Democrats are terrible at touting their achievements when they are in power. That is largely because we are never satisfied. No matter how much we achieve we always know there is much more to be done. But our inability to focus on our achievements rather than our failings hurts us when it is time to ask the voters to reelect us. And make no mistake, in 2016 we were asking the voters to reelect a Democrat for a third term.
Here are some political truisms. You can’t improve people’s lives unless you are in power. You can’t be in power unless you win elections. If you are out of power you win elections by telling people how bad things are. If you are in power you tell people how good things are, how you’ve made their lives better, and that things will be even better after you win again. Finally, if you do not tout your achievements, blow your own horn, the media will certainly not do it for you. To build a media narrative many voices must constantly repeat the same message.
The unemployment rate is at 4.6%, a nine year low. Interest rates are at historic low levels. Inflation is at historic low levels. Gas prices are at historic low levels. By most, though not all, objective measure conditions in the United States are better than they have been at any time during the last half-century. When Republicans are in power these types of facts are touted over and over again as the reason to return them to power.
That was the case with Ronald Reagan running for reelection in 1984. He won reelection by convincing people it was “Morning in America”. He was able to do so even though interest rates were five times what they are today, the unemployment rate was 3% higher than it is today, and inflation was 6% higher than it is today.
Yes, the party in power has to thread a very fine needle. That is especially so when, as in this case, you only control the Presidency, and both houses of Congress are held by the other party. But it is something that must be done and it can’t just start with the campaign a year or so before the election. It is a message that must be honed and repeated for two to three years before the election.
Contrast that with what Reagan did when he first ran against the party in power. When Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter the Republicans attacked Carter with something called the “misery index.” The misery index was computed by multiplying the unemployment rate by and the inflation rate. They sold the idea of the misery index to the news media and it was touted nonstop. And for grins they also threw in high interest rates and gas prices. After Reagan was elected he knew he had to switch gears when he ran for reelection. So for 1984 he launched his “Morning in America” campaign which, among other things, emphasized how much the misery index had dropped during his first four years in office.
Have you heard any discussion of the misery index recently, a time when it has dropped to a rate that would have been unimaginable when Reagan was President? No. Of course not. That is because Democrats could never run a “morning in America” campaign that emphasizes how much Democratic control of the White House has improved the lives of people. We can’t do it because we always want to talk about how things could be better. We want to talk about income inequality and it is at its worst in almost 100 years. But it is at its worst in part because of Republican tax policies and economic policies such as the attack on unions and the minimum wage. We want to talk about the reduction in manufacturing jobs. But we fail to address the fact that manufacturing jobs have declined even as the volume of manufacturing output is as high as it ever has been since World War II. If our rhetoric does nothing more than feed into the narrative that trade agreements are the source of all ills we will soon find ourselves out of power.
We want to talk about the non-economic issues that plague our society - racism, sexism, militarism, homophobia, police brutality, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and a host of other things that need to be addressed in our country. But often we do so without recognizing that as bad as they are they are now they are nowhere near as bad as they were in the past. Yes we want to make things better. Yes there are problems that we must continue to address. But we can only address those problems when we have the power to do so. But all too often, In talking about how things could be better, we feed into the Republican narrative that things are so bad that people need “change,” that they must elect Republicans to make their lives better.
Hillary’s candidacy was a request to the voters to essentially re-elect a Democratic president for a third term. You can point to many reasons as to why Hillary, even though she won almost 3% more of the popular vote than Trump, was unable to win the election. Yes, she made mistakes, her campaign made mistakes, decades of bashing by the Republicans had their effect, third parties drew away votes, and she fought in a primary race which was a foretelling echo of the Trump narrative of “corruption.”
But beginning two years ago I began to fear exactly what transpired. Democrats spent very little time talking about how people’s lives had improved during the Obama administration. Yes, there was some discussion, but every positive statement was amended with negative qualifiers as in “yes unemployment has gone down but it is slow and far too many people are left behind.” The reader or listener is not left with the feeling that things have gotten better but rather that progress is not being made.
And for the most part my sense was that Democrats didn’t really talk about the good but rather continued to talk about how bad things were. We talked about income inequality. We talked about corporate control over politics. We talked about all the things that we would like to change. But in doing so all we did was talk ourselves out of power. People will not re-elect you if they think you have made a hash of things. When I heard Democrats talk about the state of our nation it sounded like we had in fact made a hash of things. And remember the results of the selection would have been different if just a few tens of thousands of nonvoters voted for Hillary or switch their votes to Hillary from someone else.
Well, it’s over. Now it is time to start doing what we are good at. Now is the time to started complaining in earnest about conditions and to complain about the people in power. And as the unemployment rate, interest rate, and inflation rate begin to rise, as they will continually during the Trump administration, it will be time to resurrect the misery index.
But when we do regain the Presidency, and when we do regain the Senate and the House of Representatives, as we work for change and as we work to improve people’s lives, we must always remember that at its core our message must be positive. If we don’t remember that, we will soon find ourselves out of power again.