Democrats need to get real with voters about inflation

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that consumer prices rose 8.2% over the past year through September. Inflation has cooled a bit since its peak in the summer, but not as much as most experts hoped. Prices are still rising at levels not seen since the 1980s.

As prices for everyday essentials like food, gas, and rent continue to spiral out of control in America, it’s not surprising that inflation and the state of the economy are the two most important issues on the minds of midterm voters. Workers all around the country are rightly concerned that their wages can’t keep up with skyrocketing prices – a whopping 71% say that their pay is being outpaced by the increase in the cost of living – and are desperate for lawmakers to take action.

Republicans are wrong about most things these days, but, to their credit, they’ve managed to accurately read the room with regard to voters’ concerns over inflation and have tailored their campaign messaging strategies accordingly. Since Labor Day, GOP candidates and groups have spent no less than $44 million on TV ads focused on inflation and the economy.

Democrats, meanwhile, have avoided inflation talk like the plague. In contrast to their Republican counterparts, Democrats have only spent $12 million on TV ads highlighting inflation and the economy; they’ve instead focused most of their airwave attention covering social issues. There are some notable exceptions – Senate candidates John Fetterman (PA) and Michael Bennet (CO) have spotlighted the cost of living crisis in their ads – but they, unfortunately, are not enough to give the impression that Democrats as a whole care about inflation or have a cohesive message around the issue.

This is a huge missed opportunity on the part of Democrats. With just three weeks to go until the midterm elections, new polling suggests that their odds of maintaining control of Congress may be slipping away. If Democrats want to win, then they need to immediately change course in their messaging strategies and focus their attention on what voters care most about: inflation.

But it’s not enough to just talk about inflation – Democrats need to start talking about it in a more compelling way.  So far, Democratic candidates have largely failed to communicate to voters a story about inflation that resonates. If they want to win in three weeks, they should start telling the truth about the real villain behind skyrocketing prices – corporate greed – and their plan of action for tackling it.

The GOP is great at storytelling, even if the story it’s telling is pure fiction. In their TV ads, GOP candidates place the blame for the inflation crisis squarely on President Biden and the Democrats’ “reckless spending,” specifically their $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is completely wrong and irresponsible to suggest that the American Rescue Plan – a critical piece of legislation that kept 22 million jobless Americans from going hungry and getting evicted during the worst of the pandemic – is in any way responsible for the outrageous prices that we’re all experiencing at the grocery store and gas pump. 

But even if it’s wrong, it’s effective because it’s a clean and simple message: “Inflation is happening because the Democrats spent too much money.”

Contrast that with the current Democratic story: inflation is a complicated issue that they’re working to solve. With demand for goods and services ballooning as the economy continues to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, backlogs in global supply chains and increased production costs for a variety of products have led to inflation. It’s much more factually correct, but it’s complicated and has no emotional resonance.

Instead, Democrats should take a page out of the Republican playbook and recognize that voters like having a villain to blame. Luckily, a significant amount of the inflation we see today is actually the result of some real-life villains: greedy corporate executives.

We’ve seen corporations raise prices over and over again throughout the last year not because of increased costs on their end, but because they know that they can get away with it by blaming inflation. Put simply, they have used the hype over inflation and global supply chain issues to raise consumer prices above what would be necessary to make up for increased production costs. If you don’t believe us, take their own word for it: they’re openly bragging about their price-gouging strategies on earnings calls with shareholders. And if you still don’t believe it? Look at the numbers: corporate profits are the highest they’ve been in 70 years.

This should be an easy message for Democrats to sell. It’s understandable that candidates might be hesitant to talk about inflation: voters are quick to blame whatever party is in power for the country’s woes, so candidates might think that actively discussing inflation might be shooting themselves in the foot. But if you’re running for Congress, you can’t just ignore the biggest issue on voters’ minds. You need to address it head on. And if voters are looking for someone to blame, it should be the corporate executives that are raising prices on American families in order to enrich themselves and their shareholders.

This isn’t a losing battle, so long as Democrats actually are willing to fight it. If they make the case that they are the party that is willing to take on corporate greed and fix inflation, they can dispel the lies that Republicans continue to promulgate and blaze a path forward for them to retain control of Congress come November.

To win, Democrats have to drive home that they have the right plans to tackle corporate greed and bring down spiraling prices. They need to drive home that they are the ones proposing windfall profits taxes on ultra-profitable corporations. (Our Vice-Chair, Stephen Prince, lent his support to one such proposal, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Ro Khanna’s Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax, in an op-ed published in Newsweek over the summer, which you can read HERE.) They need to drive home that they are the ones raising taxes on corporations, like they did with the corporate minimum tax in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. They need to drive home that they are the ones trying to break up corporate monopolies, like they did with Senator Amy Klobuchar’s Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act. In short, they need to drive home that they are the party that, given the right tools with bigger majorities in both houses of Congress, can guide America safely to shore from the inflation storm.

The stakes are too high in the midterms for Democrats to tip-toe around their corporate donors’ feelings and avoid inflation talk on the campaign trail. If they really want to win, they need to get real with voters, tell them what’s really going on with inflation, and convince them that they have the right answers to fix it all. And they need to do it before it’s too late.

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