Dems focusing on the wrong issues

by Ramesh Ponnuru

A political party has a problem when voters think it has the wrong answers to their most important questions. It has a bigger problem when voters think it isn’t even focusing on those questions. Democrats have put themselves in that position, and it may cost them dearly in next month’s elections.

A new poll from Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies shows that voters consider the top three issues to be inflation, the economy and jobs, and immigration. They also think they’re the top issues for Republican leaders. They see Democratic leaders as most concerned with an entirely different set of issues: Jan. 6, women’s rights, and climate change.

Gallup uses a different method to reach a similar conclusion. It asks voters which party they trust most on the issue they consider most urgent. Republicans have an 11-point lead on the question, the largest advantage they have had on it since 1946.

Voters aren’t wrong to consider inflation a low-priority issue for Democrats. Their approach to the issue has been opportunistic and haphazard: First they downplayed it as transitory, then they blamed it on Vladimir Putin, then they repackaged their existing agenda as a means of fighting it, then they claimed credit for a decline in the monthly inflation rate. Now they are warning that Republicans will make inflation worse if they take control of Congress.

President Joe Biden’s most recent economic message is that the economy is “strong as hell.” Americans do not agree. A poll from the Associated Press and the University of Chicago finds that more than three-quarters of Americans think “poor” describes the economy better than “good.” Again, the polls have a basis in fact. On average, paychecks haven’t been keeping up with prices.

If Biden finds the current high-inflation economy praiseworthy, voters might well wonder if he prioritizes stabilizing prices as much as he sometimes says. Worse, voters might question whether his perception of conditions in the country are askew. The Biden administration has often seemed more attentive to the words people use — denying a “border crisis,” quibbling over the technical definition of “recession” — than to the underlying phenomena they describe.

In the past, voters have had little patience for parties that seemed to be ignoring reality, whether it was George W. Bush-era Republicans who would not concede that the Iraq war was going badly or Barack Obama-era Democrats who acted as though the economy had been fixed after they enacted a stimulus.

Rather than trying to reduce the Republican advantage on the economy, Democrats have tried to center the campaign on other issues, notably abortion. But the issue appears to be fading as a voter concern. In July, right after the Supreme Court’s term ended with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Gallup found that 8% of Americans considered it the key issue before the country. It has fallen to 4%. It’s far behind inflation, the top issue for 17%, and the economy in general, chosen by another 12%.

Some Democrats are beginning to ask whether their party has overemphasized the issue. James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, recently said: “A lot of these consultants think if all we do is run abortion spots, that will win for us. I don’t think so.” But perhaps there is more than strategy at work here. The party genuinely cares more about abortion access than it does about inflation. Perhaps it deserves credit for hardly pretending otherwise.

Parties do not exist solely to implement the public’s desires. Nobody would become a party activist if that were the case. The Democratic coalition has goals that are not shared by the public, just as the Republican coalition does. But politics demands a certain amount of balance. This administration and the previous one are unusual in the extent to which they have placed management of their coalitions ahead of any rational assessment of the country’s most pressing needs.

The Democrats’ two great partisan victories of the past two years, the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, were grab-bags of its activist groups’ desires. The first was an anti-COVID effort enacted just weeks after a large bipartisan one had already become law, at a time when the economy was growing rapidly with low inflation. The second, though it had components that were defensible on their own merits, had no overall rationale beyond giving the party a political victory.

If Democrats have a catastrophic election, it will be in large part because they have ignored that most democratic of political maxims: The foot knows best where the shoe pinches.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.