Two of the Democratic Candidates for President Tell a Powerful Economic Story

November 17, 2015

For decades now, Republicans have been telling people that businesses are the job creators and that regulating or taxing businesses will mean fewer jobs—which is why so many Americans believe them. Rarely has a Democrat challenged the underlying assertion that prosperity comes from businesses. But on Saturday, we saw two of the Democratic candidates for president do just that during their debate.

The failure of Democrats to tell a bigger story about the economy is a major reason that, while voters largely agree with Democrats on specific issues like raising the minimum wage, limiting prescription drug prices, or regulating Wall Street, they still cast their votes for Republicans who champion lower taxes and deregulation of business as the key to economic growth. Polling consistently shows that the Republican economic message does well with a majority of voters.

Democrats regularly challenge Republican economic policies on grounds of fairness but fail to provide an explanation of how to move the economy forward and create prosperity. Fairness is not enough for voters worried about losing jobs or how the economy is going to provide economic opportunity for their children.

Finally, that is beginning to change, as we heard from two of the Democratic candidates. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both told a very different story: People who earn enough to support their families create jobs and prosperity and move the economy forward.

When Sanders was asked about whether a $15 minimum wage would cause job loss, he made both the moral and the economic case for raising the minimum wage to $15 “over the next few years.”

The moral argument is compelling, and it’s where most Americans start. As Sanders said, “It is not a radical idea to say that if somebody works 40 hours a week that person should not be living in poverty. It is not a radical idea to say that a single mom should be earning enough money to take care of her kids.”

But when their moral values are challenged by the job-killing argument, many people begin to worry that policies that raise costs for business could backfire. Which is why Sanders explained, “When we put money into the hands of working people they’re gonna go out for our goods. They’re gonna go out for our services. And they are gonna create jobs in doing that. That is the kind of economy I believe [in], put money in the hands of working people, raise the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour.”

O’Malley made the case even more succinctly. Unlike the standard rhetoric from governors who boast of increasing employment by attracting businesses with tax breaks, O’Malley bragged that the Maryland economy was driven by high wages, because “a stronger middle class is actually the source of economic growth. And if our middle class makes more money, they spend more money. And our whole economy grows.”

That italicized phrase is one good sound bite description of the progressive economic view that Americans need to hear over and over again if they are going to trust Democrats to boost prosperity. Another version is “working people and the middle class are the engines of the economy.” And a third is “we build the economy form the middle-out, not trickle-down.”

Unfortunately, we did not hear such clarity from Hillary Clinton, who offered the tepid statement that raising the minimum wage “doesn’t result in job loss.”

Clinton is known as a policy wonk, but that’s not what we need from a president. Her husband, known as “the great explainer,” has the gift of translating public policy into simple concepts that get people nodding their heads in agreement. This ability marks the great presidential communicators, FDR and Reagan being the leading examples.

The idea that people with good, family-sustaining jobs boost the economy is one of those simple ideas that get people’s heads nodding. It’s one we need the next Democratic candidate for president to believe, and then to explain to the country.