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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: August 2006

Ain’t No Great Or Lesser Generations

I have to admit I was a bit stricken by a question posed at TAPPED today by my young and much esteemed friend Matt Yglesias: “Have I ever mentioned that I hate baby boomers?”Matt was reacting to a particularly confused NYT column by baby boomer Andrew Rosenthal complaining that today’s antiwar crowd does not know how to do protests–an argument complicated somewhat by his use of an antiwar concert by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to show that the boomer example of how to sing and chant wars away has been lost. I couldn’t agree more with Matt’s assessment of Rosenthal, or with his broader argument that “protest politics,” as opposed to the more conventional kind, is largely ineffective.But I have to say that Rosenthal’s silly claim that boomers were politically superior to their children is no more objectionable than Matt’s silly claim to the contrary. I’m certainly glad that after twenty years of post-boomer coherts of young folks who tended to vote Republican, the arrows turned during the Cinton era and have tilted left ever since. And I am more than aware that boomer progressivism has been vastly overrated; Nixon, after all, carried the Youth Vote in 1972 after the McGovern campaign pioneered direct appeals to first-time voters.But more generally, it’s time to bury the idea that any generation–past, present or future–embodies virtue or vice in any great measure. We all know about the “greatest generation” of WW2, and its contributions to democracy are rightly praised; but I am more impressed with the previous generation of Americans who suffered through the Great Depression. They were just as moral and hard-working as any previous or later generation, but due to forces far beyond their control, roughly one-third of them were regularly unemployed, and an even higher percentage saw their dreams shattered and their lives blighted. Indeed, the example of that generation–along with the hard-working analogous people around the world who happen to live in dysfunctional societies and economies–is the main reason I reject the whole conservative and Republican social and economic philosophy.Virtue and success are not, in the end, identical, or even close to identical. Politics and policy do really matter, in terms of how life is actually lived by most of us. There are no great or lesser generations of Americans. There are just lucky and unlucky Americans, and whatever our generational background, the challenge is to make life a better bargain. I’m happy to be told that my twentieth-century experience makes it hard for me to understand twenty-first century realities. But let’s don’t claim any superiority for any generation, and let’s hope a combination of new and old experiences will help progressives understand the complicated perspectives of an electorate that straddles the centuries.

New Roundtable Marks the Launch of Our September Issue

by Scott Winship
I’m happy to announce that we have posted a provocative discussion piece on the Democrats’ economic agenda that will serve as the basis for our next roundtable. The piece, by Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler of Third Way, argues that Democrats are losing the middle class not just because of national security or values concerns, but because our economic agenda does not speak to their aspirations and concerns. Discussants include Elizabeth Warren, John Halpin, Jacob Hacker, and our own Ruy Teixeira and Bill Galston.
Look for a second roundtable later in the month on the Democrats’ electoral weakness on national security. Hope you find the discussion stimulating.

Dem Elites, Rank-and-File Split on Iraq?

Justin Logan’s short but provocative article in The American Prospect, “Mind the Gap,” merits a read by Democrats searching for a credible Iraq policy that can produce victories in November and ’08. The subtitle succinctly captures the gist of his argument: “Democratic voters have unambiguously repudiated the Bush doctrine. The same can’t be said for Democratic foreign policy elites.” Logan makes a compelling case that the party’s hawkish opinion leaders defending long range occupation of Iraq have lost touch with an increasingly war-weary rank and file. There is ample evidence in recent opinion polls to back Logan’s claim, and he offers the following:

A recent CNN/New York Times poll showed 61 percent of Americans want to cut and run, with just 34 percent now supporting a “stay and die” policy.

As Logan says, “…sometimes it’s better to back away from the blackjack table instead of taking out a second mortgage to double down after a losing run.”

A Happy Face Isn’t Enough

By Elizabeth Warren
Without middle class support, no political party can remain in power. The trio of Kim, Solomon and Kessler has this right. The message should be tattooed on the inside of the eyelids of every office seeker in America.
And they have another point right: Many politicians don’t have a clue about how to talk to the middle class. The reason is that they really don’t know much about the middle class-about who they are and why they are in trouble.
There is much good sense in Misery, but I think it is misleading to label the problem “pessimism.” Back in 2004, John Edwards made the leap from one of seven unknown candidates to the man who, but for sudden Iowa infatuation with the promise of nominating a war hero, would likely have been the Democratic presidential nominee. Edwards broke free from the pack and made a name for himself by talking to middle class people about their problems. The middle class squeeze wasn’t sugar candy stuff, but it connected with substantial numbers real people across the state and across the country.
Americans believe in opportunity, but they are deeply worried that their opportunities and the opportunities for their children are slipping away. Just a few tidbits:

  • Far more Americans are worried about not being able to pay all their bills than are worried about a terrorist attack1
  • 30 million American people with jobs describe themselves as “financially distressed”2
  • 28% of all Americans say that after they pay basic expenses, they have not one dollar left over-the highest number in the developed world.3
  • Half of all Americans say they worry frequently about their debt, many of them saying they worry “most of the time.”4
  • The number one fear of college grads is not terrorism, it is debt-by a margin of more than 2-to-15

No wonder last year’s most chosen New Year’s resolution was “get out of debt,” replacing “lose weight” for the first time in memory.
And the worries are grounded in reality. Job losses that once were a threat only for unskilled workers now routinely invade the middle class. Millions of middle class families have no health insurance coverage, knowing that just one bad diagnosis could destroy them financially. Debt loads are at historic highs for ordinary families. Variable mortgage rates will push more than a million families into foreclosure this year. Bankruptcies are back on the rise.
We live in an America where manufacturing jobs, engineering jobs and even computer science jobs are disappearing overseas. Today’s fast-growth job category is “debt collector.”6
This isn’t about “optimism” and “pessimism.” Sure, no one likes a hang-dog. But no one wants to spend the evening with a Wal-Mart greeter either. Lou Dobbs doesn’t draw millions of listeners by handing out smiley-face buttons. He’s mad, and he’s the voice for millions of other Americans who are even madder than he is.
To frame the debate as “optimism versus pessimism” misses the point. Who wants to be on the pessimists’ team? (They have really ugly uniforms, and they don’t bother to practice.) Labels make it all about spin. Nothing-no shorthand, no bromide, no cute phrase-will substitute for understanding the enormous pressure that is transforming the middle class. And telling candidates not to be “pessimistic” is no excuse for avoiding the serious homework needed to develop a real understanding of the increasing fragility of the middle class.
In post-war America, wages and productivity rose together, but starting in the mid-1970s, income (adjusted for inflation) flattened while productivity continued to rise. In other words, workers got a smaller share of the value they produced. Today, a fully-employed, median-earning male makes about $800 less than his counterpart made back in 1972. But costs for many of the basics-housing, health insurance, transportation, college educations-continued to rise. Families responded by cutting consumption spending, eliminating their savings plans, and sending two parents into the workforce. Kim, Solomon and Kessler herald the rise in household income, but they fail to note it happened only for families that could put two people into the workforce. Median-earning one-income households were once solidly middle class. Today they still must pay for more costly homes and health insurance on stagnating wages; without a second income, they are now sliding to the bottom of the middle class, barely hanging on by their fingernails.
Even for families with a second earner, the financial picture is not rosy. In addition to higher housing and health costs, they must also pay for a second car to get to work, childcare and a higher tax rate on that second income. Today, median two-income families commit three-quarters of their pay to basics-mortgage, health insurance, transportation, childcare and taxes. A generation ago, the one-earner family covered those same expenses using up just half of their single paycheck (see chart). The bottom line: After they pay for these basics, today’s two-income family has less cash and less savings than their one-income parents had a generation ago. (The data are reported in my book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Parents Are Going Broke and updated in “Re-writing the Rules: Families, Money and Risk” and “What’s Hurting the Middle Class.”) Kim, Solomon and Kessler may let out a cheer, but I don’t.
What do politicians have to say to these families? When their children got sick or they lost their jobs, Democrats and Republicans alike scolded them for filing for bankruptcy, while Congress embraced a credit-industry wish list that would squeeze every last dollar out of these families. When companies revealed that they had made a lot of pension promises, but they hadn’t set aside the funds to meet those promises, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed pension reform that opened the door wide to companies’ simply dropping their coverage. When payday lenders targeted military families, charging an average 400% interest for a cash loan so that a soldier deployed in Iraq could make it until the family support allotment kicked in, military leaders and the Department of Defense asked for some protection for these families, but a bipartisan Congress turned a deaf ear. When parents stayed awake nights worrying about how they would pay for college, a bipartisan majority in Congress cut back on both aid and loan programs.
This isn’t about optimism and pessimism. This is about getting it. This is about saying to the middle class, we’re here for you. We don’t work for Citibank, Sallie Mae, FastLoan or anyone else. We work for you. Of course, if that isn’t true, it is pretty hard to say it and be believed.
In all this talk about the middle class, there is the unspoken elephant in the room: the poor. Democrats have so long seen themselves as champions of the poor that any talk about the middle class quickly slips into talk about the poor. John Edwards introduces himself to America by talking about the middle class squeeze, then picks poverty as his signature issue post-election.
When I talk with families about politics, I often hear a variation on this theme: “Democrats care most about the poor. They tell me I’m better off than the poor, and that I should give up more of my money to help the poor. Well, I’m stretched to the breaking point, and I just can’t do it any more.” Whenever a Democrat stands up and says, “I’ll help every child go to college,” then cuts off benefits at $20,000 a year, the message just burns deeper.
Democrats thought that the tax cuts would cause a national uprising because they so disproportionately benefited the rich. But they missed a key point: the cuts also benefited the middle class. The middle class might make less-heck, they might make a whole lot less on the tax breaks-than the rich folks, but they would make something. And that something would stay in their pockets and help pay down their credit cards and pay their utility bills. That Republican something looks a lot better than a Democratic nothing.
Tax cuts have been a watershed. Instead of the poor and middle class partnering up for mutual benefit, Democrats and Republicans alike have pushed the middle class to align with the rich-they both get something, and only the poor are shut out. In fact, policy after policy leaves the middle class absorbing more risks and fraying the safety nets that once kept them safe. Smart proposals would align the interests of the poor and the middle, the way Social Security developed widespread support by being a program for all workers-not just for those who were destitute.
I believe in the full range of emotions. There’s room for optimism and pessimism. But there is also room for anger and accounting. And hope and dreams. And new ideas and old ideas. But none of it will work if it is just stage dressing, just memorized lines. And that brings me to the last point, which was the first point: Keep it real.
Right now, neither Republicans nor Democrats connect with the American middle class on economic issues. That leaves the field wide open for connecting on other issues-terrorism, culture wars, Iraq, environmentalism. Middle class Americans aren’t voting Republican because they think the Republicans have something helpful and supportive to offer on economic issues (except for tax relief). But right now there aren’t many Democrats who have anything useful to say on the subject either.
The middle class is the engine of the American economy. But all the talk about proposals and messages and optimism won’t bring a single voter into the Democratic camp. To accomplish that, Democrats have to learn about this new middle class, learn about the pressures and the fears and the hopes and the dreams that drive them. Only then will they have something to say. And only then can they speak to these families from the heart.

A native Oklahoman, Warren graduated from the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School. She is now the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she teaches contract law, bankruptcy and commercial law. Her latest book, All Your Worth, is for people who worry about money. She posts on TPM Cafe.



1Center for American Progress/Center for Responsible Lending, “Frequency Questionnaire,” April 13-20, 2006 (33% of respondents “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about being the victim of a terrorist attack, 48% “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about “not having enough money to pay all your bills”).
2E. Thomas Garman, et al., “Final Report, Thirty Million Workers in America-One in Four-Are Seriously Financially Distressed and Dissatisfied Causing Negative Impacts on Individuals, Families and Employers” (March 23, 2005).
3AC Neilsen, Global Consumer Confidence and Opinions, May 2005.
4AP/Neilsen poll of 1,000 Americans December 2004, reported in “Poll: Half of Americans Worry About Debts” (December 20, 2004). The medical effects of these worries are discussed in Jean Lawrence, “Debt Can be Bad for Your Health,” WebMD (January 3, 2005).
5Partnership for Public Service, “Class of 9/11 Full Survey Results” (“What are you most fearful of at this time?” terrorism, 13.4%; going deeply into debt, 32.4%).
6See Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, November 2003, BLS estimates that the number of people employed as bill or account collectors increased by 44.8% from 1998 to 2003.

Truth-Telling, Populism and Inspirational Politics

By John Halpin
The Third Way authors provide a useful service in pointing out a problem that many progressive activists frequently fail to recognize. A political message that essentially says, “Here are 50 reasons why your life sucks,” is not a compelling way to attract anyone to the progressive cause let alone reach the all important middle-class voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. Barring severe or sharp economic decline, attempts to browbeat people with negative statistics and a barrage of scary anecdotes will almost always lose out at the national level to a more hopeful and optimistic vision.
At the same time, the authors’ attempt to replace downer politics with a message about a “new era of middle-class opportunity” is ultimately insufficient for meeting the Democrats’ long term need for conviction, passion and a clear public philosophy and worldview. More specifically, the suggested frame of middle class opportunity suffers from three interrelated problems that reduce its impact:

  • First, by eschewing pessimism in favor of optimism, the message does not acknowledge the truth about the condition of the middle class today (a truth readily acknowledged by voters themselves);
  • Second, in renouncing populism as wrong and counterproductive, it fails to clearly articulate to voters how the political system itself, through GOP control, is rigged against the middle class; and
  • Third, by focusing solely on the economic conditions of the middle class rather than on the success of the entire nation, the message fails to offer an inspiring vision for the future or to call on people to participate in a project that is greater than their own economic needs and self-interest.

Acknowledging economic truth
As Elizabeth and Jacob have convincingly shown, the middle class today faces a host of challenges that threaten its status and future prospects: rising income and wealth disparities; increased costs for basic needs like health care and housing; rising household debt; reduced social protections; and overall economic anxiety caused by the shifting of risk away from the government and private sector and onto the backs of the middle class.
These are not just arcane academic ideas captured in cool-looking graphs. As seen in numerous surveys over the past few years, these trends have a real impact on peoples’ lives and are causing identifiable problems for the middle class.
Interestingly, the Third Way authors defend their assertion that middle-class voters are feeling positive by drawing on numbers from a 2005 Pew Research poll entitled, “Economic Concerns Fueled by Many Woes: Gas Prices, Jobs, Housing, Debt Burden and the Stock Market.”
Far from stating that the middle class feels confident, Pew’s research clearly shows the opposite:

The public continues to be wary in its assessments of the health of the U.S. economy, despite recent improvement in some key economic indicators. Only about one-in-three Americans think the national economy is in good shape, and optimism about the future is markedly lower than it has been over the past three years. Closer to home, the percentage of the public rating its own financial situation positively has declined since the beginning of the year from 51 percent to 44 percent [emphasis mine].1

When asked what is the biggest problem facing them today, Americans by a double-digit margin say “not having enough money,” “paying bills” or “making ends meet.” The high cost of health insurance comes in second.
The Pew poll does show that Americans-particularly those who own stock-are somewhat more optimistic in assessing their financial situation for the immediate future (51 percent report that their financial situation will improve some in the next year and 10 percent saying it will improve a lot). But when less than half of Americans rate their current financial situation positively, including a mere seven percent of Americans who rate their own personal financial situation as “excellent”, attempts to talk up the economy will likely fall flat.
Geography also matters in terms of what is happening to the American middle class. Recent data from Democracy Corps shows that citizens in hard-hit rural areas are deeply concerned about their economic status. Sixty percent of white rural voters in the July 2006 Democracy Corps poll agree that, “The economy is not doing well. Jobs are scarce, incomes stagnant, and benefits are being cut back.” Only 38 percent of rural whites agree with the countervailing sentiment that the economy is doing well.2
By a nine-point margin, white rural voters say they are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who states that “parents are working harder to keep up with the cost of living, taking them away from home and family”-an explicit acknowledgement of pressures facing the middle class-over a Republican candidate who focuses on lower taxes and traditional moral and religious values.3
Additionally, although middle-class voters may not be drowning in their economic sorrows as the authors suggest, there is compelling evidence that many voters are drowning in debt and facing real financial challenges in years to come.
Polling conducted by Anna Greenberg and Bill McInturff for the Center for American Progress and the Center for Responsible Lending shows that eight in 10 Americans (from across the ideological spectrum) believe that the problem of household debt is getting worse. One third of Americans report that their own debt has gone up over the last five years with another 36 percent saying it has stayed the same. Less than three in 10 say their personal debt has gone down.4
In more colorful terms, Americans report they are more worried about falling deep into debt than they are about being the victim of a violent attack or losing their home in a natural disaster.5
More importantly, by a 79 to 19 percent margin, the public believes the problem of rising household debt is an obstacle to middle-class families and not just an issue affecting low-income citizens.6 While personal spending decisions factor into rising debt, people are more likely to attribute their own rising debt load to external factors like the cost of living, the overall economy, and rising health care costs. The middle class squeeze that Elizabeth talks about is real. Americans in our poll acknowledge that rising costs on fundamental needs are driving them into unmanageable debt.
This does not sound like an American public content with either the overall economy or its own economic standing.
When one third of Americans report that they hold more than $10,000 of non-mortgage debt, and only 51 percent report that they are able to pay off their credit card bills every month, it is difficult to argue that people are “richer, more optimistic, and more firmly in control of their lives than they think,” as the Third Way authors claim.
These are not abstract facts and figures. These are actual sentiments of voters that progressives and Democrats are trying to reach. Rather than dismiss genuine economic anxiety as pessimistic, we must do more to show voters that we understand what they are facing in their daily lives-not through depressing stats and rants but through strong advocacy of universal programs and protections that provide both security and a chance to get ahead.
As President Bush and his various Treasury secretaries know all too well, the real disconnect lies in trying to argue these things away through overly generous interpretations of the economy and the state of the middle class.
The system is rigged
The Third Way authors’ dismissal of “what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas analysis” seems flippant and devoid of empirical evidence. I understand and basically agree with their implication that Democrats cannot just ramp up the populism and expect to crack 48 percent nationally.
However, the point of Tom Frank’s best selling book is not to denigrate voters as stupid and overwhelmed by economic false consciousness, but to highlight the ways in which the Republican Party successfully turned a once radical state into a rabid right-wing environment. It is no red herring to argue that the modern GOP is a venal and extremist entity that exists solely to enrich its corporate benefactors through taxpayer-funded kickbacks, all the while touting “American values” like discrimination against immigrants and gays and opposition to life-enhancing stem cell research.
If Democrats are unwilling to call this farce for what it is, then they have no business calling themselves the party of the people.
The GOP did solidify power in Kansas and other states through cultural appeals that had far more emotional resonance than the party’s real agenda of slashing taxes for the wealthy and giving corporate America free reign to abuse workers and pollute the environment. Third Way itself has an entire culture project designed to mitigate these appeals.
You do not have to believe in a full-scale, conscious culture war scheme designed to trick the middle class to know that every successful political party needs a powerful enemy. As Frank rightly describes, Republicans have benefited greatly in electoral terms from their trumped-up image of elitist liberals subverting the virtuous middle class.
Anger and distrust of others is a strong motivator for people and the American middle class has numerous reasons to be angry at those in power today.
Survey evidence strongly supports the notion that middle-class voters are irate with a Republican party that caters hand-and-foot to business and the wealthy. A scant 35 percent of voters in a July 2006 Democracy Corps poll believe that the Republican Party “puts the public interest first” while two-thirds say the party is “more for big business than the average person.”7 These numbers have been consistent for years.
However, as this same poll shows, only 48 percent of Americans believe Democrats are able to stand up to big special interests.8 The party is not likely to get very far in its populism if it is perceived to be complicit and timid.
The problem lies with a Democratic Party establishment that is unwilling or unable to call it like it is in a larger sense. Not just Shrum-style bashing of oil and drug companies, but clearly explaining to Americans how the GOP-controlled system is rigged against the middle class on everything from taxation and social spending to corporate welfare and military service. Progressives believe that government should serve-not exploit-the common good and ensure the protection and prosperity of all people. Despising government itself, extremist conservatives believe that government should function as a quasi-corporatist state where middle-class taxpayers funnel funds to business interests and the wealthy.
The American public understands that Republicans exist to serve those at the top. In arguing that Democrats should avoid stating the obvious, the Third Way authors seek to take away a powerful motivator for middle-class voters who are excluded from the corporate elitism of today’s conservative politics.
Fortunately, there is homegrown push back against both forms of Republican extremism-radical economic libertarianism and social dogmatism. The people of Kansas and other states are angry and on to the GOP’s chicanery. Nine Republican candidates in Kansas have renounced their party label this cycle and are now running as Democrats, including candidates for attorney general and lieutenant governor. My friend and former colleague, Raj Goyle, recently moved back to his hometown of Wichita to take on a Republican stalwart in the state legislature who was the lone vote against the prohibition of marriage for children as young as 14 years old.
These are promising signs completely consistent with the themes outlined in Frank’s book and not just a political distraction as the Third Way authors claim. Democrats should be encouraged to fight this so-called populist battle rather than ignoring it and letting the other side get away with its corrupt and misguided behavior.
Vision and inspiration
The Third Way authors are correct to say that opportunity is an important part of the overall progressive and Democratic project. But, with all due respect, the likening of “a new era of middle-class opportunity” message to the grand visions of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy is too far-fetched to swallow. The presidents who gave us the Economic Bill of Rights, the Fair Deal and the New Frontier, respectively, provided a far bolder vision for America than merely helping middle-class kids get into college.
These progressive presidents argued strenuously for non-negotiable foundational rights to housing, old age protections, guaranteed wages, education, health care, and civil and voting rights. These accomplishments and unrealized goals are not something the Democratic Party should toss into the civic books because it has had a bad couple of election cycles. These ideas are precisely why many people are drawn to the Democratic Party.
As Ruy and I have highlighted in other work, the single biggest problem for Democrats is a double-digit identity gap that leaves voters with no clear impressions of the Democratic Party. Months away from the 2006 mid-terms, only 45 percent of voters believe that Democrats know what they stand for. Nearly 70 percent of voters say the same thing about Republicans.9
Although “a new era of middle-class opportunity” is seemingly innocuous, it is a philosophically mushy message that compounds perceptions of Democrats as feckless and risk averse.
Democrats would be wise to remember President Truman’s words from his 1949 radio address on Democratic Women’s Day:

The Democratic Party does not dodge issues or seek to gloss them over. We state them boldly. We propose concrete and practical action to solve them. Our program consists of measures which have come up from the grassroots-of ideas and proposals that have been discussed and hammered out among unions, in farm groups, in city councils, in county boards, and in State legislatures. Our program is as American as the soil we walk upon. It is a program unshakably founded on the principle that the power of government should be used to promote the general welfare. It is a program based upon the experience of the Democratic Party in using the power of government to establish actual conditions in which the people can achieve a better life for themselves and for their children. It is a program of what should be done and what our experience tells us can be done.

John Halpin is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on progressive theory, strategy and opinion analysis. His current research and writing is focused on developing and communicating a progressive public philosophy centered on the common good.

1Economic Concerns Fueled by Many Woes,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 1, 2005, p. 1.
2White Rural Survey, Frequency Questionnaire,” Democracy Corps, July, 2006, p. 9.
3Ibid, p. 20.
4All the data in this paragraph come from “Center for American Progress/Center for Responsible Lending/National Military Family Association/AARP Frequency Questionnaire,” Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, April, 2006.
5Ibid, pp. 1-2.
6Ibid, p. 5.
7Frequency Questionnaire,” Democracy Corps, July, 2006, p. 8.
8Ibid, p. 8.
9Ibid, pp. 7-8.

Will Katrina Relief Failure Affect the Election?

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was marked by an all-out PR offensive by the Bush Administration to hype its limp relief efforts in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The Bush blitz, which deployed First Lady Laura Bush bragging about the restoration of a few libraries, as well as a host of GOP spin doctors, was calculated to offset media coverage revealing the continuing mess on the Gulf and the weak federal response. It seems doubtful that the media campaign will have much of an effect. But the stakes are high, particularly if the issue affects the outcome of the November elections.
So far there are no polls asking respondents how the Katrina relief response will affect their votes in November’s congressional elections. But today’s WaPo features Chris Cillizza’s article “Parsing the Polls: Hurrican Katrina,” discussing how Bush’s approval ratings have been adversely impacted by public perceptions of the federal Katrina relief effort. The polls Cillizza mulls over, taken just before the Bush media blitz, are bad news for the Administration, and Democrats hope public disapproval will extend to the GOP-lead, do-nothing congress. Regarding the polls, Cillizza notes:

Consider the poll conducted Aug. 24-25 by Princeton Survey Research for Newsweek. Asked whether Bush had followed through on his promise to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, 32 percent of the 1,002 adults surveyed said he had, 51 percent said he had not…Independents clearly thought Bush had not kept his promise (26/60).
Those results were confirmed in a number of other surveys taken earlier this month. In a CBS News/New York Times poll, 41 percent of voters approved of “the way George W. Bush is responding to the needs of people affected by Hurricane Katrina,” while 51 percent disapproved. A CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation showed even more negative numbers: Just 34 percent of the sample approved of “the way George W. Bush has handled the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina,” while 64 percent disapproved.
There is little doubt that the latest numbers continue a trend that began in the spring of 2005 and accelerated in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when Bush’s disapproval numbers spiked to historic highs. For the most part, he has not recovered.

Cillizza quotes DSCC Chairman Senator Chuck Schumer’s contention that Bush’s inept Katrina response was a defining moment in the eyes of the public:

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. “It showed the man behind the screen.”

Clearly, Democrats have a lot to gain by reminding voters that Bush is the leader of his party, and by forcing GOP candidates to defend his ineptitude and indifference. Cillizza concludes:

While they may have passively disapproved of the chief executive prior to Katrina, they became ardent opponents following the disaster and the administration’s handling of it. And, remember that in midterm elections only the most passionate (or most angry) of voters tend to turn out — a factor that could lead to major Democratic gains this November.

Another question being pondered in southern states in particular is what affect hundreds of thousands of Katrina evacuees — 250 thousand in Texas and 40 thousand in Georgia alone — will have in their new congressional district elections and state-wide races. If a healthy majority of them are as angry as media interviews indicate, they may provide margins of Democratic victory in key state and local races.

Will Katrina Relief Failure Affect the Election?

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was marked by an all-out PR offensive by the Bush Administration to hype its limp relief efforts in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The Bush blitz, which deployed First Lady Laura Bush bragging about the restoration of a few libraries, as well as a host of GOP spin doctors, was calculated to offset media coverage revealing the continuing mess on the Gulf and the weak federal response. It seems doubtful that the media campaign will have much of an effect. But the stakes are high, particularly if the issue affects the outcome of the November elections.
So far there are no polls asking respondents how the Katrina relief response will affect their votes in November’s congressional elections. But today’s WaPo features Chris Cillizza’s article “Parsing the Polls: Hurrican Katrina,” discussing how Bush’s approval ratings have been adversely impacted by public perceptions of the federal Katrina relief effort. The polls Cillizza mulls over, taken just before the Bush media blitz, are bad news for the Administration, and Democrats hope public disapproval will extend to the GOP-lead, do-nothing congress. Regarding the polls, Cillizza notes:

Consider the poll conducted Aug. 24-25 by Princeton Survey Research for Newsweek. Asked whether Bush had followed through on his promise to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, 32 percent of the 1,002 adults surveyed said he had, 51 percent said he had not…Independents clearly thought Bush had not kept his promise (26/60).
Those results were confirmed in a number of other surveys taken earlier this month. In a CBS News/New York Times poll, 41 percent of voters approved of “the way George W. Bush is responding to the needs of people affected by Hurricane Katrina,” while 51 percent disapproved. A CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation showed even more negative numbers: Just 34 percent of the sample approved of “the way George W. Bush has handled the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina,” while 64 percent disapproved.
There is little doubt that the latest numbers continue a trend that began in the spring of 2005 and accelerated in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when Bush’s disapproval numbers spiked to historic highs. For the most part, he has not recovered.

Cillizza quotes DSCC Chairman Senator Chuck Schumer’s contention that Bush’s inept Katrina response was a defining moment in the eyes of the public:

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. “It showed the man behind the screen.”

Clearly, Democrats have a lot to gain by reminding voters that Bush is the leader of his party, and by forcing GOP candidates to defend his ineptitude and indifference. Cillizza concludes:

While they may have passively disapproved of the chief executive prior to Katrina, they became ardent opponents following the disaster and the administration’s handling of it. And, remember that in midterm elections only the most passionate (or most angry) of voters tend to turn out — a factor that could lead to major Democratic gains this November.

Another question being pondered in southern states in particular is what affect hundreds of thousands of Katrina evacuees — 250 thousand in Texas and 40 thousand in Georgia alone — will have in their new congressional district elections and state-wide races. If a healthy majority of them are as angry as media interviews indicate, they may provide margins of Democratic victory in key state and local races.

Message of Misery

By Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler
$23,700. That is the household income level at which a white person became more likely to vote for a Republican over a Democrat in congressional races in 2004. That’s $5,000 above the poverty line for a family of four, less than half the median income of the typical voting household of all races, and an emphatic repudiation of all things Democratic among the white middle class. Obtaining a sustainable Democratic majority in either house will be impossible unless there is a significant change in this economic tipping point.
To solve this problem, Democrats must first realize that they have a problem – no, actually a crisis – with the middle class. Democrats – the self-described party of the middle class – have not won the middle class vote in at least a decade. Among all voters with $30,000 to $75,000 in household income, Bush bested Kerry by six-points and congressional Republicans won by four-points. Democrats continued to win nine of ten black voters of all income levels, but Hispanic margins have decreased as their economic situation has improved. And as noted above, we got slaughtered among the white middle class.1
The second step is to admit that our deficit is as much due to economic disconnects as cultural and national security disconnects. That may be harder for Democrats to swallow. Many believe the middle class have been duped by a what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas scheme in which clever conservatives trick the beleaguered middle class to vote against their own economic interests through the use of irresistible cultural wedge issues and national security concerns.
Of course national security and culture matter, but in 2000, when national security was a b-list issue, both Gore and congressional Democrats lost the middle class. In 1996, before the culture wars were fully ignited, Clinton also lost the middle class to the combination of Dole and Perot, as did congressional Democrats.
At Third Way, we not only believe the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas analysis is wrong, but that it represents a dangerous red herring for Democrats. In a report we co-authored called The Politics of Opportunity, we isolated five areas of disconnect between how Democrats talk about the middle class and view the economy and how the middle class view their own economic situation and that of America.
Disconnect one is optimism versus pessimism. Whether it’s the “people versus the powerful” Al Gore’s convention speech or John Kerry’s “Benedict Arnold companies” where American workers see their factories “unbolted, crated up, and shipped thousands of miles away,” the Democratic economic message is pervasively pessimistic. Democrats see the American Dream fading, the middle class being squeezed, jobs disappearing, schools crumbling, and wages stagnating.
That is not the way middle-class Americans view their own lives. Days after 9/11, 80% of Americans expressed optimism about the year ahead.2 Two months after gas hit $3 per gallon, 73% said they were optimistic about their family’s finances.3 In 2004, 78% said they were doing “fairly well” financially.4 And only 22% believe they will not “earn enough money in the future to lead the kind of life [they] want.”5
Voters may feel that the economy is heading in the wrong direction at a particular point in time, but they consistently view their own outlook as better (think of voters who hate Congress, but like their own representative). And they are turned off by a message of gloom and doom.
Disconnect two is economic decline versus economic strength. Democrats have become the “falling behind” party. America is falling behind China and India in innovation. Our kids are falling behind in math and science. Our middle class is shrinking. And by the year 2062 our GDP will be half the size of Burma’s.
Fortunately for America, and unfortunately for Burma, this does not reflect economic reality. Most economists who advise investors seeking to earn money (rather than those who advise politicians seeking to win votes) are confident in America’s future. Most see America winning the competition against India and China, just as we did over Japan in the 1980s and Germany in the 1970s. They know that our economy boasts strengths unmatched by other nations, including flexibility, resiliency, strong capital markets, financial and political transparency, legal protections for intellectual property and an unparalleled university system.
It is true that our national prosperity is threatened by the Bush policies of high debt, tax giveaways to the most affluent, a theocratic faith that corporate America will solve our health care and energy crises, and the growing income inequality found in our country. Yet even with six years of wrong choices behind us, the bursting of the tech bubble, the attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and sky-high oil prices – America’s vital economic signs are fundamentally robust.
Disconnect three is economic security versus individual opportunity. Democrats rarely talk about individual aspirations of greatness or success; they mostly talk about people’s economic status or about their economic fears.
As Americans have grown more affluent — and with a few blips along the way, American households have steadily grown more affluent over the past 60 years — they have come to care less about economic security and more about economic opportunity. In the past, individuals were far more likely to aspire to a job that offered modest pay but high security. Today they would rather choose a potentially higher paying but riskier job.
Economic security should be addressed, but equal time should be given to the yearning most Americans have to get ahead.
Disconnect four is ideas. Most signature Democratic ideas do not benefit middle class people; they benefit those who aspire to the middle class. The typical Pell Grant recipient earns less than $20,000. The minimum wage impacts less than 2% of working Americans. The earned income tax credit phases out to a pittance for families over $25,000. Head Start, food stamps, and WIC are for the poor, poorer, and poorest of society. The middle class believes in these programs, but they are wondering when someone will pay attention to them.
Part of the problem is that Democrats have been misled about the state of the middle class. Progressive economists typically peg median household income at about $45,000. But that includes households headed by 22-year olds (who are on their way up) and 76-year olds (who live on fixed incomes that may be small but are often comfortable since they have no dependents and limited work related expenses).
Among households headed by prime age Americans – adults between the ages of 26 and 59 – the median household income is about $63,000. For prime age married households the median income is over $70,000, and it is nearly $80,000 for two-earner prime age households.6 The point is that Democrats have a view of the middle class that is at one place on the income spectrum, when the reality is in a very different place.
We do not argue for Democrats to abandon programs to help poor people climb into the middle class or to play them down. We simply argue that Democrats must have a comparable set of signature ideas that benefit the middle class.
Disconnect five is an unconvincing economic critique of conservatives. Folks, if bashing rich people, the oil industry, and the drug companies were an effective political strategy, jets would be landing at Michael Dukakis National Airport in Washington.
An effective economic critique should tell a story. The conservative story about Democrats is that they believe the government does a better job of spending your money than you do. Every conservative economic argument against the left derives from this statement. Democrats need a story of their own.
That brings us to repairing these five disconnects. Democrats cannot connect with the middle class until they understand that they are richer, more optimistic, and more firmly in control of their lives than they think. Democrats need to know that the typical middle-class family is likely to be married with children; many of the pressures they face come from trying to get ahead, not simply staying in place.
With that in mind, we suggest a very simple message aimed at the middle class and a related set of policies. Our positive message is that Democrats will build a new era of middle-class opportunity – a message that is optimistic, forward-looking, implicitly critical of the old regime, and aimed squarely at the group of voters who once formed the bedrock of the Democratic Party. This kind of message also reinforces the successful progressive tradition of optimists like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
We offer a series of signature Democratic initiatives designed to help middle-class Americans live a better and more prosperous life. They include a generous middle-class college tuition tax break, a new first-time homebuyer tax credit, tax cuts to help sandwich-generation families pay for the care of elderly parents, and a more generous tax break for families with preschool children. They are all designed to help the middle class attain their goals – like purchasing a home, paying for college, and maintaining economic freedom as parents age.
How do we pay for them? Well that gets to our critique: conservatives believe the wealthy are the engine of the economy; we believe the middle class is the engine of the economy. So we would roll back some of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to finance a generous set of middle-class tax breaks designed to create a new era of middle-class economic opportunity.
Now we have a story to tell – about them and about us. And here’s how it could sound in a 30-second spot.

That’s right, Buck Bickerson and Mitzi Chase each have a tax plan. The Bickerson plan would help wealthy parents send their kids to Europe in the summer. The Chase plan would help middle-class parents send their kids to college in the fall.
It’s your choice. The Chase plan – better for America, better for Springfield, and better for you.

For Democrats, the road to a lasting majority runs through the heart of the middle class. This is something that Bill Clinton understood and he, above all others, fared best with middle-class voters. By making a college tuition tax break one of the six pieces of their New Direction campaign, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are talking directly to the needs of the middle class.
A commitment to a new era of middle-class opportunity would not only help the self-described party of the middle class win a sustainable majority, it has the added benefit of making America a better and stronger nation. After all, the engine that drives our economy is truly the middle class.

1All election statistics rely upon exit polls from 1996, 2000, and 2004, which were obtained from the Roper Center at University of Connecticut.
2Gallup Poll, “Terrorism Reaction Poll,” September 21-22, 2001, 1,008 respondents.
3ABC News/Washington Post, “Outlook for 2006 is Positive, but Wide Partisan Gap Remains,” December 31, 2005.
4Roper Poll, “Americans Talk About Personal Finances,” May 2004, 1,014 respondents.
5Pew Research Center for People and the Press, “Economic Concerns Fueled by Many Woes,” May 11-15, 2005, 1,502 respondents.
6Current Population Survey, March Supplement, 2005.

Anne Kim is the Director of the Middle Class Project at Third Way, Adam Solomon is the Chairman of StoneWater Capital LLC and a Third Way Trustee, and Jim Kessler is the Vice President for Policy at Third Way.

Remembering the Disaster After the Disaster

You have to figure George W. Bush would have preferred to be anywhere else (with the exception of Iraq) today other than in New Orleans. But on the first anniversary of the virtual destruction of a city beloved by the whole world, had Bush been anywhere else, it would have reminded that whole world of his administration’s absence when the levees broke.Now his marginally repentant words in New Orleans will simply be fodder for news reports that not only bring back the horrific images of 2005, but explain to a forgetful nation how bad things still are in the Crescent City. Here’s CNN’s wrap-up on that topic:

Only half of New Orleans has electricity. Half its hospitals are closed. Violent crime is up. Less than half the population has returned. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers and mobile homes with no real timetable for moving to more permanent housing. Insurance settlements are mired in red tape. The city still has no master rebuilding plan. And while much debris has been cleared, some remains as if the clock stopped when the storm struck.

For more detailed reports on the disaster after the disaster–and the culpability of the administration for failing after its initial failures–you should check out the special section at TPMCafe.com called “After the Levees.” It will likely make you, as it did me, angry all over again.

Dems House Prospects Brighten Nine Weeks Out

Chris Bowers debuts the “MyDD House Forecast 2006,” likely to be an obligatory stop for political pundits and strategists during the next two months. Bowers evaluates 60 of the most competitive House races in terms of the most recent polls, partisan voting trends, campaign cash, 2004 district election results and DCCC ad buys. He provides mini-commentaries on the campaigns in each district and offers his first projection, which should brigthen Democratic spirits:

I currently project Democrats to take 15-25 seats, which would give them a narrow majority of between 218-228 seats.

Bowers worries that he may be a smidge optimistic about a few races, but his projections are credibly calibrated by the up-to-date evidence he cites. Nobody works harder at mining and assaying political data than Bowers, and this should prove to be a vital resource for politicos looking toward November. His PDF data is tiny, even on a 19 inch screen, but is more readable in print.