James Carville and Stan Greenberg’s New Book: <em>It’s The Middle Class, Stupid!</em>

James Carville and Stan Greenberg’s New Book: <em>It’s The Middle Class, Stupid!</em>

What follows is excerpted from It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! — the new book by legendary consultants James Carville and Stan Greenberg, which offers a fascinating melange of very candid discussion between the authors, along with graphs, pie charts, and original public-opinion surveys conducted by Greenberg, one of the nation’s foremost pollsters.  They argue that the 2012 election should be –and for Democrats must be — about the present condition and future prospects of the middle class, not deficits and austerity. Supportive of the President but certainly not uncritical, Carville and Greenberg outline below a strategy for Obama and the Democrats to win back voters in November still feeling pained by the slow economic recovery:

Stan We really do feel good about our chances, because Democrats do have a story to tell. What story they tell may decide what happens in November—and what is the mandate for action at the end of this year and in 2013…

James This is how I would do it: I’d tell people the basic truth that there are two things going on here at the same time. Sure, the economy is getting better and some people are beginning to feel the benefits of that. But for every one person who’s feeling it, there are ten who don’t. You have to address the needs and fears of those people. If you run only on the first part—that there are people who are feeling better about their situation—you’re telling the other ten that you don’t understand their lives.

I understand the temptation for the president: It’s human nature for anyone in a leadership position, whether it’s a businessperson or a politician, to take credit for something positive. The tendency, then, is to say, “Look—the economy’s getting better!” It’s true, it really is. But it wasn’t in a very good place to start with.

Let’s say you’re 50 and out of work right now and feeling like you’re a long way from finding anything. Or you’re lucky enough to be working but you’re feeling the effects of the lower wages that are on offer in this economy. People who are working are just happy to have a job, and it’s going to be tough for a lot of them to reconcile their own situations with a message of economic rebound from the president.

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Stan We accept that there is a story there building on what Bush did to the country and what Obama did and the budget choices ahead, but in the end, it is a weak economic message, at odds with the long-term economic problems, full of serious economic and political risks, as Romney contests whether America is really back. The story also reduces the need for a serious policy agenda.

James It’s a problem that voters have with politicians. They see the person come in and shuffle a lot of stuff around and there’s a modest change and it gets blown up out of proportion to the issues that remain. If I were the president, I’d acknowledge the 220,000 people who got jobs one month but then I’d focus entirely on the 13 million who didn’t. I know we differ on that. He wants to talk about the areas where we’re doing okay, and not the many who are still struggling.

Stan We tested the two key parts of this story [with focus groups], the jobs record and the optimistic assertion that America is back. They do not move the needle: just 44 percent said the crisis-recovery message and progress on jobs made them more likely to support the president—well below his vote and no stronger than the Republican messages on the economy. Our monthly economic tracking measures on unemployment, salaries and benefits, health care insurance, and reentering the labor market have still not improved even a point, despite voter recognition of the macro gains…

We have no doubt voters will embrace an optimistic view of the American character and what Americans can achieve, as the president declared before the United Auto Workers: “[No] matter how tough times get, Americans are tougher. No matter how many punches we take, we don’t give up. We get up. We fight back. We move forward.” But the country is not ready for a Reagan-like “Morning in America.” In any case, a story that concludes with “America is back” contradicts the idea that “this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

We believe that the second story and choice centered on the middle class is the much more powerful way to win this election and govern afterward. Above all, it is situated in the deep problems people believe will control whether they and the country succeed. Those were reflected in the president’s speech at Osawatomie, Kansas… A large majority of 54 percent says it makes them more likely to support Barack Obama and Democratic leaders—10 points above the Republican vote and equal to Obama’s 2008 vote for president. Intensity of support in a middle-class narrative is 8 points higher than any other narrative, Democratic or Republican.

When progressives offer this story, they do not need to argue with voters about their economic condition or whether we face uncertain headwinds in the period ahead. It is incontestably an election about the middle class and about America’s future. Within that story, voters will take the measure of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and decide who has the right priorities on how to rescue the middle class, build a strong American economy, and address our long-term deficits.

James We want this election because we need to smash this aberration of a Republican Party. That’s the main reason we want it so badly. This story gives the Democrats the best chance of winning in November. And it’s not just about winning—winning is always good, but it also means President Obama and the Democrats have a chance of governing and fixing this mess.

Need a daily dose of political wisdom and wit from James Carville and Stan Greenberg? SIGN UP HERE for a subscription toTHE CARVILLE-GREENBERG MEMO, featuring exclusive video, original analysis, surveys, and much more. Powered byThe National Memo and it’s totally free!

But we’re only going to get there if we raise the stakes and address the actual character of America. If we do that we can redefine the Republicans into obscurity for a generation, like FDR did in his campaign speech in 1932 when he championed the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” and in the 1936 State of the Union when he aligned the Republicans with the “resplendent economic autocracy” that fights to control government in order to achieve the “power for themselves, enslavement for the public.” FDR defined his opponents, then he consigned them to the margins where they belonged.

This is just such a time, we believe. Everything is on the line for the ordinary, hardworking people who have fallen victim to another resplendent economic autocracy that flushes their dreams away while incomes surge at the very top of that same pyramid as corporate lobbyists and their money dominate politics. It’s time to bring down this house of cards. If the election is not “just a matter of math” on how we pay for critical national goals but a referendum on whether we will be a middle-class country, the Republican Party can become an anachronism. They will own all of their inexplicable efforts to block affordable and universal education, to undermine our systems of retirement and health care for the middle class, and they’ll sit out there on the golden margins complaining with the richest people just how unfair life is.

Stan But we’ll be honest with you: Only if Obama and the Democrats run on the principle that “it’s the middle class, stupid!” do we have any chance as a country to address the state of the middle class and their dreams, expressed with some anguish and hope by people in this book. We owe it to them. The deep problems at the heart of this book have to be at the heart of our politics.


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