What can Democrats do to counter the bad economic news?

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Saturday, August 14, 2010; 12:00 AM

The Post asked political experts how the recent spate of bad economic news would affect the midterm elections, and what Democrats can do about it. Below, responses from Matthew Dowd, Douglas E. Schoen, Mike Lux, Newt Gingrich, Robert Shrum, Dan Schnur and Donna Brazile.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

With the 60-day sprint to Election Day fast approaching, perceptions of the economy are basically locked in. It is bad. And since Democrats hold all levers of power in Washington, they own this dismal situation. Democrats should say an early goodbye to some of their colleagues -- and begin praying that the economy recovers in 2011, or they may be seeing a one-term president. But to manage their campaign communications in this environment, they should:

Acknowledge and meet voters where they are, and not where candidates want them to be. Most voters, especially swing voters, are anxious, frustrated and don't trust the federal government. Democrats shouldn't try to convince voters that they are wrong. Be empathetic and don't attempt to put a positive spin on a bad situation. Once voters think you understand their feelings and situation, point to some hope on the horizon.

Don't deflect responsibility by blaming previous administrations for the economic mess. While it may be true in some regards that Democrats don't deserve all the blame, voters want to see accountability -- not excuses. Admit that you may not have always listened or that you have made some mistakes, but say that you're learning and doing all you can. Americans want authenticity first and foremost. They don't expect perfection from leaders.

Take advantage of Republican stumbles. Voters are not yet becoming Republicans; they are upset that no one in Washington seems to be listening to them. Remember, polls show that the only people voters dislike more than congressional Democrats are congressional Republicans.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The recent discouraging economic news is a watershed for the Obama administration -- at least as far as the midterms are concerned. It discredits one of the administration's few remaining positive arguments: that the administration ushered in an economic recovery that otherwise might not have occurred. In the absence of encouraging economic news, Democrats have one avenue left: to attack, and vigorously.

Polling last week shows compellingly that despite the Republican lead on the generic congressional vote -- which is close to five or six points, according to the Real Clear Politics averages -- Republicans remain are as unpopular as Democrats, if not more so. Further, George W. Bush still gets more blame than the Democrats do for the economic problems. Consequently, you can expect more of what the president has begun doing -- going negative. The only choice left for Democrats is to call Republicans the "party of no" and the party with no policy ideas; to brand them as extremists and out of the mainstream; and to blame Bush for America's problems. It's not a great strategy, and it is unlikely to succeed. But it is the only strategy left for an increasingly unpopular president and an increasingly unpopular Democratic Party.

MIKE LUX

Co-founder and chief executive of Progressive Strategies; co-founder of OpenLeft.com; special assistant to President Bill Clinton for public liaison from 1993 to 1995

Voters are in a foul mood for good reason: Over the past decade, there have been no net new jobs, virtually nothing in terms of wage gains, and prices for essentials -- groceries, energy, health care and college tuition -- have risen. Meanwhile, Wall Street bankers, insurance executives and oil tycoons make ungodly sums by doing catastrophic damage to the economy through speculation and market manipulation.

America is not going to recover quickly from the devastation that's been wrought, and middle-class folks are understandably angry. But Democrats can still win this year by being 100 percent clear whose side they are on: Throw the money-changers from the temple of our democracy, and take on the corporate lobbyists who are trying to buy Congress, buy elections and feed at the public trough.

We are not pro-government; we are for government independent from special interests and strong enough to take them on. We can cut waste and reduce the deficit by taking on government contractors who rip us off for hundreds of billions of dollars. We should push for breaking up banks that are too big to fail and re-structuring the financial system so money is being invested in job creation, not speculation. We should fight for investing in infrastructure and green jobs.

NEWT GINGRICH

Republican speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999

To win this fall, win the jobs issue. Job killers will be defeated. Job creators will be elected.

When the choice is clear, the outcome will be decisive.

Americans have little faith in politicians who claim "it could be worse." This is America; we want to know how "it will be better."

There are two things House candidates can do to show that they are serious about helping America's small businesses, that they will drive the most job creation.

First, pledge not to raise taxes. If President Obama and Congress follow through with their plan to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of this year, small businesses will face dramatically higher costs and have even less of an incentive to start hiring.

Second, embrace meaningful tax cuts that will encourage economic growth. The Economic Freedom Act introduced by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) would provide a temporary 50 percent reduction in payroll taxes and a 100 percent expensing provision for new-equipment purchases, and it will eliminate two taxes that hinder growth: the capital gains tax and the "death tax." If passed, this bill would immediately offer hope and optimism to small-business owners across the country.

ROBERT SHRUM

Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service

The strategy of "no" has worked for the GOP. Their adamant opposition forced President Obama to accept a stimulus that was too small in order to quickly and convincingly reverse the downturn he inherited. As new dangers -- conservative retrenchment in Europe, a slowdown in China -- shadow the economy, the administration has no hope of passing another stimulus package. It would be too late, anyway, to help Democrats this November.

So Democrats can go through the motions -- blame Bush, invoke poll-tested phrases such as "forward, not back" -- and get pummeled on Election Day. Or they can draw a sharp dividing line based on the differing characters of the two parties. Only the president can shift the terrain of this campaign -- and he can do it only with an ideological edge.

He has to reframe the issues with a single, recurring question: Who's on your side? Who stood for health insurance that can't be canceled when you get sick, and who stood with the insurance industry? Who fought for Wall Street reform, and who voted with the speculators? The best place to start is with the September battle over renewing the Bush tax cuts. Do we really want to borrow hundreds of billions for a giant tax cut for the very rich?

If Democrats have the courage to be Democrats, they will minimize their losses and open a path to progressive ascendancy as the economy revives over the next two years. President Ronald Reagan did something similar in the recession-racked midterms of 1982. He held to his beliefs and carried them to the country.

DAN SCHNUR

Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission; director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

For several months, the White House messaging strategy has been based largely on the premise that it's better to be a mile outside of hell heading out. But continuing bad economic news makes it difficult to sell even the possibility of progress to an increasingly restive electorate.

The president's strategists have undoubtedly noticed that even as voters become more despondent about the economy, the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll shows that the Republican advantage appears to be shrinking on the question of preferred party control of Congress. Less distracted by the gulf oil spill and perhaps energized by more combative language on immigration and financial reform, Democrats have cut the GOP margin among likely voters roughly in half. If Team Obama is going to avoid huge losses in November, they it must find other ways to shrink the enthusiasm gap.

Part of that answer is riling up their party faithful against the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress, a task that President Obama has visibly warmed to in recent weeks. On Friday, Obama he opened up a new front, criticizing Europe and blaming that continent's financial woes for our country's continuing difficulties. This note of economic nationalism is bound to appeal to organized labor and other traditional Democratic constituencies. But such language will also make it harder for the president to build support for new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Which, in turn, makes the prospects for economic recovery even more complicated.

DONNA BRAZILE

Author and political commentator; manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign

Where the economy is in August is no guarantee of where the economy will be in November. So this spate of bad economic news isn't as damning for Democrats as many naysayers would like to predict. Democrats have plenty of time to get the ball turned around and rolling in the right direction before voters head to the polls. It is less important where the economy is than where it's heading, so if Democrats can sow seeds of economic optimism over the next two months, they may reap rewards come November.

The challenge is walking the line of economic stimulus without crossing into the realm of excessive deficit spending that voters see as irresponsible or handouts. Small-business legislation is Democrats' best friend; they should make it easier to start a business or hire employees. Big business needs to do its part, too, and Democrats could help smooth the way by closing corporate loopholes that make it easier to outsource jobs. Also, Democrats should remind voters that the economic benefits of health-care reform will kick in soon, eliminating or reducing the cause of untold numbers of bankruptcies and foreclosures.


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