inflation hawks go silent whenever a Republican president takes office, Trump has actually managed to strengthen the recovery by passing a giant fiscal stimulus, and cowing the Fed into going (appropriately) easy with rate hikes.

Of course, all expansions must die. Global growth is slowing, much of corporate America looks over-leveraged, and the stimulative impact of the Trump tax cuts are starting to fade (if not backfire). Economic winter is coming. But the most recent indicators suggest it won’t come soon enough for the Democratic Party. Since the Fed backed off of interest rate hikes earlier this year, leading stock market indexes have rallied to new heights, while GDP growth has remained solid, and unemployment near historic lows. Many top analysts have thus downgraded the risk of an imminent recession (“inverted yield curve,” be damned).

A lot can happen in 19 months. But Democrats need to prepare for the possibility that, in November 2020, Donald Trump will be presiding over the longest period of uninterrupted growth in American history. The party will have to put forward a compelling critique of the Trump economy — one that isn’t contradicted by either macroeconomic statistics, or voters’ lived experience. And many Democratic consultants would like you to know that none of the 2020 candidates are offering such a message yet (and thus, more focus groups must be convened, surveys taken, and consultants hired). As Politico reports:

“We don’t really have a robust national message right now” on the economy, said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic strategist and pollster. “We will tend to talk about things like paid leave and equal pay — and those things are all very popular policies. But they don’t add up to an economic message that is robust enough to win the presidency and beat Donald Trump, who talks about a very robust economic policy.”

She said, “You may agree or not with it, but you know what [his message] is. And Democrats, you don’t know what it is. And that’s a recipe for disaster in 2020.”

… “Our view is that Democrats would be very wise to recognize how steep the mountain is on the economy,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “There are things about this economy that are very popular — low unemployment, a lot of jobs, there’s been some real wage increase. We attribute zero, zero percent of that to good Trump policy … But he will claim credit, as he does for the sun rising and everything else, and we have to be aware that that could be potent.”

He said, “What that means is that we need a very clear economic narrative that resonates deeply with the voters that we have to win, and we better not be caught up in our own blue bubble world.”

In reality, there is no great mystery about what a “robust” Democratic message on the economy would look like in 2020. It’s the same basic message that Democrats ran on in 2018 and 2012 (and just about every other successful election year the party has had since 1932): The rich are commandeering too much of the prosperity that working people create, and the cost of health care is too damn high.

In recent polls, a large majority of Americans view their nation’s economic conditions favorably (and a smaller majority is willing to give Trump credit for said conditions). But these results say less about the public’s euphoria about the economy, than they do about its low expectations. Just this week, the Washington Post asked voters, “Do you think the economic system in this country mainly works to benefit all people or mainly works to benefit those in power?” Sixty-percent of all respondents, and 66 percent of independent ones, said the latter. Critically, Democrats have a built-in advantage on this issue: Most voters believe their party is less beholden to the rich than the GOP is. In fact, the public is so deeply convinced of the Republican Party’s fealty to the wealthy, only 17 percent believe that Donald Trump cut taxes on regular people like them (despite the fact that the president’s signature law lowered the tax burdens of roughly 80 percent of Americans).

Meanwhile, polls keep confirming that a large majority of voters believe the government should guarantee universal health care to all citizens, and that at least a large plurality trusts the Democrats more than the Republicans on health-care issues more broadly. This week, an Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey gave Team Blue a 17-point advantage on health care.

Americans are sure to remain discontented with the economic dominance of the powerful — and the exorbitant cost of health care — no matter how strong the next 19 months of economic growth prove to be. Short of triggering a nuclear apocalypse, there is nothing that Donald Trump could (or would) do in the next two years to significantly ameliorate income inequality. And the cost of health care is still rising faster than inflation; employers expect to spend 5 percent on their workers’ insurance this year — and, in many cases, are responding by reducing the quality of benefits.

So, the broad strokes of the Democratic message are crystal clear. There might be room for some debate over the fine details. But the evidence suggests that the strongest version of Team Blue’s message is the one that Third Way exists to discourage: a version that maximizes the salience of class identity and resentment of the rich by framing political conflict in unabashedly populist terms.

Due to America’s deeply polarized political parties and insane system for electing presidents, the 2020 election will likely be decided by the tiny fraction of Americans who vote regularly but have no strong partisan allegiance — and live in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania. We know that this tiny subpopulation leans left on economic issues and tends to resent the rich. We also know it leans right on immigration and tends to resent “illegals.” When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agreed to make the 2012 election a referendum on whether rich business owners earned every penny they have, a critical mass of Midwestern swing voters broke for the Democrats. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agreed to make 2016 about whether rapid demographic change was making America “Stronger Together” — or less great than it used to be — they broke right.

The trick then is to make class resentment as salient as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean embracing “socialism,” or even a significantly more egalitarian economic agenda than Hillary Clinton’s. But it probably does mean telling an “us versus them” story about class conflict in the U.S. Barack Obama did this in 2012. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are doing it today. A maximally pragmatic Democratic nominee might wish to shed the left’s talk about abolishing private insurance, breaking up Amazon, or letting prisoners vote. But “the rich have rigged our economic and political systems to their advantage” is an immensely popular message. If Democrats don’t run on it in 2020, it won’t be out of concern for alienating voters.

Now, none of this is to say that Democrats shouldn’t be worried by the strength of the economy. There are limits to what optimal messaging can achieve; if there weren’t, the correlation between economic growth and an incumbent party’s electoral performance would not be so strong across time and place. A decent chunk of those aforementioned swing voters do not pay much attention to either party’s messaging, and tend to move wherever the economic winds take them. Americans may believe that the economy and political system are rigged against them. But for many, that means they shouldn’t trust anything a politico says; better to listen to the verdict of one’s bank account than all those talking heads.

Thus, it’s quite possible that Trump can leverage a strong economy into 270 Electoral College votes, no matter what Democrats choose to say. Team Blue will have a strong economic message in 2020 (if they’re willing to use it). But what they really need is a well-timed recession.

The Dems’ Best Economic Message for 2020 Isn’t a Mystery