Former aides to President Bill Clinton are calling for a dramatic shift in their party's economic message before the November election, warning of an "impossible headwind in November," if they continue on their current path.
The two political operations — Clinton and Obama — have never seen eye-to-eye, and now some of the top voices of the Democratic 1990s have shifted into open criticism of a political operation they cast as overly negative and reactive, and failing to offer a positive set of plans for the economy.
Clinton's 1992 campaign pollster, Stan Greenberg, and his former campaign manager, Democratic operative James Carville, raised alarm today about President Barack Obama's economic message in a memo written with pollster Erica Seifert for Democracy Corps (and first reported by POLITICO).
"What is clear from this fresh look at public consciousness on the economy is how difficult this period has been for both non-college-educated and college-educated voters — and how vulnerable the prevailing narratives articulated by national Democratic leaders are," they write. "We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class."
The election, they add, is not a vote on economic performance, but on which candidate has the best prescription for the future. They advise a program of new taxes on people earning more than $200,000, and new spending aimed at securing the future of the American middle class.
"[Voters] know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle — and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand," they write. "They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way — not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery."
The message they offer is similar to Clinton's 1996 message of providing a "Bridge to the 21st Century," though the economy is nowhere near as stable as it was in that election year.
Former Clinton pollster and strategist Doug Schoen — brought in by Clinton to replace Greenberg in a rightward tack after the 1994 midterms — echoed the memo's conclusions in an email to BuzzFeed.
"They are absolutely correct. [Democrats] must talk about the future. [I] may have a different view of the message than they have, but they couldn't be more correct. [Democrats] must talk outcomes and benefits to win," he said.
But pollster Mark Penn, Schoen's former partner and a member of Clinton's inner circle in the White House and later a force on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, said Obama needs more than just a new message — but also a new economic plan.
"I think that the president needs a new economic plan that takes the country into the 21st century global economy, a plan with emphasis on education, infrastructure, innovation, and growing exports. A plan that creates new economy jobs for a country that wants to move
forward," he told BuzzFeed, adding that "most of the messages [in the memo] are too much about raising taxes and raising spending in a public that has changed quite dramatically from 1992."
Obama's aides have always bridled at criticism from the Clintonites, in part because they see Obama's victory over Clinton as the triumph over his carefully calibrated centrist politics.
An Obama campaign spokesman emailed BuzzFeed in response to the memo:
The President has always been clear that we need to do more than recover from the recession, we need to restore economic security for the middle class. The question we have put to Americans is whether they want to continue to make investments in areas that will provide a boost to the middle class – like doubling funding for college scholarships, investing in research and development to promote innovation, and allowing responsible homeowners the opportunity to refinance their homes – or do they want to cut back in these areas and return to the policies that caused the economic crisis?