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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

Talking Economics in Iowa

Updated: Mar 27, 2019

President Trump’s strategy to win the 2018 midterm election is taking shape; he is planning to travel all across the battleground states and congressional districts and talk about the economy. Trump traveled to Peosta, Iowa (just outside Dubuque) last week to visit Northeast Iowa Community College. He was there to talk about tariffs, manufacturing jobs, and job training. Of course, his rambling monologue touched on a lot of other topics, as well, but with all the distractions he has created in his effort to deflect attention from his many problems, he has been remarkably consistent in keeping a drumbeat going on the economy, especially in the Midwest.

Donald Trump seems to believe he won Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania because economically frustrated voters heard a message from Trump that they were not hearing from the Democrats, that there were places in America like Dubuque that were not doing well. The economy was growing under Obama but mostly in the high-tech big cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and New York on the coasts. The middle of America was falling behind and Trump spoke to the economic frustrations of voters in the “Rust Belt” and “Farm Belt.”

Trump also seems to believe that he can survive whatever special counsel, Robert Mueller has in store if voters believe he has the best plan to bring better jobs to the middle of America. He hopes that like Bill Clinton before him, voters will overlook any misdeeds brought to light by his investigators if the economy is growing fast enough.

This past week Trump’s plan featured trade discussions (which he insists will be good for Iowa soybean farmers and manufacturers however disruptive they seem today), corporate and individual tax cuts (even if this approach is causing massive deficits at the national level and starving funding for schools and necessary road repairs at the local level), and an updated bill for job training with the reauthorization of the Perkins Act, (a bipartisan plan to promote technical education started in 1984.) Friday’s 4.1 percent 2nd quarter GDP growth number, even if it proves temporary, is being claimed as proof the Administration’s policies are working.

Trump’s strategy is to distract, distract, distract, yet stay consistent in his appeal to his base on economic issues. The big question is, are the Democrats distracted or will they be matching Trump’s level of focus on economic issues in the middle American communities Republicans have flipped as they won three out of the last four national elections (2010, 2014, and 2016) to gain control of Congress and the White House. These are the seats Democrats need to win back to regain the majority in November.

Why Iowa Matters?

Democrats need an economic answer for places like Dubuque and the 19 other northeast Iowa counties that make up Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. For decades Dubuque was a manufacturing town, a union town, and one of many Democratic strongholds along the Mississippi River. Dubuque County voted for every Democratic presidential nominee from John F. Kennedy to John Kerry and continued the streak giving Barack Obama double digit wins in 2008 and again in 2012. With manufacturing jobs in a long term decline, Dubuque was voting for change, but the economy did not improve during Obama’s two terms and the largest remaining employer for manufacturing jobs, John Deere & Company, shed more than 70 percent of its 1980s workforce to just 2,400 jobs, so the 1st Congressional District elected Republican Rod Blum in 2014 and then reelected Blum and went for Donald Trump for President in 2016.

After the 2016 election results were in, Dubuque resident Paula Welter explained her vote for Trump to CNN as a vote for economic change. "I voted for Obama twice because he was new blood, and I thought he'd bring new things to the county, but I'm not sure if he did all that he needed to do. I'm looking at Trump the same way. He's new, he's different… I would hope he could bring jobs back into the community--he’s a businessman."

Dubuque and the rest of Iowa’s 1st Congressional District is a top priority target for Democrats looking to retake the House in 2018. Democrats have nominated 29 year old State Legislator Abby Finkenauer to challenge Rod Blum. Finkenauer comes from a union family and uses her own student loan debt to connect with struggling middle-class voters in northeastern Iowa.

Finkenauer has a good plan to get the local economy moving forward, and create more, better paying jobs by working together to create the conditions for businesses to succeed. She calls for increased investment in infrastructure, in job training, in family farms and on Main Street. She makes it clear that her priority is bringing investment to Iowa cities, small towns, and rural areas that have been left behind as the nation’s economy has been changing.

Finkenauer’s plan is a version of an approach that many Democrats are bringing to local economies all across America. Public/private partnerships bringing together government, business, labor, education, social service groups and others, are tackling local problems and creating conditions to help local businesses grow and attract new employers. We call this approach Collaborative Regional Economic Development. The common elements are investments in people and their jobs skills, investments in ideas for innovative new businesses based on new ways to solve problems, investments in connections including roads, rail, ports, high speed data networks, and smart energy grids, and investments in communities where young and old can thrive.

Abby Finkenauer’s economic issues page is solid and should be required reading for other Democrats running for office -- and especially for the Washington party leaders who struggle to offer a national Democratic message for the 2018 election in fewer than 100 days. Finkenauer is going to need all the help she can get to defeat a two term incumbent in a District both sides understand is critical for the balance of power in the U.S. House. It would be great if the national leaders on television talk shows were giving candidates like Finkenauer, who are trying to win middle class votes in middle America, the air support of a compelling economic message that echoes local calls for greater investment in better jobs for the communities that have been falling behind.

There are more than a dozen top targeted House races that look a lot like Iowa 1, with a two or three term Republican trying to hold off a Democratic challenger in a seat Democrats used to own, in districts made up of manufacturing towns surrounded by agriculture and two or three good colleges or universities. Donald Trump has announced, via Sean Hannity, that he plans to visit all of them to talk tax cuts, deregulation, trade deals, low unemployment and high growth.

Watching cable television and the Sunday news shows, it would seem the Washington Democrats’ message is that we are going to win because we have the most enthusiasm, Republicans are pushing health care costs up, while we “put people first.” We must do better than this to match Trump’s focus on the economy and fully take advantage of this historic opportunity.

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