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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Democrats’ Broad Challenge: Middle-Class Appeal - As the party debates its path forward, its pitch to the political sweet spot is losing resonance

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Democrats have entered a summer of discontent, in which their disdain for President Donald Trump is matched by their frustration at an inability, so far at least, to notch an election victory that would show they can translate anti-Trump sentiment into success at the ballot box.

They are troubled most immediately by their failure to capture a seemingly winnable vacant House seat in suburban Atlanta last week. That has precipitated a round of backbiting and second-guessing, and a debate about whether the party’s success lies in staking out the political center, to claim the votes of independent and moderate Republicans put off by the coarseness and unpredictability of Mr. Trump, or in moving left to capture and spread the passion of those who want a clean and sharp break from the status quo.

Democrats might want to pause, though, to consider a broader problem: Why has their hold on the middle class loosened?

This is the trend that made the Trump phenomenon possible, and that Mr. Trump in turn appears to have exacerbated. The scope of Democrats’ problem is visible in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Less visible is what the party can do to reverse it.

For more than a quarter of a century, the Journal/NBC News poll has been asking Americans which party—the Democrats or the Republicans—would do a better job of looking out for the middle class. In 1990, the Democratic advantage was enormous: By a whopping 29-point margin, 47% to 18%, Americans said the Democrats would do the better job for the middle class.

By 2011, the Democratic margin had shrunk to 20 points. Now, in the latest survey completed last week, the Democratic advantage has shrunk to 13 points, the smallest gap ever.

This isn’t an incidental data point. In American politics, the middle class occupies hallowed ground that parties yearn to control. Americans with lower incomes want to become part of the middle class, and thus are drawn to the party that can pave the way there. Those already in the middle class want to be assured they won’t slip backward and out of it. And at least some of those who have risen above the middle class are grateful to whichever party and policies gave them the chance to do so.

So just about every economic policy from both parties is pitched as a magic elixir for the middle class. The question for Democrats is why their pitch doesn’t have the same resonance as before.

Part of the answer may lie in the party’s priorities. Democrats’ signature domestic achievement in recent years, the Affordable Care Act, was designed in large measure—and admirably so—to extend health coverage to Americans who couldn’t otherwise afford it. But while providing health security to many low- and middle-income people, it also produced a fair amount of health insecurity to others in the middle class, through higher insurance premiums and shrinking coverage options.

Similarly, Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage speak more loudly to low-income Americans than to the middle class.

By contrast, middle-class worries trend more toward finding a way to buy a home and paying for college costs. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says that’s a reason one of the most politically successful initiatives he has pursued has been a program to provide tuition-free community-college educations to city high-school graduates.

Increasingly, middle-class voters also worry about job security. That’s where Mr. Trump has sapped away some of Democrats’ middle-class appeal, particularly with his tough trade rhetoric.

“Especially in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, there is a real belief the country hasn’t stood by them,” says Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, an activist group that has absorbed much of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. “In Iowa, somebody said to me, ‘We like to make things and grow things.’ Well, good luck making things today.”

Part of the issue is cultural. As the Democratic Party has become more centered in urban areas and along the coasts, it has cemented its connection to younger and more highly educated Americans but has lost its appeal to some middle-class and would-be middle-class voters.

Hints of all these effects lie within the Journal/NBC News poll. Belief that Democrats are the champions of the middle class is notably low in the Midwest (33%), among rural voters (31%) and among white men with less than college educations (25%). Taken together, those voters make up the core Trump constituency.

The problem as well as the potential for Democrats can be found in another set of numbers. Just 20% of self-identified political independents say Democrats do a better job at looking out for the middle class. But belief in the Republicans is almost identically low. Perhaps the Democrats’ challenge is less to move left or right than to craft a message that appeals to them.

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