After last week’s terrible election results, the Democrats got another kick in the pants from respondents to a Gallup poll, who gave the party a 36 percent approval rating. As Vox’s Ezra Klein points out, this is the lowest number since Gallup started measuring party approval in 1992. Meanwhile, the approval rating for the Republican Party, which had gone as low as 28 percent during last year’s shutdown of the federal government, has rebounded to 42 percent after the WINNER! headlines from the midterm elections.
For the Democrats, the problem may not be unpopular stands on issues, but rather confusion over the party’s priorities—which may have contributed to the dismal turnout of, coincidentally, 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.
President Barack Obama, no longer concerned with protecting Democratic Senate candidates in red states, now has more freedom to brand his party—especially with party leaders Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House seeming like relics of the time when not being George W. Bush was enough to win elections. (“You can’t begin a new era with old leaders,” writes the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh in calling for their exit.)
Obama could please (not the same as “energize”) much of his party’s base by acting on immigration reform. But his first bold stroke after the election was declaring Internet service to be a public utility and strongly supporting the concept of “net neutrality,” which would prohibit Comcast and the like from charging websites (like Netflix) to deliver their content at higher speeds. Obama’s action seems popular—one poll found that 81 percent of Democratic voters and 85 percent of Republican voters oppose “fast lanes” on the Internet—but that may change as GOP leaders reflexively oppose him. (The most infamous, and perplexing tweet of the week, was from Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas: “‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”)
Net neutrality is of limited use in getting voters enthusiastic about the Democratic Party, since it’s an affirmation of the status quo, just like protecting the Affordable Care Act from Republican attempts to repeal it. But Vox’s Klein has an idea that could pique interest: “the government should step into to provide a public alternative based on high-speed fiber infrastructure.” Government-provided Internet service, which could bring us up to the availability and speeds enjoyed by Japan, Sweden, and other advanced counties, would be akin to the post office, which now competes with private delivery companies.
Promising a “public option” for the Internet is one way to get younger, better-educated Americans in the habit of voting Democratic. Another is marijuana legalization, which enjoys greater support among younger voters.
But these are classic appeals to “wine track” Democrats, as Ryan Lizza calls them in a New Yorker article on possible primary opponents to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The “beer track,” or working-class segment of the Democratic Party, is likely to demand action on flat wages, long-term unemployment, and other economic issues where there is little common ground with the Republican Party. Raising the minimum wage, a winner in several referenda campaigns last week, is one possible focus for Democrats. But Lizza quotes former Virginia Sen. James Webb, a potential 2016 candidate as arguing for a broader economic vision: “A lot of the Democratic leaders who don’t want to scare away their financial supporters will say we’re going to raise the minimum wage, we’re going do these little things, when in reality we need to say we’re going to fundamentally change the tax code so that you will believe our system is fair.”
Webb’s prescription has a lot of appeal, but it’s likely to falter on specifics. It may be more equitable, for example, to repeal or limit the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners, but that proposal would split the Democratic base apart.
TPM’s Josh Marshall argues that economic populism, based on concerns about income inequality, is a “loser” politically. He writes that income stagnation, not inequality, is what’s troubling most voters, and the Democrats haven’t figured out how to address it: “The great political reality of our time is that Democrats don’t know (and nobody else does either) how to get wage growth and productivity growth or economic growth lines back into sync.”
So it’s not surprising if Obama and the Democrats concentrate on “wine track” issues like net neutrality, decriminalizing marijuana, and marriage equality for gays and lesbians. They won’t do much to stop the party’s slide among white, non-college-educated voters, but the Democrats don’t have any other cards to play right now.