Democrats' Message Misses Middle Class

Lots of people bemoan the fact that the Democratic Party does not connect with white middle class voters, but few of the complainers offer workable solutions.

Third-Way, a "center progressive" think tank made up of former Democratic Congressional and White House staffers, has now addressed this issue with some real insight.

In a study released on May 4, Third-way notes that Democrats believe they are talking to middle class voters but that their message is all wrong. The study then makes some very specific suggestions on how to solve the problem. (Click here to read the full study.)

Let’s review the bidding.

First, middle class is defined as household income between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. Obviously this figure could go higher in some parts of the country, depending on cost of living factors.

In 2004, John Kerry lost middle class white voters by 22 points and Congressional Democrats lost middle class white voters by 19 points. Kerry lost all middle class voters as a group (including whites, Blacks and Hispanics) by 6 points.

This was not an aberration but part of a trend. In 2000, Al Gore lost middle class white voters by 15 points and Congressional Democrats lost them by 14 points. In 1996, Congressional Democrats lost middle class white voters by 12 points.

According to Third-way, “Americans are optimistic about the nation’s future and their own; (Democratic) messaging is not. Americans see our society as a basically fair one, where hard work is rewarded; progressives emphasize obstacles to middle-class success.”

The study faults Democrats for always attacking the wealthy, noting “the middle-class aspires to wealth and doesn’t see big business or the wealthy as enemies.”

It adds that Democrats “downplay the strengths of the American economy…and fail to inspire conviction that America can continue to lead the world.”

Stated another was: “Let’s be clear – no one can deny that there are serious and legitimate concerns about our economy. The nation’s federal budget deficit is at a record high, as is America’s trade deficit with the world. Manufacturing jobs have declined, and the gap between the wealthy and the middle-class is increasing. These are not trifling problems that should be glossed over by progressives. But for every piece of bad news, there is also good news about the economic health and future of America.”

The study added, “It is in the American nature to believe that America…will prevail in an economic battle against China, Japan and India and that the American standard of living can only get better. If progressives believe otherwise, they will be wrong on substance as well as wrong on the politics.”

The study then goes on to categorize a number of proposals that Democrats think help the middle class but which really help primarily the poor: raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, increasing the size of Pell grants for college, making the child care tax credit refundable and fully funding Head Start.

These ideas “are worthy progressive initiatives, but they have virtually no impact on the middle class.”

The study notes that the average family income for Pell grants was $19,460 in 2003-04; that Head Start is specifically targeted for children living in poverty or whose families are on public assistance and that only 2.7 percent of the entire workforce earned the minimum wage last year.

The final part of the study urges Democrats to be optimistic about America and offer ideas that directly benefit the middle-class.

Here are some of Third-way’s specific proposals:

(1) Get the nation’s fiscal house in order by controlling entitlement spending, reining in budget deficits and “holding the federal government to the same standards of efficiency and competitiveness that are demanded of the nation’s companies and workers.”

(2) Invest in infrastructure to create jobs of the future by investment in research and pure science and wiring the nation for advanced information technology.

(3) Help businesses keep jobs in America by containing health care costs, lifting some of the burden of retirement security off of business and punishing countries that use unfair trade tactics that harm American companies.

(4) Make college the goal of all young Americans by expanding the tax deductibility of college tuition for middle class parents.

(5) Provide all Americans with affordable health insurance in the form of “competition-based health care reform.”

There’s a lot more packed into this report. Democrats who want to win back middle class voters should read every word.

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 and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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