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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message Part 3: The Listerine Test

If Democrats hope to regain their lost advantage in public trust to get the economy moving and create good jobs, then we need clear and compelling ways to express our ideas. What is needed is not another 10-point plan, but rather a 10 word explanation of the logic behind our proposals. Voters need to know what we see as the problem and how our approach will work to make their lives better.

Recapping Part 1 and Part 2 of this series: We should not try to minimize our strategic position: the Democrats have lost three out of the last four elections (2010, 2014, and 2016) and now are in a weaker position at the local, state, and federal levels of government than at any time since the Hoover Administration. Our losses have coincided with the periods where Democrats trailed Republicans on survey questions asking which party voters trust to get the economy going and create good jobs. Hillary Clinton trailed Donald Trump on this question most of the times it was asked in 2016, but the problem was neither new nor limited to her campaign. Democrats also fell behind on this measure in 2010 and got clobbered, retook the advantage in 2012 and won, but have not held a sustained advantage since New Year’s Day of 2013 including the 2014 election that was another disaster.

With Donald Trump in the White House and Republican majorities in the Senate and House as well as 30 Governorships, of course there is a need to play defense. Much of our attention should go to fighting against the worst policies offered by President Trump and the ruling Republicans. But to reverse our decline we also have retool our offense by devoting time, talent, and resources to developing better ways of explaining how our plans for the economy would mean better lives and greater opportunities for hardworking American families. To win elections we need a compelling economic message. We do not have one now.

Democrats must explain HOW we will improve the economy

Yes, we know Hillary Clinton talked about jobs and “an economy that works for everyone not just those at the top” at nearly every event. The Clinton campaign website had several pages of 5-point plans, and 8-point plans for jobs and the economy. But reviewing the paid advertising from the Hillary Campaign finds mostly ads like this, this, this, this and this making the case Trump was too angry, profane, sexist, racist, or reckless to be elected president. There are very few that even mention the economy like this one from way back in April.

The biggest problem with Democratic communications on the economy actually comes in the form of 3-point plans. In a 30-second television spot, employed by most campaigns from the congressional level on up, there is only time for three policy proposals and that is how our elected leaders have learned to communicate their views.

Nearly all of our economic communications follow the formula: Commit to increasing jobs, Policy A, Policy B, Policy C – without a clear explanation of our understanding of the causes of voters’ economic insecurities or an explanation of how our policies connect in a coherent economic approach to solving the problems. We need a How-It-Works statement that passes the Listerine test.

The best example of a How-It-Works statement, often called the “reason to believe” in advertising theory, is the explanation that “Listerine kills the germs that cause bad breath.” It defines the problem and explains the logic behind the solution in just eight words.

Republicans have had an economic message that passes the Listerine test since Ronald Reagan first promised to create 13 million new jobs by 1) reducing government spending and taxing, and 2) eliminating job-killing regulations. The plan did not deliver on its promise as spending actually increased, the deficit ballooned, and a recession took the economy south in George H. W. Bush’s term. Even after George W. Bush promoted the same approach only to leave office with the global economy in free-fall, Republicans still pray at this altar.

Democrats who scoff at the failed record of the cut-taxes-and-regulations message nonetheless have to respect its political appeal to voters in public opinion polls and countless races for governor, congress and other offices – especially when we fail to offer our own coherent answer to voters’ economic anxieties. The tax and regulation message has worked for over 30 years, and we need to commit to developing something Democrats can sell with as much unity and conviction.

In the next installment of this series we will share several potential Democratic economic messages that either pass the Listerine test now or could be raised to that level. In the final installment, we will describe a process designed to improve each of these messages and move the Democratic party toward agreement on the best economic message to unite the Party in time for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message,

Part 1: What Happened in 2016 – is here.

Part 2: Progressives Need Both Offense and Defense – is here.

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