Q&A: Democrats Must Deliver an Economic Message

AP Photo/Branden Camp

DNC Chair Tom Perez speaks during the general session of the DNC winter meeting in Atlanta. 

For years, Democratic pollsters Allan and Sheri Rivlin have been arguing that the reason their party has been losing power is that Democrats lack a clear, compelling economic message.

After last year’s populist revolt installed Donald Trump in the White House, the Rivlins found a fresh audience for their research. They’ve been meeting with Democrats around town to share a PowerPoint presentation that diagnoses the problem, and outlines a solution.

Democrats agree on a long list of policies, the two pollsters argue, but must boil these down to something catchy and concise that voters can understand. They want Democrats to set up a process to distill the various policies emerging from the party’s power centers, and formulate a single, simple economic message. As a starting point, they’ve spelled out several potential messages involving innovation, job creation, economic equity, community investment, and sustainable growth. The Rivlins met with the Prospect to discuss Democrats and economics. What follows is an edited transcript of Allan’s remarks.

The Prospect: What is the problem as you see it with the Democratic Party’s economic message?

Allan Rivlin: They have not been able to articulate a clear and compelling economic message for nearly a decade now. Most of the time they have been trailing Republicans on the generic measure: “Which party do you trust most to get the economy moving and create jobs?”

In the three elections we’ve lost out of the last four—2010, 2014, and 2016—we trailed the Republicans on that generic question.

After each of those elections, our self-criticism wasn’t that they didn’t get our message. It was that we didn’t have a message.

What have been the consequences of this messaging problem?

Democrats are very focused on the White House, and when we were in the White House we felt like there was nothing wrong—even though we were losing lots of seats in legislatures.

In 2016, we didn’t just lose the White House, we came up short in all of the battleground states for the White House. But we also didn’t achieve our goals in the Senate and House. Meanwhile, there’s been this hollowing out of the party at the state legislative level that has to be reversed.

Without going into a long deconstruction of the 2016 presidential race, what would you say was Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem when it comes to an economic message?

That she had a list of policies, but she didn’t have an overall explanation of what her diagnosis of the problem was, or what her solution was. This is what we call the Listerine test, after the eight-word slogan: “Listerine kills the germs that cause bad breath.”

It defines the problem, and gives a solution that sounds like it might work. It’s what advertising calls a “reason to believe.” Hillary didn’t have one. She had a goal statement: “An economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”

The very first question of the very first debate came from [moderator] Lester Holt, and it was: “Secretary Clinton, why are you the better choice than your opponent to create the kind of jobs that will put more money in the pockets of American workers?” And her answer listed 14 different policies, but with just a few grace notes to connect them. That was the moment at which I became convinced she wasn’t going to win.

That is not her problem—it is a party problem.

So if that is the problem that Democrats have had, what is the solution as you see it?

The PowerPoint that we’ve been sharing around Washington is trying to convince the powers-that-be that they need to create an office for this. That they need to put someone in charge of this—but there needs to be sustained attention, with somebody of stature leading the effort to make sure that we don’t get to the end of the 2018 election with the same self-criticism that we’ve had in three previous elections.

Right now, there’s five think tanks, each hiring their own messaging and research team to try and solve this.

What we’re trying to say is, we don’t need a ten-point plan, but a ten-word explanation of the logic behind the plan.

Have you made any attempts to take these [PowerPoint] slides and create a smaller overarching message out of them, to boil it down further?

What is needed is much more of a process. First, Democrats don’t realize they’re missing the Listerine statement. They just keep going back to the same thing. They say: “We have these economic policies that test popularly; if we just say the word ‘jobs’ enough, if we just say we’re for fairness, and say ‘middle class’ enough, people will get there’s an idea here.” We have managed the economy better than the Republicans, but we are trailing Republicans when it comes to public trust to manage the economy. When they say, “I’m gonna cut taxes, and cut those job-killing regulations,” people get it.

Talk a little more about that process. What exactly do you envision?

I think we need leadership from somebody who’s a real convener.

Somebody needs to convene a process where we say: Yes, all the attention is on opposing Trump right now, but if we spend the entire 2017 and 2018 letting him set the agenda, and us opposing it, were going to be in real trouble in 2018. Instead, we need to not just point out his weaknesses but also address our own weaknesses.

Do you envision a summit, a commission? Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Whether it’s at a think tank, a party committee, at one of the PACs, what I think we need is a permanent office doing this.

I think what we need is a high-level, continuous process of working with our party leader and elected officials at all levels, as well as our communications and research and constituent groups, to continually improve several messages at once, so that people have choices to make. So that by the time we get to election time, there are a lot of resources; so that messages are supported with the facts that are needed; so that they’ve been discussed on the ground with real voters.

What are the challenges? How do you anticipate bringing together what might be called the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders wing of the party with what might be considered the more establishment wing of the party?

There was a lot of discussion after the election that we missed white working-class voters, or we missed working-class voters. We didn’t have an economic message. Period. Full stop.

We already have consensus on our policies. If we develop better messaging, I don’t think that’s going to lead to roadblocks and divisions. I think it will lead to more people [who] can get behind one or several good messages.

Could you describe the impetus behind this? Where and when did it start?

This started with frustration that goes through the three campaigns that we lost. So in 2010, we felt that the core problem was a lack of an economic message. Coming out of 2014, we developed the understanding that Democrats’ economic message was “I will create jobs, here are three policies.” We also read everybody’s postmortems, and wrote a summary of those postmortems, and pretty much to a person, everybody said we lacked an economic message in 2014.

Our experience of 2016 was different than most people’s, because we were just focused on: Who’s ahead in the economic message? And we never believed Clinton was ahead of Trump. We were tracking a different number, and so we went through our Trump depression a year before everyone else did, and came out of Election Day ready to try to solve the problem yet again.

Do you perceive Democrats as divided, and if so, where are the dividing lines?

I do not see Democrats as divided, I really don’t. I think that there is a huge inside-versus-outside division in all of our politics right now, which was exploited to the detriment of Democratic and Republican officeholders in Washington, and that was the message of the 2016 election. Our institutions, including our elected leaders, have a real followership problem.

I think there’s a lot of unity on [Capitol] Hill, and I think opposition does that to you. So I don’t think Democrats are divided; I think they’re deluded. I think they spent all of 2016 thinking they were winning when they were losing, and I think 2017 has not shown a big realignment of that pattern. There is a widespread belief that the American public is going to reject Trump for some reason, as they didn’t in 2016. And I think Democrats are banking on that happening as their main strategy to get back. And I think that that is wishful thinking rather than analysis of where we are.

We haven’t got an answer to how our ideas on the economy are better than [Trump’s], and if we don’t, we’re not going to win.

How can they forge a positive agenda while also satisfying their constituents’ calls to resist Trump?

My emphasis right now is on developing the positive agenda, rather than necessarily taking it to the media right now. Right now, there are only two stories in the newspaper—Trump, and anti-Trump—and I don’t know that you can get another story going in the media. But I don’t think our anti-Trump message is based around setting up an economic contrast, other than [that] he’s got billionaires in his cabinet, and that’s running the same play that didn’t work in 2016. So our focus now is on figuring out what it is we want to say. Party chair [Tom] Perez says that our problem is organizing, and he wants a conversation on every doorstep, in every ZIP code, in 50 states. My emphasis is on: Well, let’s make sure that conversation is compelling and convincing.

This story has been updated. 

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