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By Robert A. Vella

During the first half of this year, Obama shifted from income inequality to the more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class, focusing on issues such as the minimum wage and the gender pay gap that are thought to resonate with a broader group of voters.

The pivot is striking for a president who identified inequality as one of his top concerns after his reelection, calling it “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.”

The shift also underscores the ongoing dispute between the Democratic Party’s liberal and moderate wings over how to address inequality issues. Whereas the left takes a more combative tone, seeking to focus on the income gap and what it views as the harmful influence of big business and Wall Street, more centrist forces in the party favor an emphasis on less-divisive issues.

White House officials say the change in the president’s rhetoric was driven by a desire to focus not just on the problem — economic inequality — but also on solutions that could address it. Others close to the White House contend that the move is at least partly driven by Democratic polling that found that talking about income inequality does not register strongly with the American public and risks accusations of class warfare.

The last part of the excerpt – suggesting that the American people do not feel strongly about income inequality – reveals the current mindset of the Democratic Party leadership, but it does not reflect the mood of the public.  Americans are really angry about the widening gap between the very rich and everyone else.  A Gallup poll conducted in January showed that 67% of all respondents said they were either “very dissatisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with the level of income and wealth distribution in the U.S. including 54% of Republicans.  A Field Poll published this week in California told a similar story:

By a 54% to 38% Californians say they are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in California. This view is shared by similar proportions of Democrats as Republicans and by majorities of both liberals and conservatives. Dissatisfaction is reported by virtually all age, income and gender subgroups of the state’s adult population.

The largest differences of opinion about this issue are between Californians who were born in the U.S. and those who were not. By a two-to-one margin (60% to 32%) U.S.-born Californians report being dissatisfied with the distribution of income and wealth. By contrast, Californians born outside the U.S. are more likely to say they are satisfied than dissatisfied.

Even though Democrats, Independents, and Republicans disagree about how to solve income inequality, there’s little disagreement about the existence of the problem.  So, what’s going on here?  Why is the Democratic Party leadership throwing-in-the-towel, so to speak, on this issue?

Firstly, the primary concern for Democrats this year is to hold onto the U.S. Senate.  Should they fail, Republicans would have control over both houses of congress.  That would end whatever slim chances remain for immigration reform and other pending issues.  Furthermore, it would embolden the GOP to revisit their government shutdown and financial default tactics used previously in budget battles with the White House, and stymie further presidential appointments including any to the U.S. Supreme Court.  It could also renew partisan calls for impeachment.

A look at the Senate election map for 2014 would justify their concern.  Democrats are defending some 14 seats in conservative, swing, and tight-race states which could easily be won by Republican candidates in typically low-turnout midterm elections like 2014 (the GOP needs a net gain of 6 seats to take control).  Instead of trying to motivate the public with a strong economic populist message, the Democratic Party is putting all its eggs in one little basket by appealing to moderate and centrist voters who might react negatively to the GOP’s Tea Party-induced right-wing extremism.

Secondly, there is good indication that the Democratic Party leadership doesn’t particularly like the idea of economic populism.  President Obama’s inexplicable support for very unpopular trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would only exacerbate the problem of income inequality in America, are prime examples.  Additionally, both the Obama and Clinton administrations were quite accommodating to Wall Street interests – if not completely in bed with them as Republican administrations have been.

In military jargon, the order of battle has been set for 2014.  The Dems’ egregiously weak electoral strategy is to patronize the squishy middle of the electorate while hoping that women and Latinos are stimulated to vote by Republicans’ anti-abortion and anti-immigration policies.  Forget about Millennials, they will stay home this year.  In other words, they are hoping the GOP self-destructs.  Cynical?  Yes.  Smart?  We’ll see.

13 thoughts on “Democrats are dumping their ‘Income Inequality’ message ahead of 2014 Midterm Elections

  1. Ever since the takeover of the Democratic Party by the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton in the early 1980s the party has been about short-term political advantage, “triangulation,” sound bites and riding temporarily popular mini-issues. At the same time Democrats began backing off “class” issues in order to placate Wall Street and tap into the money that had flowed almost exclusively to Republicans. That Faustian bargain meant that the President from Right-to-Work Arkansas threw over the labor movement for Wall Street, who he rewarded with the go-ahead to repeal Glass-Steagall.

    The Democratic Party since then has been in retreat from the things it stood for in the New Deal. Obama is right out of the school of that argues that temporizing is principle (first pioneered by Clinton) and is in fact simply Side B of the Clinton record. He even brought in the Clinton economic team to address the financial disaster that Clinton’s economic team was largely responsible for creating. To expect Obama to actually become a liberal at this point is beyond fantasy. Liberal fury and impotence during the Bush years caused us to misread this man. He was against the war and had some supporters in the civil rights community, how could he be anything other than liberal? And his opponent was the wife of Bill Clinton, so what choice did we have? But that was a long time ago.

    Looking forward to how the party has all but handed over the keys to Hillary Clinton, we can expect no change in the Party unless there is another crisis (with someone with principle in charge or at least willing to make some noise) or some outside organizing. With labor effectively done in, the only source seems to be the Hispanic community galvanized on the immigration issue. Mainstream immigration reform groups, however, have to stop deluding themselves that they can achieve a bipartisan reform and begin to look at local elections, both general and Democratic primary. Unless there is some outside organizing pressure, we will have nothing but a reactionary party and a “compassionate conservative” party for the next generation.

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    • Well put analysis to which I mostly agree with. Although, I would add that presidential candidates – however vested by the establishment class – usually find themselves way in over their heads once they get into the White House. The U.S. government that the public sees is but a facade concealing a much more intricate apparatus linking global finance and international trade with an enforcement arm. We see glimpses of it now and again such as the NSA revelations. Obama was no “outsider” going in, but even he must have been surprised once he took office.

      This does not mean that The Establishment is completely unresponsive to populist movements, however, because they’ve been effective in the past. The “Storming of the Bastille” and the fate of the House of Romanov are never far from aristocratic memories. Despite their inherent greed and corruption, they understand the necessity of stability. Without that recognition, advances such as Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive reforms, FDR’s New Deal activism, and LBJ’s civil rights measures, never would have happened. In other words, it’s up to us to make them acquiesce.

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  2. And what else do they offer us at this point, except, “we’re not quite as horrible as the other guys”? Then again, I guess it’s clearly wrong to bite the hand that overfeeds you.

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    • Overfeeds? Seriously? I reject simplistic false equivalences. The Democratic and Republican parties are neither monolithic, nor are they alike. Each have their own unique peculiarities, and these differences are critically important to the lives of everyday Americans. The practice of democracy is a complex and messy process, but it is imperative. Otherwise, ordinary people would have no voice in government at all, and a select few would reign over the many with an authoritarian hand. There is no messiah on the horizon. There is no magic wand that will fix the world’s problems. It’s up to all of us.

      The Democratic Party, for all its dismal failures, is not enabling corporate personhood which threatens to subjugate human beings under a plutocratic overseer – Republicans are. Dems didn’t legally equate money with free speech – Republicans did. Dems aren’t destroying the Separation of Church and State – Republicans are. Dems aren’t attacking voting rights, workers’ rights, and women’s reproductive rights – Republicans are. Dems aren’t demonizing Blacks, Latinos, Gays, and the poor – Republicans are. Dems aren’t trying to destroy the federal government, Republicans are. If these differences, and more, are not important to the American people, then we are in very big trouble.

      I strongly urge all Americans to participate in our democracy as unaffiliated independents. Our choices are not easy, but choose we must. When a public official, candidate, or political party is on the wrong side of an issue, speak out against them. When they are on the right side of an issue, applaud them. But most of all, let them know you are paying attention.

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      • I agree. You give excellent reasons why, even though neither party is ideal, we still must vote. Republicans, esp. Tea Partiers, really are much worse for this country than the Dems.

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  3. Yes, there are still important differences between our major parties. And I do participate. Sorry to sound too cynical here, but I don’t see this “centrist” approach working for the Democrats at this point. I hope to be proved wrong, but such efforts have been less than successful for most of my life.

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    • No problem, Linda. Cynicism is rampant these days, and I’m certainly not immune from it. Your assessment of the Dems’ centrist strategy is indeed warranted, and that’s why I wrote this editorial. We must, however, resist the impulse to give up. Too broad a brush paints a poor picture. Best wishes, Bob.

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  4. I’m deeply disappointed that Dems have chosen not to pounce on what looks to me like a great opportunity to highlight how Republican policies are worsening economic inequality. They are making a big gamble.

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