If Democrats Want to Protect Abortion Rights in Office, They Must Address Economic Woes

Democrats running in the upcoming midterms are rightfully pushing the need to protect abortion rights, but they are failing to tie that push to a populist economic message.

An abortion rights activist leans next to his sign reading "Roe Roe Roe Your Vote" during a "Bans Off Our Bodies" rally at Old Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on September 29, 2022. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2014, Colorado hosted a US Senate race that for a time became a Democratic cautionary tale — but now seems like a foreboding preview of Democrats’ 2022 national election campaign.

Amid the smoldering wreckage of the financial crisis, Democratic Colorado senator Mark Udall based his campaign message almost exclusively on his defense of abortion rights in a race against anti-choice Republican Cory Gardner. Udall was unfairly vilified by the national and local press for his laser focus. Ultimately, the Denver Post editorial board endorsed Gardner, insisting the right winger’s “election would pose no threat to abortion rights” and declaring that Udall’s “obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.”

Two things ended up being true at the same time. It was true that despite the advantages of both incumbency and a respected surname, Udall lost the race because he was perceived to be a “one-issue” candidate who had ignored the 1992 Clinton campaign’s mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It was also true that Udall was right that his loss would threaten reproductive rights — indeed, despite the Denver Post’s assurances to the contrary, Gardner went on to cast pivotal Senate votes to appoint three of the right-wing Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade.

At the time, the moral of the story seemed clear: Democrats may lose winnable elections in tough economic times if they are not willing to break with their big donors and offer a populist economic message promising to fix the problems those donors are creating. Without that kind of economic message, they may lose even if they’re right about conservatives’ social-issue extremism.

But eight years later, that lesson has been memory-holed as America faces the same scenario — at a much bigger scale. As the Lever recently reported, Democrats confronting a pivotal election in another economic crisis are spending tens of millions of dollars on ads about abortion, while spending far less on ads addressing inflation or the economy — the two issues that a bevy of recent polls show voters are most worried about.

Other data tell the same story: The Wesleyan Media Project found that inflation has been mentioned in nearly 40 percent of television ads pushing GOP House candidates, but hasn’t even ranked among the top issues being mentioned in ads pushing Democratic House candidates. And it is not as if Democrats are making up the gap online: Democratic groups are bankrolling lots of abortion-related ads on Facebook, but barely spending anything on economy-focused messages.

The result of that silence: survey data now show many voters do not think Democrats can be trusted on — or even care very much about — the inflation crisis that is defining the election:

  • The latest New York Times/Siena poll shows that 44 percent of likely voters say inflation and the economy are the most important issues facing the country. Just 5 percent say abortion is the most important issue. The poll shows Republicans with a 49-45 edge when voters are asked which party they are planning to vote for in the election.
  • A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows voters say the economy and inflation are their top concerns in the election — and Republicans hold a 54-35 advantage when voters are asked which party they have confidence in to combat price increases.
  • The new Harvard/Harris survey shows the largest number of voters saying inflation is the most important issue facing the country, with 24 percent saying GOP leaders are most concerned with the issue — and only 14 percent saying the same about Democratic leaders. That same poll shows 27 percent say Democrats are most concerned with the January 6 riot — an issue that only 7 percent of voters say is the most important facing the country.

To be sure, the details of 2022 are different from 2014. With the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision throwing reproductive freedom to Congress and the states, the stakes for women are higher than they were back then, making the issue potentially more electorally salient than ever. Meanwhile, even in a bad economy, job growth under Democrats’ trifecta control of Washington is a bright spot that could somewhat buoy the party.

And yet, the once-famous Colorado lesson still seems all too applicable to the moment.

Somehow, 2014’s swing-state parable about the supremacy of economic issues has been flippantly ignored in a do-or-die, must-get-it-exactly-right kind of election featuring right-wing fascists threatening to snuff out whatever is left of democracy.

It’s the Economy, You Absolute Moron

What’s so maddening is that even in good times, “it’s the economy, stupid” is the most reliable rule of thumb for issue focus in a campaign. But in this particularly brutal year, it should be “it’s the economy, you absolute moron.” After all, anyone with a functioning brain stem should know that 2022 is a Defcon 1 economic emergency, as evidenced by three new strands of data.

There was the recent Dallas Federal Reserve study showing that a majority of Americans in the labor market “are finding their wages falling even further behind inflation” — conditions that the bank says “appear to be the most severe faced by employed workers over the past 25 years.”

Then there was the September Census Bureau report finding more than four in ten households struggling to pay the bills — a whopping 50 percent increase since last spring, when the government began cutting off COVID-19 pandemic aid.

And there were last week’s reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Commonwealth Fund, showing that health insurers have jacked up their prices by 24 percent in a single year, boosting insurance company profits while leaving more than two out of five Americans uninsured or underinsured.

Democrats have had plenty of inflation message options they could be using to put themselves into a better position heading into the last month of the campaign.

They could be blaming Republicans for blocking the extension of the expanded child tax credit that had been reducing pain, suffering, and poverty among millions of working-class voters.

They could simply pledge more direct economic help if they win the midterms — a popular reprise of their promise of pandemic survival checks that won them those two pivotal Georgia Senate races in 2020.

They could resurface their now-discarded promise of a public health insurance option — or do anything other than shovel more government money at their health insurance donors that are fueling the inflation crisis.

They could have forced Republicans to vote down a windfall profits tax on the fossil fuel industry, and continued to force votes on legislation to crack down on energy price gouging. Then they could have put serious money behind ads spotlighting the GOP blocking those measures on behalf of their energy industry donors, who have been jacking up gasoline and electricity prices while reaping huge profits.

More broadly, Democrats could be vilifying the entire plague of greedflation whereby corporate oligopolies are hiking prices not because their inputs are more expensive, but simply because they have the market power to fleece everyone.

At absolute minimum — rather than President Joe Biden betting on and standing by the Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell’s efforts to “get wages down” and crush workers in order to reduce inflation, the White House and congressional Democrats could simply demand an end to draconian interest rate hikes that do not target corporate profiteering, that are not reducing inflation, and that seem deliberately designed to induce a recession.

“It’s not rocket science,” said longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in a recent video reviewing survey data detailing a simple and effective message that could move voters. “To win in November, Democrats must win an economic argument against the Republicans and one of the top priorities must be to inform voters that we can help working people with the high cost of living.”

Sacrificing Liberty for Something to Eat

But the kind of populism Greenberg refers to is anathema to the two constituencies that still call the shots in Democratic politics.

Many of the party’s Washington elites, pundits, and thinkfluencers are austerians who grew up in the neoliberal Reagan and Clinton eras, who venerate the anti-populism of the Obama presidency, and who still see popular New Deal–style social safety net programs as odious handouts. Meanwhile, the party’s donor class has a financial interest in making sure Democrats never raise uncomfortable questions about the corporate power that enriches them.

That has left Democratic leaders to try to focus the election on abortion — an issue that’s certainly critical in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, and one that also doesn’t offend the corporations and wealthy donors that bankroll the party.

The problem, though, is the same one Udall faced eight years ago — polls show most voters see the economy and inflation as much more pressing than any other issues.

The danger here is that given the choice between a corporate party focusing on abortion but offering no economic message and a far-right party at least offering some kind of economic analysis (however flawed), voters may choose the latter option.

Indeed, as President Franklin Roosevelt said when looking out at European populations embracing fascism amid unbearable economic conditions: “In desperation, they chose to sacrifice liberty in the hope of getting something to eat.”

One year ago, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney and I tried to warn about all this in a widely circulated Rolling Stone article tied to our podcast series about the last midterm election when Democrats controlled the government during an economic meltdown. There was plenty of time for a course correction when we sounded that alarm — and there is still a bit of time for a turnaround. Democrats have a few weeks left to show they care about millions of people struggling to get something to eat.

But the hour is getting late.

If Democrats do not remember the cautionary tale from 2014 — if they forget “it’s the economy, you moron” — then everything they purport to stand for could be lost: reproductive rights, democracy, everything.