Democrats intended to make a stronger connection with average Americans with their new 2018 election slogan. Instead, they may have just made them nostalgic – and hungry. Slogans aside, one key part of their economic message should have Republicans worried if they plan to rely on disaffected populists in the nation’s heartland to maintain their grip on power after the midterms.
On Monday, Democrats unveiled the slogan for their efforts next year: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” Actually, that was their second version of the slogan. The previous week, Vox’s Jeff Stein reported that the party had settled on “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.” Either way, the slogan intends to focus their messaging next year on the economic themes that they largely ignored in the 2016 election in favor of social justice and equity issues.
However, the “deal” part of the slogan recalled the 85-year-old platform of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” as The Washington Post’s Nicole Lewis pointed out, but also sounds like it borrows from Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. That isn’t the only source of familiarity, either. It didn’t take long for critics to realize that the slogan bears significant resemblance to pizza maker Papa John’s tag line: “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza. Papa John’s.”
At least for a while, the focus shifted to the communications group rather than the policies. Even allies such as former Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speechwriter Jon Lovett wondered what the Democratic Party was thinking. “Fire every consultant involved,” Lovett advised on Twitter, followed by another tweet in which Lovett described himself as “hoping it’s not real.” The panel on MSNBC’s Morning Joe had some laughs at the slogan’s expense, with The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan suggesting that Republicans could deliver pizza boxes with an addition to the slogan: “And Still Pelosi.”
The real problem with the slogan, Amy Walter writes at The Cook Political Report, is that it’s a slogan offered by a party with low political credibility. “Hillary Clinton had reams and reams of white papers and policy prescriptions to address many of the issues that “A Better Deal” raises,” Walter points out, “but she was a flawed messenger who was seen by many – even in her own party – as inauthentic.” Rather than looking for magic slogans or even good solid policies, Walter advises Democrats to find “candidates who fit their districts – and are viewed as credible messengers.”
Still, policy matters in determining that credibility, especially to connect to voters and the priorities they see in their lives and communities. Most of the agenda that accompanied “A Better Deal” followed the same formulas that failed to woo blue-collar and middle-America voters in the last four elections, including minimum wage hikes and pay equity issues. However, Democrats have identified one key issue that might resonate with voters – if Republicans aren’t smart enough to pick up on it first.
“A Better Deal on competition,” the agenda declares, “means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans — consumers, workers, and small businesses — come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.” Democrats have campaigned on busting up “too big to fail” banks and financial institutions ever since the crash of 2008 and the Great Recession, but now they want to broaden that pledge to greater antitrust enforcement across the board. The outcome they promise is to stop mergers and acquisitions that “unfairly consolidate corporate power.”
Clearly, this is a sop to Bernie Sanders and the progressive populists that provided what energy Democrats had in 2016. It should be effective for that purpose, but the rest of the policies outlined in “A Better Deal” offer nothing more than big government as the alternative. Sanders and his progressive followers see the power of the state as the only other alternative to consolidating corporate power. Progressives in Academia and coastal enclaves see themselves as benefiting from a shift toward that end, as they presume that they will benefit from it.
That ignores a key frustration among voters outside of those cultural and political power centers, however. They feel left out and cut off from the forces that impact their lives. Trading off Big Corporation for Big Brother only escalates the problem. They can see the impact of corporate consolidations in their communities in the storefronts on Main Street and the difficulty in starting businesses that compete with chain retail and service corporations. As manufacturers consolidated, they packed up operations and moved out of these communities, and the people who lived in them had fewer and fewer choices and options. Political parties ignored those fears or sometimes outright ridiculed them.
It’s that economic, cultural, and political disconnect that fueled populism on the Right, on which Donald Trump capitalized by acknowledging and legitimizing it. Republicans took this as a culture-war opportunity, but they’re missing a large part of the problem by overlooking Main Street economics.
Republicans may feel uncomfortable taking a more aggressive policy on antitrust enforcement, but it does fit with a dedication to small government and federalism. Increasing consolidation in the marketplace concentrates economic power into fewer hands, and economic power eventually will get expressed in political terms. Our massively complicated tax codes and regulations serve as traditional vehicles for rent-seeking behaviors by corporations less interested in free markets than in squelching competition.
If the GOP truly wants to bring conservatives and populists together on economics and governance, they need a measured and assertive approach to antitrust enforcement. Populism is all about returning power to the people, while modern conservatism has limited government and subsidiarity in power at its core.
Republicans are already far better positioned to take advantage of this opening. A failure to recognize this advantage will leave the field to those who propose big government as the only alternative to big business. That’s an old deal whose time came and went decades ago, but which still tempts voters in the absence of a clear and consistent alternative.