Those words uttered in 1992 by Democratic political operative James Carville inevitably pop up in every presidential election. This year, the phrase left the lips of Democratic presidential contender Tom Steyer. They have been paraphrased by President Trump.
Carville’s use of the phrase was an admonition to everyone connected to the Bill Clinton campaign to stick to the economy as a winning issue. In 1992, Clinton faced an American electorate with millions of under-employed, fretful workers and signs of an ebbing competitive edge for the nation as a whole.
The situation is different heading into the 2020 presidential election. There is a sustained economic recovery, adding more jobs, holding unemployment at record post-war lows and giving a slight boost to incomes. Despite often going off script, Trump hammers home the robust economy at campaign rallies and in his impromptu press encounters. He even offered a strong economy as an impeachment defense. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential contenders haven’t given the economy the singular focus Carville advised to a campaigning Clinton.
At the most recent Democratic presidential candidate debate last week in New Hampshire, Steyer did his best to steer every question back to the economy, implying that is the only way to outduel Trump and recapture the White House.
Steyer’s push to talk about meat-and-potato issues reflects a broader concern that a solid majority of Democrats haven’t coalesced around a single candidate. The flubbed Iowa Democratic caucus count hasn’t helped. Support for Democratic candidates remains fragmented heading into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, which allows non-affiliated voters to cast ballots in either party.
The next primary is February 22 in Nevada, followed by South Carolina’s primary on February 29. Those primaries will turn on Latino and African-American support, respectively. While the economy will be an important issue, voters in those states will be paying close attention to positions on immigration and racial justice.
Democrats win, Carville said in interviews on MSNBC and Vox, “by framing, repeating and delivering a coherent, meaningful message that is relevant to people’s lives and having the political skills not to be sucked into every rabbit hole that somebody puts in front of you.” That’s essentially an elongated version of his earlier admonition: “The economy, stupid.”
Carville unburdened himself last week on his frustrations with the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. He warned of continuing “cultural arrogance” to working-class voters and failure to perceive how Trump and Republicans will tie Democrats to the word “socialism”. Mostly, he complained that Democrats are spending too much time on issues that don’t matter to families and working people.
If the real debate is about the economy, what are the issues? Democrats traditionally have pitched public investment in roads, bridges and public transportation as a way to stimulate the economy and sustain economic opportunity. So far in the 2020 campaign, infrastructure is only mentioned as an afterthought.
Income inequality has received far more attention, including calls for a higher minimum wage, expanded child-care assistance and proposals to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.
Healthcare is the issue with economic implications drawing the most debate focus. Candidates talk about the lack of insurance coverage, rising cost of prescription drugs and medical bankruptcy. The discussion of Medicare-for-All has raised awareness about the costs and lack of coverage for long-term care.
Healthcare is the issue Democrats rode to victory in the 2018 midterm elections. The Trump administration has poured gasoline on the political fire with a series of cuts to Medicaid, a lawsuit to throw out Obamacare entirely and a proposed budget containing spending reductions for Medicare and Social Security. Democrats have challenged Trump’s claim that he is preserving provisions to protect people with pre-existing conditions, pointing to the administration’s lawsuit and his proposal for less costly health insurance that don’t always extend to pre-existing conditions.
The fragmentation in the Democratic presidential pack has led former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a self-financed national media blitz. Not qualifying for early Democratic presidential debates and primaries, Bloomberg is mounting what is in effect a national campaign. His ads talk about expanding health care coverage, tackling gun violence, creating good-paying jobs, promoting a green economy, making investments in disadvantaged neighborhoods and being financially accountable. He isn’t splitting hairs on policies and experience, but he is pressing values and outcomes that he and his advisers believe will lead to Trump’s defeat. Whatever his odds of winning the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Bloomberg’s TV ads probably come closest to what Carville advises.