This election is still about ideology

As Presdent Obama's approval ratings decline and an election is nearing, Democratic candidates are scrambling to distance themselves from the president and to find their own message. That scramble can easily produce suboptimal results. Read that to mean losses. It doesn't have to be that way.

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The president struck a chord a year ago when he weighed in on income inequality. Even if Americans can't fully articulate the specifics, everyone knows that money just doesn't go as far as it should, wage increases don't keep up with the real cost of living and more and more expenses are being shifted or remain with the individual. The housing crisis, the cost of education and healthcare are issues that simply heighten awareness of declining real income. Obama was greatly assisted in making his point when French economist Thomas Piketty took 700 pages to say that return on capital historically outstrips productivity gains and so the concentration of wealth in the hands of the wealthy gets worse over time. The book Capital in the 21st Century came out this spring and complemented the dialogue of American economists who were busy documenting the fact that productivity increases over the past 20 years were not being passed on as wage increases. That simply exacerbated the observation that the American middle class was being "hollowed out."

While many elected officials took to the issue, especially among the progressive ranks in the personages of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the polls repeatedly identified economic issues as a No. 1 concern, the more timid politicians in the center of the spectrum were unable to read the tea leaves and understand that much of the root cause of political discontent in the country relates to economic insecurity. More recently, the administration tried to fine-tune its message because income inequality was being termed class warfare. The administration decided that the income divide could be better phrased as "the need to increase middle class income" rather than the income disparities with the top 1 percent.

So we are now confronted with an administration tinkering with its message while being distracted by other events; blindsided with immigration issues, a jihadist group upending the mess that is the Middle East, Afghanistan voter fraud, Israel and Palestine at each other's throats, Ukrainian mind games with Russia, North Korean missile firing, weaker economic signals coming from Europe, the Supreme Court upending women's rights, the Highway Trust Fund running out of money, noise about impeachment or lawsuits against the president and a bunch of very frightened Democratic congressional and senatorial candidates who rightly sense that they may lose in November.

Pollsters have piled on, suggesting that the tide is turning or might turn against them and we are treated to the cliche "all politics is local." Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is all for the Keystone XL pipeline, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) doesn't want to appear with the president and is looking to appear "very religious," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) wants to plunder the wilderness with oil exploration and the list goes on.

What is missing is the overwhelming desire for politicians to meaningfully address what gnaws at virtually everyone, or at least 99 percent, of working Americans: economic insecurity. It is not just a matter of raising the minimum wage. That might affect as many as 30 million workers, but we are talking here about 140 million working people. It is the cumulative effect of 40 years of increasingly unregulated capitalism that has made most employees "at-will" (able to be fired at will), lowered real income, eliminated employee leverage with employers (unions represented close to 40 percent of workers at their height in the 1950s and represent only 7 percent now) and increased volatility in the economy.

Millennials struck a chord when 74 percent agreed in a recent poll that everyone in this country should be fed. Kristina vanden Heuvel of The Nation made an even more telling suggestion by endorsing a Demos (think tank) suggestion for the president to use his executive orders to reward government contractors who provide a living wage, adhere to a modicum of workers' rights and work safety standards. The more impactful proposal would be for Democrats to advocate the reestablishment of the full-employment commitment that persisted from World War II until President Reagan assumed office in 1981.

Specifically, if you want to work, the government will become the employer of last resort. There is no question that the proposal will elicit screams of protest from Republicans. But it is a standard that all Democrats could agree to because it targets the core of insecurity that is at the root of American anxiety. It might even touch the hearts of many conservative types who see the government as a threat and an oppressive force, not one that speaks to their persona. And it won't cost the government as much as one might think at first blush if it was proposed as loan guarantees and subsidies for businesses increasing employment opportunities once the program is in force.

For this fall's election, the message has to be straightforward. Of course the Democrats would have to achieve the same buy-in that Republicans typically get on their talking points. Don't respond to questions; just keep repeating the mantra. The talking points have to be: Partisan divide has made government inoperative. We need legislators who are ready to do the people's business. We don't want freeloaders in the economy and the way to assure that each is carrying his load is to make sure he can work if he wants. But if they are working, they deserve a living wage. If everyone has access to a job, society advances.

It isn't going to change the control of the House this time around, but it will underwrite the continued control of the Senate and make for a great platform to start the 2016 marathon. Most importantly, it will steady a nervous band of candidates and get back to what is really transpiring in American politics: a clash of ideologies.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.