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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Message of Truth: Security and Opportunity Go Hand-in-Hand

By Jacob S. Hacker
Having just finished a book entitled The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement-And How You Can Fight Back, I would guess that Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler (hereafter “KSK”) will accuse me of peddling a “message of misery.” My defense is the same one offered by Elizabeth Warren and John Halpin: I think political candidates and leaders should offer a message of truth. And the truth is that, after a generation in which more and more economic risks have been shifted onto the shoulders of hardworking middle-class Americans, the middle class is perilously insecure and palpably in need of a real agenda for economic change.
KSK don’t really dispute this reality–though they do make the common mistake of underplaying the risks inherent in the dynamism of our economy. They write, for example, that the median income is “nearly $80,000 for two-earner prime age households”–which is indeed what the data show. But that data, like all of the economic statistics they cite, are directly at odds with their own emphasis on the dynamic experience and forward-looking expectations of the middle class. That’s because these data are based on simple cross-sectional analyses of family income at a single point in time. If we instead look at family incomes using over-time studies, what we find is that middle-class Americans today are increasingly riding the economic roller coaster once reserved for the working poor, their pre-tax incomes rising and falling fully three times more violently than did middle-class incomes in the early 1970s. To take just one simple statistic, over a ten year period, families on average can expect their income in their worst year to be less than a quarter of their income in their best year–a dramatic shift toward instability since the 1970s. That means that a family with $80,000 in its richest year will, on average, have less than $20,000 in its poorest. It is surely a mistake to forget that Americans aspire to climb the economic ladder, and often do climb it. But it is just as much of a mistake to forget that Americans also fear falling from the economic ladder, and often do fall from it. Indeed, behavioral economics suggests that aversion to loss is often a more potent predictor of attitudes and behavior than attraction to gain.
All that said, I am completely in agreement on KSK’s first two points: Democrats have a middle-class problem, and it’s not just due to any disadvantages they have on cultural or national security issues. Among white middle-class voters, Democrats have been getting creamed. At the same time, class stratification in voting–with lower-income voters siding with the Democrats, and higher-income voters siding with Republicans–is stronger than in the past, not weaker. And there’s some evidence that voters are more motivated by economic issues in their voting decisions than they were in the past, too. Whatever the exact reasons for the Democrats’ middle-class deficit, it’s not a reflection of a new electoral world in which class no longer matters and cultural and security issues always trump economic concerns. As Ruy Teixeira and I put it in a piece we’re writing for the American Prospect, Democrats are, quite simply, losing on home court.
It’s when KSK move to their prescriptions that I find myself unmoved. They present their ideas as a bold break with Democratic orthodoxy, but to my mind, their message and its policy recommendations are utterly conventional. I am tempted to say that if a message of middle-class opportunity based on a bevy of targeted tax cuts for tuition and the like were an effective strategy, John Kerry would currently be sitting in the White House.
In truth, criticizing the economic program of the Democrats is like criticizing the plot of Cats–there’s no there there. In typically incoherent fashion, the Party has oscillated between defense of existing programs, which are increasingly threadbare, and embrace of fiscal probity über ales, which, whatever its economic merits, is a losing political strategy. Sometimes we hear about inequality, a problem that, frankly, resonates deeply with few middle-class voters. Sometimes we hear about Wal-Mart and the minimum wage, which aren’t bad subjects for a larger conversation but hardly substitute for an economic program. Amid all the hand-wringing and strategizing about messages and narratives, the fundamental problem consistently gets missed: Democrats need to articulate an underlying economic philosophy that not only motivates and clarifies what they say, but drives what they do in office. You can’t build a frame without a foundation.
As a starting point for such a philosophy, KSK’s emphasis on opportunity is appealing. But standing alone, it simply cannot bear the weight that they put on it. Yes, Americans have a deep faith in opportunity, but they are also deeply fearful about losing their economic security. (When opportunity-loving Americans were asked in 2005 whether they were “more concerned with the opportunity to make money in the future, or the stability of knowing that your present sources of income are protected,” 62 percent favored stability and just 29 percent favored opportunity.) And the folks who are most worried about their economic security are precisely those who have climbed up the ladder, not those stuck at the bottom–the folks who have chips to lose, not those who are trying to break into the game. More important, to treat the ends of security and opportunity as somehow in conflict is to miss the boat entirely. Economic security is the foundation of economic opportunity, and the erosion of the middle-class security is the greatest barrier today between American families and the American Dream.
In short, Democrats need to speak to both the fears and the hopes of the middle class. And here I agree with KSK’s critique. When Democrats talk about security they tend to focus on the amelioration of financial disaster. But a much more positive way to talk about security is as a means for families to get ahead. Just as businesses and entrepreneurs are encouraged to invest in economic growth by basic protections against financial risk (like limited liability for corporations and bankruptcy protections), so adequate insurance encourages workers and families to invest in their future. The worker who fears being laid off at any moment may be more productive in the short run. But in the long run, insecure workers tend to underinvest in specialized training; they are more reluctant to change jobs; they try to minimize their sense of job commitment to protect themselves against psychological loss. Similarly, the family barely scraping by may work more hours; but in the long run, insecure families are not going to be able to make the investments in education and other keys to their future that they should. Security enhances opportunity, and one of the things that government does best–or at least once did best, with Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, and a whole host of other measures that created and secured the middle class–is provide basic financial security.
It is notable, on this score, that KSK do not use the word “government” once in their manifesto, except in detailing the Republican attack. But any successful economic agenda will have to articulate a positive role for government. I don’t mean by this that Democrats should talk about government in general, which is never a wise course, just as talking about the economy is never as effective as talking about actual people who experience its ups and downs. I mean that Democrats should talk about the concrete things that government can do to provide security and enhance opportunity. I have outlined my own preferred roster of concrete steps in my book. But the point is that Democrats have to think beyond the next election and begin to articulate the rationale for enduring policies that help Americans deal with the new economic insecurity while anchoring the positive identity of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
With this approach, the Democrats’ position will be simple: providing security to expand opportunity. The Republicans, in contrast, will be offering only more of the same–more risk, more attacks on existing sources of security, more promises that the free-market and tax cuts will magically right all ills. Given the choice, most Americans will embrace an “insurance and opportunity society” in which they have the security to reach for the future over an “ownership society” in which they are ever more at risk. And with the home court advantage back, the Democrats’ electoral prospects will brighten considerably, whatever the state of play on cultural and national security issues.

Jacob S. Hacker is Professor of Political Science at Yale and a Fellow at the New America Foundation. His most recent book is The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement-And How You Can Fight Back. His 2005 book with Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, is now available in paperback with a new afterword.

Time to Move beyond the Clinton Playbook:
Don’t Neglect Economic Security

By William A. Galston
I agree with much of this memo. The Democrats do have a big problem with middle-class Americans, starting (but not ending) with white voters. Optimism sells better than pessimism. America does have large underlying economic strengths on which to draw in coming decades. Many progressives do have a distorted idea of what the middle class is and what it wants. Many signature Democratic ideas focus on those aspiring to enter the middle class, not those already there and seeking to move forward.
That said, I have two problems with the approach the authors advocate. First, optimistic policies need to be based on a realistic analysis of where we now stand. In my judgment, the American economy is experiencing structural problems that will hold most Americans back if left unaddressed–problems that middle-class tax breaks, no matter how well targeted, leave untouched. Second, as the authors know very well, the structural changes are reducing most Americans’ economic security, generating legitimate concerns that an opportunity agenda by itself cannot alleviate.
Structural problems. For most of the past century, wages and productivity have moved in tandem. As has been widely reported, however, the large productivity gains of the past five years have not been translated into gains for most workers. Wages are at their lowest share of GDP on record, falling almost 5 percentage points from their pre-recession peak. Median hourly pay adjusted for inflation is down, and even higher education has not served as an antidote. Hourly pay fell by 3.5 percent for female college graduates, and by more than 7 percent for male college graduates. Total compensation has also fallen sharply. Not surprisingly, the real median income of households headed by working-age adults has fallen by more than 5 percent since 2000. Virtually all income gains have accrued to the top 10 percent of earners, and also to retirees drawing higher-than-average shares of their income from investments.
With only 38 percent of Americans reporting an increase in take-home pay after deductions, rising prices for the basics–gasoline, utilities, property taxes, education, and out-of-pocket health care—have hit them hard. Caught in the squeeze between falling incomes and rising prices, personal savings have disappeared, actually entering negative territory in 2005 for the first time since the Great Depression. (For households headed by young adults under 35, the dissavings rate was a remarkable minus 16 percent!) These developments have become so obtrusive that even President Bush’s new Treasury Secretary has been forced to acknowledge them.
While the administration’s economic policies have done nothing to halt these trends and in some respects have worsened them, it would be unfair to blame the President and his advisors for everything that is going wrong. Between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, for example, the percentage of Americans covered by employer-based health insurance declined sharply. After a modest improvement during Clinton’s second term, the decline resumed, bringing the 2005 figure down to a level last seen in 1996. The wage picture requires an even longer view. Between John Kennedy’s election and Richard Nixon’s resignation, median earning of full-time male workers, adjusted for inflation, rose by roughly 40 percent, from nearly $31 thousand to about $42 thousand (in 2005 dollars). Since then, with modest ups and downs, they haven’t budged. Median male earnings were no higher in 2005 than in 1973. By contrast, median female wages rose by only 25 percent between 1961 and 1973 but then rose an additional 32 percent during the next three decades.
But to put these figures in perspective, consider that a household headed by two median-wage full-time workers, one male, the other female would have earned $66,683 in 1973 but only 9 percent more–$73,244–in 2005, a rate of annual increase so small as to be imperceptible. Real median household income has increased much faster, of course, but only because so many more women are working full-time than was the case in the early 1970s. Since 1973, the share of household income commanded by each of the bottom four quintiles-that is, the bottom 80 percent of households-has fallen significantly. Only the top 20 percent have registered gains, and most of those gains have been clustered in the top 10 percent. The economic escalator of the immediate postwar decade has been replaced by something more like an economic treadmill, except for those at or near the very top.
What’s going on? Most economists now believe that globalization has shifted the balance of power between labor and capital. Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Fed and no wild-eyed radical, recently published an article in Foreign Affairs arguing that one of the dimensions of globalization–offshore outsourcing–will produce a “quantitative change . . . so large that it brings about qualitative changes.” He warns that “We have barely seen the tip of the offshoring iceberg, the eventual dimensions of which may be staggering.”1
One of the consequences of this structural change is a shift of risk from the private sector to individuals. Unemployment now lasts much longer than it used to, and of workers displaced from full-time jobs since 2001, those who have found new full-time jobs have ended up earning, on average, 17 percent less than they did before. Not surprisingly, the probability that a family will experience an income drop of 20% or more has risen sharply in recent years. Since the end of the post-war boom in the early 1970s, in fact, income instability has increased much more rapidly than has income inequality.2 While fears of outright job loss have ebbed, after more than three years of statistical recovery from post-9/11 lows, 64 percent of Americans–including 56 percent of college graduates–continue to report that it is hard to find a good job where they live. Fifty-two percent of Americans rate their personal financial situation as only fair or poor, a figure that hasn’t budged since early 2002.3
Security. It would be strange if the increased risks of the globalized economy had not heightened anxiety and insecurity. In fact, they have. According to a Pew Research Center report issued at the end of August 2006, 62 percent of American workers say that workers enjoy less job security than they did 20 or 30 years ago. The decline of employee benefits such as health insurance and guaranteed pensions appears to be at the heart of their concerns.4
The authors of this memo are not unaware of these trends, as they acknowledge elsewhere. Let me quote from a longer report to which they refer:

Much of the social contract that served American workers so well during the 20th century is slowly eroding. Since World War II, employers have been the principal providers of health care, guaranteed lifetime pensions, and stable long-term employment for the middle class. But this is changing as health care costs steadily rise, life expectancies increase, and deregulation, technological change, globalization, and fierce international competition have led companies to boost productivity and rein in compensation costs. Today, fewer companies provide health insurance, many ask employees to pay a greater share for coverage, traditional pensions are becoming extinct, and long term, lifetime employment with a single employer is now an anomaly. This has led to a tectonic shift in risk from employer to employee that must be the center of new public policies that modernize the social contract.5

This paragraph is a clear, accurate summary of an argument many of us have been making for some time. If you add to it the mounting fiscal pressures on public sector programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, you see overall trends that are not likely to fulfill long-standing American expectations about their economic and social arrangements. This eroding social contract is not a side show; it is the central development shaping the opportunity of Americans to get ahead during their working lives and to enjoy a decent, reasonably stable retirement. Otherwise put: the effective pursuit of opportunity rests on a foundation of security.
The bottom line. While I agree with the authors that Democrats’ economic program must reflect optimism and offer opportunity, I believe that it would be a serious mistake–for reasons of both policy and politics–not to take economic security concerns seriously. Let me go further. I believe that the economy and Americans’ perception of it have changed since the 1990s in ways that require corresponding changes in our economic agenda and in the ways we talk about it. An understandable nostalgia for the Clinton years must not fool us into believing that we can succeed just by dusting off and updating Putting People First. Selective benefits for the middle class are at best a small piece of the answer. We must be prepared to take on the larger structural challenges that have emerged since the end of the Clinton administration.
We can argue about the best way of doing this. I am open to the possibility that framing insecurity as a threat to economic opportunity may offer the best rhetorical roadmap. (Someone should test this hypothesis against its competitors.) My core point is substantive, not rhetorical: In the circumstances we now face, the real “politics of opportunity” must begin by taking security seriously. A narrative with a new social contract at its core will prove far more compelling than will a list of targeted benefits. And if a new focus on 21st century security as the basis for a rebirth of opportunity helps unify the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, so much the better.

William Galston is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of The Democratic Strategist.

*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are drawn from U.S. Census Bureau reports.

1Alan S. Blinder, “Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution?” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.
2For the analysis on which this paragraph is based, see Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford, 2006).
3Pew Research Center, “Economy Now Seen Through Partisan Prism,” Washington, DC, January 24, 2006.
4Pew Research Center, “Public Says American Work Life Is Worsening, But Most Workers Remain Satisfied with Their Jobs,” Washington, DC, August 30, 2006.
5Anne Kim and Jim Kessler, “The Politics of Opportunity: The Case for a New Middle Class Economic Message,” Washington, DC: Third Way, May 4 2006, p. 15.

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.

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.

Sorting Out A Few Straw Men

By Ed Kilgore
Batting cleanup here, I’d like to note there’s something of a “myth” underlying the “redistricting myth.” It’s that most of the discussion of redistricting reform (a) stipulates redistricting as the primary cause of the decline in competitive legislative contests, and (b) is motivated by the desire to explain away Republican control of the U.S. House, and excuse Democratic timidity in challenging it.
Not being a political scientist, I’m not that familiar with the academic literature on redistricting. But most of us who have promoted redistricting reform as a worthy priority for Democrats don’t deny that factors like ideological realignment, incumbent power, and money have contributed to the decline in competitive districts, and would agree with Krasno and Abramowitz that Democrats have to make their own luck regardless of the districting landscape. In other words, the “myth” Krasno attacks is something of a straw man.
I have read some of Alan Abramowitz’s work on this subject, and have to say that his sole focus on turnover trends in the first election after decennial redistricting makes his argument less convincing than would otherwise be the case; it ignores both extended redistricting incidents and less immediate effects on incumbents (e.g., the wave of endangered Democrats who retired in 1994). I’d also be interested in learning if there’s any significant research on state legislative redistricting, where the technological ability to gerrymander districts is reinforced by the blatant conflict of interest involved in self-mapping. The complete elimination of competitive state legislative races in Florida and California since the last redistricting is pretty hard to blame on any other factor.
More importantly, Thomas Schaller is spot-on in arguing that even if redistricting is not a major cause of uncompetitive districts, it could represent a major solution. Entrenched incumbents can be exposed to greater competition; parties can be encouraged to recruit more salable candidates; the battleground can be expanded simply by reducing the safe behind-the-lines areas.
It’s a separate question, of course, as to whether large-D Democratic interests as well as small-d democratic values would be advanced through a systemic effort to increase competition in any one state or nationally. I would hope there is some residual sentiment that the two ought to coincide.
But I hope discussions like this one do not succeed in squelching the debate over redistricting reform. The next decennial round of map-making is now just ahead, and the U.S. Supreme Court has now ensured that mid-decade re-redistricting will likely become a familiar part of the political landscape. So we Democrats need to make up our minds how we feel about redistricting as a positive strategic exercise-not as an excuse for past defeats. Lord knows Republicans will continue to use redistricting as a partisan tool as ruthlessly as they have in this decade.
In any event, it would be helpful to disentangle redistricting from the very different issue of national targeting of congressional districts. I don’t doubt the DCCC has been too pessimistic in targeting in the recent past. But let’s not forget objective reality as a factor. To read some bloggers, you’d think the reason we are having a debate over targeting 70 or 100 or 200 enemy districts is simply because energized activists have the courage to take the fight to the opponent, and the DC establishment is reluctantly going along. Actually, the expanded battlefield represents little more than the political consequences of Republican misgovernment, making relatively safe GOP seats vulnerable. There are always limits to what activists, party committees, candidates or strategists can accomplish. The relative ability of Democrats to produce results in the real world of governing will have more to do with our future success than all the other factors combined.

OK, But Dems Could Benefit from Strategic Redistricting

By Thomas F. Schaller
Although I have great confidence in the empirical findings of Jon Krasno and Alan Abramowitz regarding the impact of gerrymandering on U.S. House competitiveness, their conclusions do not preclude Democrats from trying to win as many governorships and state legislative seats between now and 2010 in order to exercise maximum possible influence during the next round of redistricting. At that point, in many states a real opportunity for Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members will present itself: Will they gamble a bit of electoral security in exchange for a promise of greater party or committee power if and when Democrats recapture the House majority?
Regardless of their race or the racial composition of their districts, far too many Democrats in the U.S. House are representing too-safe districts, a reality which prevents the party from maximizing its House seat share. The “unholy alliance” forged between Republicans and minority Democrats led to the election of more CBC and CHC members to Congress, but also more Republicans. As well, many white Democrats enjoy unusual electoral security. A new alliance between white and minority Democrats must be forged, with the goal of redrawing the 2012 maps to enable Democrats to recapture-or, if already recaptured, retain-a House majority.
To understand the extent of the problem, look at the figure below, which depicts the Partisan Voting Index of all 435 House districts, as published by the Cook Political Report. PVI measures the congressional district performance of presidential candidates during the past two presidential cycles: Positive numbers indicate districts Bush carried in 2000 and 2004, and vice versa for the Kerry/Gore districts. For visual clarity, the Democratic districts were signed positively and then all 435 districts were arrayed, left to right, from the most Democratic district (Jose Serrano’s NY16 = -43.4 percent margin for Kerry) to the most Republican (Chris Cannon’s UT3 = +26.2 margin for Bush).
Notice that, including Serrano’s, there were 31 districts with higher Democratic PVIs than Bush’s 26.2 margin in Cannon’s Utah district. This is troubling. Indeed, Democratic voters are distributed so inefficiently than the 199 Democratic-leaning districts on the left side comprise a greater total area than the 236 Republican districts on the right side. Given that Bush’s combined popular vote from 2000 and 2004 exceeds that of Gore and Kerry combined, what explains the apparent paradox of the right side containing less area than the left? The answer is simple: The bars in the figure are percentages, not absolute vote margins, and only if turnout were identical in every district would the Republican side necessarily be larger.1
Turnout is far from identical, however. Consider the accompanying table, which reports the 2004 turnouts from 20 districts: a set of 10 Democratic districts and another 10 Republican districts with almost the same, opposite-signed PVI scores. The average turnout in the 10 Republican districts was 253,837, compared to just 214,121 in the 10 Democratic districts-about 40,000 fewer votes, or 16 percent lower turnout. These differences cannot be explained by the 2004 presidential contest, because the only swing-state district among the 20 is Democrat Gwendolyn Moore’s 5th District in Wisconsin which, not coincidentally, had the highest turnout of the 20. Despite Moore’s total, the 10 Republican-represented districts still had higher turnout. Notice that all but two of the 10 Democrats (New York’s Carolyn Maloney and California’s Howard Berman) are CBC or CHC members.
Because socioeconomic status affects turnout, the majority-minority districts represented by these mostly black and Hispanic members feature some of the lowest turnouts in the country. Can anyone blame their constituents for not showing up? If they live in a non-swing state with a safe Democratic incumbent running literally, if not virtually unopposed, why bother? Many racial minorities also reside in non-competitive state legislative districts. As my colleague Tyson King-Meadows and I report in our new book, Devolution and Black State Legislators, typically about 90 percent of black state legislators win with at least 60 percent of the vote, with 60 percent winning with at least 90 percent! When and where possible Democrats should try to produce a more competitive set of maps in 2012 which, though still ensuring the election or re-election of minority Democrats, also induce higher turnout among Democratic base voters. To accomplish this, in any state where they exert power over the redistricting process Democrats should duplicate what might be called the Cummings-Wynn model from the 2000 round of redistricting in Maryland.
Prior to 2002, in a state that was overwhelming Democratic in both legislative chambers and had not elected a Republican governor since 1966, Maryland’s eight-member U.S. House delegation was split, four seats for each party. The Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, along with the Democratic Senate President and House Speaker created a new map to tip the state’s split delegation in favor of Democrats, six seats to two. How? African American voters from black Congressman Al Wynn’s Prince George’s-based 4th District were moved into Republican Connie Morella’s 8th District, and white suburban voters from Howard County were moved into black Congressman Elijah Cummings’ 7th District to free up extra Democrats for the 2nd District that Robert Ehrlich had vacated to run for governor. Capturing both seats required Cummings and Wynn to run in slightly less favorable and familiar districts. Yet Cummings and Wynn still won re-election easily.
The lesson of the Cummings-Wynn approach is simple: CBC and CHC Democrats have the surplus voters the party can redistribute elsewhere to create a larger set of competitive districts. This is an asset CBC and CHC members should neither horde nor bargain away. If Nancy Pelosi wants to be the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, she should broker a deal with black and Hispanic members of her caucus in which they agree to assume a bit more electoral risk in exchange for two promises: (1) that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will rally behind any black or Hispanic incumbent who faces a serious primary or general election challenge; and (2) that the CBC and CHC will be granted greater leadership or committee roles if the bargain helps produce a new Democratic majority. (Democrats should do the same with state legislative maps, because the identical problem of over-packed majority-minority districts also exists in many states.)
In previous decades, African-American and Hispanic elites could hardly be blamed for doing what was necessary to break through the electoral glass ceiling. But the 2010 redistricting will be the fifth since the Supreme Court ruled malapportionment unconstitutional in the 1960s. Black and Hispanic legislators today are political enterprisers with their own personal constituencies, well-earned reputations, legislative accomplishments, and fundraising abilities. In addition to these advantages, do they really need districts so overwhelmingly packed with Democrats that they either run unopposed or against token opposition? What black and Hispanic Democrats in Congress need is more power. To obtain it, they should collude white Democrats in an effort to apply the Cummings-Wynn model wherever possible.

1Theoretically, it is also possible because populations of districts change during the course of a decade following reapportionment, as well as the complicating matter of at-large districts in the seven states which have only one House seat. But these differences are small; the main contributing factor is lower average turnout in Democratic districts.

Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon & Schuster, October 2006).

Compete and Reach Everywhere

By Jerome Armstrong
Jonathan Krasno is right – the “lack of effort” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in too many congressional districts has got to end. The DCCC has failed to adapt their strategies to the organizing possibilities that have emerged this decade, and they continue to make expenditures that ignore the reality of the changing media landscape. So what should be done?
Krasno noted that in 1992 the “parties invested half of the money they spent in congressional elections in 84 districts,” but by 2004, the number of seats on which half the money was spent had dropped to just 11. At least, given the historical opportunity, the DCCC this cycle has done a good enough job of recruiting that it is targeting more top-tier races than just the amount needed to gain a mere majority in the House.
Yet, for too many contests, the DCCC just hasn’t provided any resources to the Democratic candidates making the challenge. The “why” of this question is something that’s taken up in the “Gravy Train” chapter of Crashing the Gate, the book I wrote with Markos Moulitsas, but what about the “how” of the matter? Let me offer an example that embraces the potential for engaging the millions of partisans that can be reached online and radically changes the political landscape to one in which we can compete everywhere.
Rather than ridiculing efforts made to compete everywhere, imagine if the DCCC leadership had embraced fielding a candidate in all 235 of the Republican congressional districts and then challenged the online netroots and grassroots activists to match their efforts. So, for example, the DCCC would pledge – barring some unusual circumstance – an amount (say $20,000) to every single Democratic congressional nominee challenging a Republican, and that contribution would be contingent upon the challenger/activists matching it with small contributions from 200 individuals from within the congressional district. So, for that investment of about $5 million, the DCCC would have gained about fifty thousand small-dollar donors in every part of the nation. But more than just challenging every Republican, every congressional district would have the beginnings of a progressive infrastructure, and every conservative stronghold would begin to be challenged by progressive ideas. I realize I’d get complaints for the amount of money being proposed, but for an organization that spent $10 million on broadcast television the last week of the 2004 campaign, only to badly lose five congressional districts in Texas, it’d be tough to take their hesitancy seriously.
Instead, we read that the DCCC has reserved time for about $30 million worth of campaign television advertising this fall in about two dozen congressional districts (and probably with a media strategy that continues to eschew cable in favor of broadcast, in a related failure to adapt to the changing media landscape).
Money always seems to be near the root of the resistance, and as Mark Schmitt pointed out in his response, there are consultants that make a lot of money while giving advice to keep the current system in place. It would be foolish to ignore the money, and an exhaustive study of how the Democratic organizations spend their money this cycle is needed—especially regarding media expenditures. Not only do we need to “compete everywhere”, but also we need a strategy to “reach everywhere”. At best, the reach of broadcast television is about 35 percent of the population now, and 2006 Democratic media strategists who deny the ability of niche media to reach the other 65 percent of potential voters do so at the cost of a Democratic majority.
“Competing everywhere” and “reaching everywhere” are not merely requests from the people that make up the Democratic Party—they are demands. A solution is already in place (ActBlue.com) to allow partisan activists to completely bypass the Democratic committees in favor of giving directly to competitive candidates everywhere who operate modern campaigns. As the prominent Democratic contributor Andy Rappaport conceded in Crashing the Gate, “We haven’t created a parallel leadership structure” within the Democratic Party– at least not yet:

For better or worse, there are still people in positions of leadership and visibility that are still either driven by or represent or are on the side of the consultants. Even though people are becoming a little bit more frustrated or a lot more frustrated, we haven’t yet constructed anything else in which they can believe—that’s our most important and medium-term challenge. It is to make this not just an intellectual discussion but really to have a parallel leadership structure.

More on the Redistricting Myth

By Alan I. Abramowitz
Jonathan Krasno’s analysis of redistricting and competition in House elections is right on the money. As Brad Alexander, Matt Gunning, and I recently argued in The Journal of Politics1, redistricting has been a minor factor in the decline of competition in House elections. There are fewer marginal House districts today than there were 20 or 30 years ago, but that’s mainly because of demographic change and ideological realignment within the electorate, not redistricting. The same trend can be seen at the state and county level even though the boundaries of states and counties have not changed. But there are more than enough marginal districts to produce a swing of at least 15 seats, which is all that Democrats need in 2006 to regain control of the House.
What is required to shift a substantial number of House seats, and what has been lacking in recent elections, is a combination of a strong national tide and quality challengers in districts with potentially vulnerable incumbents. Both of these conditions appear to be present in 2006. George Bush’s approval rating remains stuck below 40 percent. The Republican Congress is even less popular. As a result, Democrats have held a consistent lead of 10-12 points in the “generic vote” for Congress. And Democrats have recruited enough quality challengers to put a substantial number of Republican seats in play. In the most recent Cook Political Report, 14 GOP seats were classified as tossups and 21 were classified as leaning Republican. Not one Democratic seat was classified as a tossup and only 10 were classified as leaning Democratic. While the 2006 midterm election is unlikely to produce a shift of the magnitude of 1994, a Democratic gain of at least 15 seats is well within the realm of possibility.

1Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning, “Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections,” Journal of Politics, 68 (1), February 2006, 75-88.

The Benefits of Long-Term Thinking

By Mark Schmitt
I agree with almost everything in Jon’s piece, so I want to start my comments from Jon’s last point, which is that parties target races too narrowly, and work back from there.
Sixteen years ago, when I was new to Washington, I heard Newt Gingrich, who was then not yet his party’s leader in the House, decry a “culture of corruption” in Congress on a Sunday talk show. He identified six House Democrats who he thought exemplified this culture, all touched by scandals, mostly trivial.
I quickly wrote an article that appeared in Roll Call noting that all six of Gingrich’s poster-children had been left essentially unopposed in the previous few election cycles. That is, they either had no Republican opponent, or that opponent was woefully underfunded and got no help from the national Republican Party, and therefore the GOP bore plenty of responsibility for their continued presence in Congress. These members continued to hold their seats, I wrote, “because of the Republicans’ failure to build a party that reaches down to the grassroots level of politics,” which was true at the time.
I would hate to think that my advice helped Gingrich figure out that he needed to contest these seats, at least one of which his party now holds, and I’m sure it didn’t. He didn’t need me to tell him that he needed to build a party from the bottom up. My point was basically, “put up or shut up” about the culture of corruption. To his credit, Gingrich put up. He knew that a party had not just an electoral opportunity but a duty to fight what it saw as corruption first in the electoral arena, before turning to the Ethics Committee or the Courts.
So the situation is the same for Democrats today: Democrats bear almost no responsibility for the culture of corruption in Congress, but they nonetheless should be ashamed of one thing: leaving Bob Ney, John Doolittle, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter, and others largely unopposed. While most of these soon-to-be jailbirds had many hundreds of thousands or millions to spend on their reelections, their opponents, entirely ignored by the Democratic establishment, had nothing – averaging somewhere in the low five digits. The corrupt incumbents still would probably have won their heavily Republican districts (some gerrymandered, others just naturally partisan districts) but an adequately funded opponent might at least have called some attention to their misbehavior. And when the indictment comes, or the national tide arrives, there’s no better opponent to take advantage of the moment than one who has run before.
So I think that a party has not just a tactical reason, but a moral obligation to not whine about gerrymandered districts but to put up meaningful alternatives wherever possible. In “ordinary” elections, that may seem like a waste of money and energy, but it will pay off in years like this one. And to do otherwise is simply to choose not to be a national party, to have no presence in the lives of the many Democrats who live in red states.
Now, were I to make this argument to one of the professionals who, let’s say, runs one of the Democratic committees, I can imagine the answer: “Thanks for informing me of my ‘moral obligation,’ college boy! Look, I got one obligation and one only: to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House in January (or Harry Reid majority leader). You want me to waste money on some schmuck who’s running in a district drawn by Bob Ney for Bob Ney, where Bush got 55%? What if I put money in there, and then lose one of the ten districts where we have a real shot?”
I don’t think that viewpoint is represented in this forum, but it is a common attitude. But there are two assumptions embedded in it that need to be challenged: First, that resources are finite. I heard a leading Democrat complain the other day that all the money going to Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut could be put to better use on behalf of Democratic candidates Claire McCaskill in Missouri or Jim Webb in Virginia. And it’s hard to argue with that – if you assume there is a fixed pot of money from a fixed group of Democratic donors that must be allocated with care. But all evidence from the last few elections suggests that’s not the case. The number of donors to Democratic candidates tripled between 1998 and 2004. The two Democratic campaign committees outraised the Republicans in the last reporting cycle, an amazing achievement considering that Democrats possess none of the committee chairmanships or positions of power that can usually be used to leverage campaign donations. Excitement, sense of possibility, a sense of a real, meaningful national party with a message, and the presence of big issues – these are the things that are driving Democratic fundraising. And when candidates like Lamont, or Howard Dean before him, bring in new donors, those donors probably aren’t limited to that first $250. There’s no reason that the $250 Lamont donor can’t be persuaded to give another $250 to McCaskill or Webb later in the fall, and that donor is now on a list. Exciting candidates running against particularly vile Republicans, like Richard Morrison in his challenge to DeLay in 2004, can also generate new donors. But it’s hard for the Democratic establishment – accustomed to the 1990s, when the pool of Democratic donors was most definitely finite – to think in terms of possibilities rather than limits.
The second assumption is a linear analysis of the value of increasing spending. The parties tend to assume that targeting is essential because the more money they can put into a race, the more likely they are to win it. So a few top-tier races, such as New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid’s challenge to Rep. Heather Wilson, have millions of dollars poured into them, while scores of other Democratic candidates plod along with barely enough money to buy palm cards. The Democratic operative who insists that he needs to put more money into one of the handful of swing races assumes that the $300,000 that takes Madrid from $1.8 million to $2.1 million is worth at least as much as the $300,000 that takes a second-tier candidate from $250,000 to $550,000. But it’s not. And here Jon Krasno’s previous work is very relevant. He is the scholar who demonstrated that there are severely diminishing returns to additional spending on campaigns, even when both candidates are spending a lot. Another $300,000 to Madrid will make little difference to her chances of winning, whereas the same sum to a good but underfunded candidate running in a district that looks tough on paper might actually put the race in play.
(Incidentally, that’s why I favor campaign finance reform that focuses on public financing, rather than limits on spending or contributions. I’m more concerned with getting more candidates to the point of viability, so that they can effectively challenge a Ney or DeLay, than with chasing after the endless loopholes by which those in power raise more money.)
This is not unique to politics; in all areas of life, people have a tendency to misjudge the value of big investment for a high payoff vs. a smaller investment in a longer shot. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis told exactly the same story in terms of baseball – how the Oakland A’s realized that they could stay competitive by investing in a good number of under-appreciated players, while richer teams fell over each other to overpay a few established stars, many of whom didn’t work out anyway.
But there is also the factor that in politics, a lot of the key decision-makers have a personal investment in the system of targeting. The political consultants who get rich – those who get media commissions, those who do mail and to a lesser degree pollsters – don’t make their money off a handful of moderately funded campaigns. They make it off the big scores, the campaigns like Madrid-Wilson, or better, the self-funded millionaires. For the media consultant, there is no diminishing return to that extra $300,000 – it pays the same $45,000 commission either way.
So Jon’s argument goes well beyond, “Does redistricting matter?” There’s a whole system of incentives and assumptions that work together to narrow the field and protect incumbents, and the myth of gerrymandering tends to obscure those assumptions, and prevent them from being challenged.