Dems seek to chip away at Trump’s economic record

Democrats are looking for ways to chip away at President Trump's argument that keeping Republicans in power is good for the economy.

They realize the party can't cede the issue of the economy to Trump, even as they attribute the narrowing of the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot to economic good news.

The national unemployment rate hit 3.9 percent in April, the lowest it's been since 2000. Stock markets are near all-time highs, consumer sentiment is stronger than it's been in more than a decade, and manufacturing indexes are showing a pickup in growth.

To counter those trends and give voters a reason to vote for change, Democrats are rolling out the argument that gains from the growing economy aren't being felt by the middle class.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) held a press conference Wednesday outside an Exxon filling station on Capitol Hill to call attention to rising gas prices, which he blamed on Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

"According to energy analysts and experts, President Trump's reckless decision to pull out of the Iran deal has led to higher oil prices," said Schumer, who opposed the deal himself when it was negotiated under President Obama but disagreed with Trump's decision to withdraw.

The gas prices are just a prong in the Democratic strategy of chipping away at the idea that Trump is bolstering the economy.

They are also pointing to the rising costs for prescription drugs, rising healthcare costs in general and the bigger cable bills people are paying.

In each case, they hope to link pocketbook pain to policies backed by Trump and the Republican Party.

"What matters to Missourians is they have a high level of anxiety about getting an unexpected bill when they go to the emergency room, being in a life-saving situation when they're in an ambulance and not knowing if that will cost a bankruptcy," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), one of the most endangered Senate Democratic incumbents.

"Gas prices are up - our increase is more than the national average," she added. "The cable company says your bill is going to be $29.99 and you turn around ten minutes later it's $120."

"All those things are things people care about."

Democrats are under no illusions about the economy's political impact.

The president entered office with a 45-percent approval rating - the lowest of any elected president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.

But his rating has bounced up in recent weeks, even as it remains below 50 percent.

Trump's improved numbers have helped Republicans close ground on the generic ballot.

A Reuters poll this week showed Republicans ahead with a narrow margin for the first time this election cycle.

The survey showed that 38.1 percent of registered voters planned to vote for a Republican candidate if the midterm elections were held immediately while just under 37 percent said they'd vote for a Democrat.

"We're at a point in time when the economy is doing much better than some time ago, especially during the last recession, and I think that's reflected in the polling numbers," said Jim Manley, a strategist and former Democratic leadership staffer.

"It's something they're going to have to message very carefully on," he said of Democratic leaders in Congress. "It's fair to point out that we have a way to go."

Democrats argue that the Trump administration's rollback of net neutrality, a regulation promulgated under Obama, is making cable and Internet bills more expensive by giving telecoms a free hand to charge more for the speedy transfer of data.

"The one consumer price that everyone knows is the price they pay for gasoline," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "The one other price they know is what they pay for their bill to the cable company, which is why net neutrality has such potency."

Senate Democrats grilled Alex Azar, a former senior executive at Eli Lilly and Co., a major pharmaceutical company, over rising drug prices, when Trump nominated to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) noted last week that 16 of the 20 most used prescription drugs have jumped in price during Trump's first year in office.

Their next area of attack will be the rising cost of college educations.

Schumer and Senate Democrats plan to unveil a college affordability plan in the next few weeks although aides have declined to reveal the details just yet.

The party will also attack the Trump tax-cut law.

Manley says Democrats need to point out that Trump's tax cuts were "heavily skewed" toward the wealthy "but when it comes to the working class there's much more to be done." 

"That's what Democrats need to bang away on," he said.

Some Democratic strategists say the party needed to do more to challenge Trump's touting of the economy in recent months.

"The Democrats, I don't think, have a very good message and they're letting Trump get away with defining how his agenda is working. Trump is out there saying the economy is great. The economy is not great," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist and former advisor to senators from conservative-leaning states.

"Wages are flat as hell. They have been for 40 years. He's not done anything for that. The Democrats ought to be beating the hell out of him over the tax bill that gave to the rich and increased our deficit dramatically," he added.

Former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who served two terms in a Republican leaning state, say vulnerable incumbents need to find a way to undercut Trump's narrative that the economy is booming.

He said that running against Trump's personal foibles isn't enough.

Democratic incumbents need to be able to counter his claims of soaring economic success as well.

"It's got to be more than just vote against Trump," he said. "Chip away at the economy with specifics.

He said latching onto to rising gas, health care, and education prices might persuade "people [to] back off supporting him or not supporting him."

Brett Samuels contributed.