Framing the 2018 election season

Posted on October 25, 2017

As James Carville explained 25 years ago, elections are decided by the way they are framed. In choosing a candidate, a persuadable voter is answering a question and a skilled campaign influences what question the voter is asking him or herself.

For all you baby boomers, think of the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign and its focus on “the economy, stupid.” Carville and company turned the general election into a referendum on which candidate would be better to repair the nation’s economy. If, by voting, Americans were answering that question, then Bill Clinton was the obvious choice. If voters thought their ballots were answering the question “Who’s best on foreign policy,” Bush would have won.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama framed the question as which candidate can “turn the page” and move us forward after the disasters of the Bush administration. This question not only contrasted Obama from Republicans who would continue Bush policies, it also suggested that Hillary Clinton was not the answer.

Most recently, the 2016 Trump campaign suggested a question: which candidate will “make America great again”? If a voter accepted that this was the question, then Trump was the answer.

So what should progressives do to frame the next election season?

In every jurisdiction, our lawmakers and advocates should thoughtfully construct a package of 5-to-10 bills to introduce and promote with the idea of helping shape the debate throughout the year. This package should illustrate progressive values, explain what progressives stand for, and demonstrate the sharp distinction between us and our conservative opponents.

The reason for a package of proactive bills, rather than a list of areas where we’re fighting awful right-wing legislation, is that it presents us (accurately) as agents of change, not defenders of the status quo. If we learned anything from the 2016 primary and general election battles, it is that Americans want change.

Each jurisdiction is different, of course, but here are a few policies (with hyperlinks) that might fit into a short progressive platform anywhere:

(1) Increase the minimum wage and require paid sick leave—They both poll very high and are easy for Americans to understand.

(2) Hold down prescription drug costs—Everyone thinks Rx prices are too high and that drug companies are to blame. A new Maryland price gouging law was just upheld in court. A law stopping PBMs from preventing pharmacists from telling customers about cheaper options was recently passed in CT, GA, LA, ME and ND.

(3) Require equal pay—This issue always polls well. While most states have equal pay laws, almost all could introduce a bill to strengthen them.

(4) Make willful wage theft a criminal offense—California has done some of this and Colorado has a good model.

(5) Control debt collectors—Nobody likes debt collectors and in recent years they have employed tactics that are grossly unfair.

(6) Implement fair share tax reform—Americans believe that the rich are not paying their fair share in taxes. A bill in Pennsylvania would increase taxes on the rich while marginally lowering taxes for everyone else. Or lawmakers can simply find an existing outrageous tax giveaway for the rich and introduce a bill to end it.

(7) Stop over-testing in schools—Americans overwhelmingly believe there is too much standardized testing in schools. Maryland enacted broad corrective legislation and there is also a narrower Too Young To Test Act.

(8) Address climate change—There are several types of bills, including simple climate change impact study commissions, that can force conservatives to show their anti-science stripes.

Progressive packages should be introduced in blue, purple and red jurisdictions. It doesn’t matter if there is a realistic chance of enactment—that’s not the point.

The sad fact is, most Americans are in a fairly desperate day-to-day struggle with problems like housing debt, credit card debt, student debt, lack of decent-paying jobs or affordable health care, underfunded schools and social services, drug addiction and domestic violence. Average people don’t perceive these as political issues, they see them all together as life. We must offer policies that address voters’ real-life concerns.

Once progressives decide on a legislative agenda that breaks through the apathy, cynicism and ignorance of persuadable Americans, then we can illustrate our values with some simple, effective language that suggests what question these voters should be asking themselves on Election Day.