Mark Mellman: A winning message, but losing candidates

Mark Mellman: A winning message, but losing candidates
© Greg Nash

Democrats’ economic agenda fared far better than Democratic candidates on Election Day. Minimum wage increases garnered big majorities in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota as voters were pummeling Democratic Senate candidates in those same states.

Of course, candidates are much more than a bundle of issue positions, but understanding this disjuncture is critical to developing an economic message that resonates deeply. Why did those minimum wage increases have such an easy time passing while their advocates lost?

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Some Democrats didn’t embrace the agenda as fully as they might have, while some Republicans shed their ideology to endorse Democratic approaches.

Sen. Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE of Arkansas, for example, offered a nuanced position: support for his state’s minimum wage measure but opposition to a Democratic plan to increase the federal minimum wage.

In Alaska, as elsewhere, Republicans put politics above their principles, shamelessly changing positions. Dan Sullivan, now senator-elect, told voters in August he opposed his state’s minimum wage increase, but after his GOP primary he suddenly flip-flopped. Sen.-elect Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump Hillicon Valley: New FTC chief eyes shake up of tech regulation | Lawmakers target Google, Huawei partnership | Microsoft employees voice anger over ICE contract Lawmakers urge Google to drop partnership with Chinese phone maker Huawei MORE ended up with the same position as Pryor.

Of course, the minimum wage was not the whole of Democrats’ economic agenda, but Republicans displayed little compunction about obfuscating on equal pay for women, college loans, incentives for shipping jobs overseas and other planks in Democrats’ platform.

Nonetheless, Democrats have to face the fact that the problems with our economic agenda go deeper than the machinations of individual candidates in particular races.

We have a credibility problem rooted in both policy and performance.

Our policies are wise and widely supported. But voters can easily support the polices without supporting their advocates if they don’t believe the prescriptions are particularly central to solving their problems or if they see government as unable to deliver effectively.

Raising the minimum wage is important and widely supported, as evidenced by the results on Election Day. But minimum wage jobs are hardly the aspiration of most Americans, nor is the direct impact of raising the minimum particularly large. If every voter whose wages would have been hiked by the minimum wage had cast a ballot (a dubious assumption at best) they would have constituted 3 percent of the electorate in Alaska and Arkansas.

I’ve advocated equal pay as a key Democratic issue for years. But the simple truth is that while 84 percent of women (and two-thirds of men) believe women in general are paid less than men for the same work, only about 30 percent believe they have suffered that kind of discrimination.

But even if Democratic economic policies were judged to have widespread positive effects, how likely is government to get it right? Not very, in the eyes of most Americans.

That fundamental mistrust of government’s ability to successfully deliver solutions is perhaps the most important obstacle to Democrats’ economic messages garnering votes for Democratic candidates.

In 2002, 63 percent of Americans expressed at least some confidence that “when the government in Washington decides to solve economic problems ... the problem actually will be solved.” By 2011, only 26 percent offered the same vote of confidence in government’s ability to deliver.

Which brings us to another foundation on which public doubts about Democrats’ economic message is built: performance. 

For years we have talked about minimum wage, equal pay and healthcare reform as ways to improve people’s lives. In the one area we delivered, healthcare, only 16 percent say our solution has helped them, with more saying it has hurt, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And when people look around, right or wrong, fair or unfair, they see themselves and their children hurting economically despite six years of a Democratic president.

Why would anyone believe that electing a Democratic senator in Arkansas or Alaska is going to change that?

Democrats will need to answer that question and others like it to be successful in 2016.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

The headline of this column has been changed online.