Democrats’ central message on jobs might not be enough

Democrats’ strategy for clawing out of the minority hinges on the very same issue that helped banish them there: jobs.

Their well-honed message has become the focus of press conferences, floor speeches and cable news appearances, beginning with the highest ranks of leadership and reverberating down to the party’s tiny freshman class.

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Yet Democrats face a few problems with their message.

The latest jobs report showed the unemployment number is going down. In February, the unemployment rate dipped to 8.9 percent from 9.1, marking the first time the jobless rate fell below 9 percent since April 2009. New numbers come out on Friday.

Predictions on where the rate will go from there are risky, given uncertainties in the economy and workforce, but the February Economic Report of the President predicted the unemployment number would drop to 8.2 percent in 2012, the year Democrats and President Obama are running for reelection.

Another problem for Democrats? Republicans never promised a jobs bill.

Instead, the GOP argues that cutting spending will create jobs. Republicans have proposed $61 billion in spending cuts this year, arguing that deficit spending has encroached on the ability of the private sector to create jobs.

Even some Democrats, such as Robert Reich, secretary of Labor under former President Clinton, say the Republicans have done a better job of selling their message to the public.

“Republicans have taken the spotlight because Republicans have created the impression that cutting the deficit will somehow create jobs,” said Reich, now a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s a whopper, but unless Democrats counter it forcefully and make their own case for job creation, the Republican whopper will become conventional wisdom.”

Democrats believe they have some ammunition for this fight. 

A number of independent analysts, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, have estimated the billions of dollars in federal cuts proposed by Republicans would eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, put the figure at 700,000 over the next two years.

GOP leaders have largely dismissed those figures. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) characterized the Moody’s report as politically motivated because Zandi had supported the Democrats’ 2009 stimulus law. Cantor said jobs propped up by deficit spending are ripe for elimination anyway.

“Is he talking about government jobs, and, if so, why is the government hiring people it can’t afford to pay?” Cantor said of Zandi’s figures.

But Zandi has also offered advice to Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential campaign.

A number of political experts said the Democrats are right on target with their jobs message.

“Voters care way, way, way more about jobs than deficits, so on that point, the Democrats’ approach makes sense,” said Michael Bailey, a political scientist at Georgetown University.

Reich agreed, but added that Democrats have a long way to go in offering alternatives to the GOP’s spending cuts.

“It’s smart for Democrats to beat the drum over jobs and wages, because voters care far more about them than they do the federal deficit,” he said. “But Democrats have to have a credible plan to create more jobs at good wages, which they don’t have right now.”

Aside from proposals to cut federal spending, Republicans are focusing their legislative efforts on scaling back environmental and safety regulations they say hinder the power of businesses to make new hires.

The underlying aim, said Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon, is “getting Washington out of the way so that businesses can create more jobs.”

Still, a number of leading economists are questioning how cutting $61 billion out of the economy amid the fragile recovery could create jobs.

“The proposition seems ridiculous,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Desmond Lachman, economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agreed.

“The economy is not in a state where you can do serious fiscal adjustment right now,” Lachman said. “That would be counterproductive.”

A CBS poll released last week found that 51 percent of voters named jobs and the economy as the biggest problem facing the country, while just 7 percent fingered the budget deficit.

Democrats say GOP leaders have been forced to ignore such sentiments due to pressure from their most conservative members, including many freshmen.

“The Republicans have a problem, and their problem is the Tea Party,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “Their rookies are calling the shots, they’ve benched the coach … and they’re in disarray.”

Still, political experts were quick to note the complicated nature of the spending debate — a debate in which the nuances are often misunderstood by voters.

“If Democrats say, ‘That’s what Hoover did!’ the unfortunate reality is that many voters will say, ‘Who is Hoover?’ ” said Georgetown’s Bailey.