As we approach year-end, the most disconcerting result of the 2014 election season has been largely ignored: voters in four red states increased their minimum wage -- often by landslide margins -- while electing Republican senators whose party has opposed increasing the minimum wage.
Jonathan Gruber might assert that it speaks to the ignorance of the American voter.
More likely, it speaks to the utter incompetence of Democratic messaging.
Democrats blame their performance in 2014 on the low turnout in midterm elections, but a turnout equal to that of 2012 would have increased the number of Democratic Senate victories by ...one: Kay Hagen in North Carolina (maybe two if Alaska is included...maybe). But the Republicans would still have taken over the Senate. It still would have been their night.
Democratic messaging is getting some post-election attention, but not the right kind of attention. For messaging isn't just tweaking style. If the Dems are going to be successful, they need to reconsider their substance.
This is not to say that their style doesn't need improvement. How about letting voters know that the economy -- including both the stock market and unemployment -- always has done better under Democratic leadership -- whether measured from the Depression, the end of World War II, or yes, the Reagan Administration.
The same need for better presentation goes for the minimum wage, of course. And the failure to explain/defend deficit and infrastructure spending. (From the depth of the recessions each faced ---- government employment then increased by 225,000 under Reagan while dropping 600,000 under Obama. Have you heard this from a Democrat?)
And it's hardly limited to the economy.
ObamaCare was never going to be perfect. Obama didn't get everything he wanted in the Affordable Care Act. The 30 hour job threshold was bound to be awkward. He was dependent on the insurance industry when he said that everyone could keep their doctor. Where was: "It's a step forward, but there are things that will need to be fixed. We're open to fixing them."
Republicans love to argue that the number of people on food stamps has risen during the Obama Administration. Yet, in households with working age, able-bodied adults most are working! That's right, the federal government is subsidizing low-paying U.S. businesses. Is there a reason Democrats can't say this?
OK, if the Democrats would improve their messaging in these areas, they could improve the results...somewhat. But no one seems to be reconsidering how Democrats frame a number of core liberal issues.
Climate Change. In democracies, people seldom vote the future (despite all the rhetoric about voting for your kids and grandkids). They vote the present. If they are happy, they re-elect incumbents. If not, they throw the bums out. Climate change arguments are based on future "tipping points," which just isn't effective politically.
The Message: The notion that we're just going to fall off a cliff with little prior warning isn't credible, so the American people need evidence. Rising sea levels? Drought? Increasing forest fires? Fewer fishing jobs due to more acidic oceans? More intense storms? The case needs to be made.
And democrats need to recognize the costs on those who work in the fossil fuel industry -- like coal miners. Liberal messaging -- which appears to be indifference -- has moved both West Virginia -- which elected its first Republican senator in over 50 years -- and Kentucky into the Republican column.
Income Inequality. As we have seen, economic growth no longer leads automatically to income increases for average Americans The focus is completely on tax reform --which is necessary but unlikely to be the "answer."
The Message: Democrats need to discuss the underlying cause of increasing inequality: how some combination of technology/automation and globalization has undermined working and middle class incomes. (Some 6 million middle income manufacturing jobs lost since 2000.) What are the real policy implications? (And, we must recognize this reality: globalization includes immigration. Which does not mean shutting the door or exporting the undocumented any more than it means shutting off trade. But we do need to formulate policy with this understanding.)
And how about promoting infrastructure spending in this context as well.
College Tuitions/Student Loans. Thank you Elizabeth Warren for focusing on the anti-consumer aspects of the form of debt that has overtaken consumer credit cards. But focusing on student loans alone isn't sufficient.
The Message: College tuitions, are inflating fast -- perhaps faster than anything else in the economy. One key factor is that students need ever more support -- intellectually and emotionally. Society needs to confront this in a way that doesn't make the cost of college a burden for parents or students. And is this the only factor? Are profs teaching too few hours? Too many administrators? (At least Governor Jerry Brown is pushing to figure it out. The rest of the party needs to join him.)
Race. Liberals act as if today's racism is the same as that of the '50s. It's not. Then it was largely racial superiority. Today, it's mostly fear -- fear of young black men. Is this fair? No, this is why it's racism. But it is reality.
The Message Dems -- and African American leaders -- need to talk on both sides of this complex issue. We both need to understand that young black men are being profiled -- while at the same time understand why they are being profiled -- and do everything we can to change this.. (See, "Yes, We Code" as one small step.)
Democracy. Our system of government isn't recognizing the will of the people. In 2012, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 1.4 million votes in the House of Representatives -- or a bit more than 1 percent. Yet, the Democrats had 40 seats fewer -- or almost a 10 percent minority -- despite winning a majority of the vote. In this election, Republicans may have gotten 2 percent or so more votes. The result? 9 more seats than the Democrats? How about 65 seats more. (The Democrats also need to recognize that their desire for minority districts has led to packing so many minorities into one district, it makes others uncompetitive.)
In the Senate it's no different; the Senate is elected over 6 years and over the last three elections, Democratic votes exceed Republican -- yet, Republicans have an 8 seat majority.
The Message: Is this the representative government our Founding Fathers intended? Republicans frame Democratic policies as illegitimate constantly. The.illegitimacy of these Republican majorities gives the Democrats an opportunity to do the same.
Government Efficacy. Agency Inspector Generals don't seem to be interacting with government consumers -- the VA being the most obvious example. Consumer feedback that gets the attention of higher ups is essential.
The Message: Dems have to recognize the political side of this. Liberals are dependent on government working. Republicans have learned that if they undermine government efficacy, it doesn't hurt them. It hurts liberals. Democrats need to be highlighting the self-serving actions of the Republicans to impede government. Government success stories need to be highlighted. Stressing how campaign fundraising distorts our government wouldn't hurt either.
These are areas where Democrats are already making points -- they just aren't making them effectively. So, why can't the Democrats improve their messaging?
Self-Interest. Are Democrats reluctant to discuss economic realities because they need credit for a good economy no matter what?
Greater Self-Interest? Are Democrats in the House of Representatives reluctant to challenge gerrymandering because they're winners under the current system? Besides gerrymandering might not look so bad to Blue State Democrats.
Political correctness. No, we can't look at how immigration is affecting working class compensation. No, we can't look at whether racism has changed over the past 50 years. We have to get on renewable energy today -- no transition period with improved fuels! Is this political correctness driving moderates toward the Republicans?
Poor Timing. These issues need to be framed properly well before the election. As one example, ObamaCare should have been framed as a first step from the beginning. Trying to catch up In October, no matter how good your pollster, just isn't going to make it.
And what's even sadder also involves "substance" -- how few innovative programs the Democrats advocate. What about:
• A fund modeled after the Alaskan Permanent Fund to provide all Americans with "dividends" on taxes and public assets
• Reforming the Alternative Minimum Tax by graduating it and applying it to estates and corporations
• Incentivizing states to adopt independent election commissions with one goal: to maximize the number of competitive House/legislative seats
• Requiring unemployment recipients after a certain period to work part-time in exchange for benefits -- and giving them part-time jobs in the government/non-profit sector to accomplish this.
• Universal mentoring as part of the school day.
• Universal Trust Funds at birth (Forget Socialism -- Universal Capitalism!)
• Moving Election Day to a weekend or holiday -- and/or much more to mail.
To name just a few:
Democrats, In 2010, you were out-framed on Medicare. In 2014, on the minimum wage. If you don't get your act together, more states might raise the minimum wage -- and, who knows, legalize marijuana and marriage equality -- while still voting for ever bigger Republican majorities.