For my entire political life -- which spans 26 years as a congressman and at least an additional 10 years before that as a campaign organizer -- I have always believed that my party, the Democratic Party, represented the middle class.
Unfortunately, the public doesn’t see it that way today.
A recent study prepared by a new Democratic think tank, Third Way, demonstrated this reality in chilling fashion. The study was titled “Unrequited Love: Middle Class Voters Reject Democrats at the Ballot Box,” and is worthy of very serious review by everyone in the country who considers himself or herself a Democrat.
The study is an analysis of exit poll data from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut of 13,718 voters in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections. Middle class was defined as a family income between $30,000 and $75,000. Middle class voters, as defined in this study, accounted for 45 percent of total votes cast.
President Bush and House Republicans both carried middle class voters (a composite of white, black and Hispanics). The truly remarkable aspect of this study is that while John Kerry and House Democrats carried both black and Hispanic middle class voters, Democrats were absolutely swamped among the white middle class, thus tipping the aggregate middle class figures into the Republican column.
Let’s be very specific. Bush defeated Kerry by 22 points among middle class whites, and House Republicans running for Congress won middle class whites by 19 points. Democrats have always assumed that white middle class voters (many, but not all of whom, are union members) were an important constituency for the party.
To quote the study, “While Democrats may consider themselves the party of middle class, working America — middle class, working America thinks otherwise. White middle class voters, in particular, vote in such low numbers for national Democrats that it may be more accurate to believe that they feel that Democrats are hostile to, not champions of, their interests.”
This brings us to the obvious question: What must Democrats do to improve their standing among white middle class voters in order to start winning national elections again, both for the presidency and for Congress?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the answer does not start with economic issues. It starts with national security. Many middle class voters supported Republicans in 2004 because they were not convinced that Democrats would keep them safe -- either at home or abroad.
There is great irony here because it was Democrats who first proposed a new Department of Homeland Security and it was Democrats who supported the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, while congressional Republicans tried to block their implementation. On this count, Democrats must do a better job of telling their story.
Democrats should also continue to stand up for our veterans while Republicans try to cut veterans' benefits. They should not be bashful about pointing out how poor planning on the part of the Bush administration has led to a high level of casualties in Iraq, and how this is significantly harming the readiness of our Army by making it more difficult for the military to recruit new soldiers and retain soldiers on active duty.
On the domestic front, Democrats should aggressively devise a strategy to increase the number of Americans who have health insurance, even if it does costs some money. We should be willing to tell our friends in the auto industry that they should make more fuel-efficient cars. More fuel-efficient cars will help save energy (making us less dependent on foreign oil) and will force the American auto industry to modernize in a way that it can better compete with foreign car makers and ultimately save American jobs.
Democrats should remind the middle class that we are the party who created Social Security and are the party who will make sure that it is available when they retire. And finally, Democrats should be willing to support middle class tax cuts that help people supplement their Social Security, not through private accounts that take funds away from the Social Security system but with increased IRAs and 401(k) plans.
The analysis done by Third Way should be a wake-up call for Democrats. If it isn’t, Democrats may stay in the wilderness for some time.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.