What Democrats should talk about Friday

Story highlights

  • Democratic presidential candidates to take part in debate forum on Friday
  • Will Marshall: Democrats are still an ideologically balanced coalition

Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Compared to the Republicans' presidential cattle calls, the next Democratic debate will be an intimate affair, since the field has shrunk to just three candidates. They will gather in South Carolina Friday for a "candidate forum" moderated by MSNBC's uber-progressive Rachel Maddow.

That sounds like a recipe for another rousing round of populism, business-bashing and exhortations by Sen. Bernie Sanders to Americans to stop worrying and learn to love democratic socialism. If so, it will spell trouble for the candidate everyone expects to emerge with the prize -- Hillary Clinton.
After their first debate in Las Vegas, Democrats congratulated themselves on having been more substantive than the Republicans. True enough: No sentient viewer could confuse the GOP Gong Show with the PBS NewsHour.
    Will Marshall
    But amid all the wonkery, something big was missing -- a sense of economic optimism, buttressed by fresh ideas for stimulating innovation and growth. Working Americans want to know how they and their children can find opportunities and win in the global knowledge economy. Instead, Democrats dwelled at great length on how badly they are losing. They had plenty to say about inequality, but almost nothing about how to create new jobs, enterprises and wealth.
    Sanders, in fact, flatly said growth wouldn't help because the economic game is hopelessly rigged against ordinary Americans -- a dubious assertion that none of his rivals challenged. One who might have taken issue with such defeatism was Clinton. After all, she had a ringside seat, as first lady, the last time America saw wealth and income disparities actually narrow -- the late 1990s.
    That happened thanks to a combination of robust economic growth, averaging 4% a year, tight labor markets that pushed up everyone's wages, and a surge of "new economy" innovation. The point is not that Democrats should reprise Bill Clinton's specific policies, it's that they would be foolish to give up on economic growth.
    Now it's true that Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley all favor investing more to modernize America's rundown infrastructure, which is critical to making firms and workers more productive. Mostly, though, they've called for an array of new government benefits, including: paid family leave, "free" tuition, or at least new subsidies for college students, and even more spending on Social Security, which already has negative cash flow and will run out of money entirely in less than 20 years. All to be paid for by taxing the rich, thereby rectifying capitalism's failure to deliver economic justice.
    Whatever the merits of these ideas, none really goes to the heart of America's core dilemma: ebbing economic dynamism. The slowdown is reflected in growth rates that have averaged just 2% since 2000, falling rates of new business creation, lagging business investment, and slumping productivity gains which in turn mean meager wage growth for working Americans.
    What presidential aspirants owe voters are positive plans for reversing these woeful trends and resuscitating America's free enterprise system. Yet instead of solutions, populists serve up scapegoats -- the rich, Wall Street banks, big corporations, right-wing billionaires.
    Sanders, of course, may not be in the race to win it, but to push Clinton to the left. However, Clinton can't afford to stand on a narrow platform of populism, protectionism and wealth distribution. That's not a winning formula in a close presidential race likely to be decided by aspirational middle-class voters in states like Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Virginia. Nor will it help Democrats recapture Congress, which will require picking up some Senate seats in red states, and winning dozens of House swing districts lost to Republicans since 2010.
    In fact, the populist emphasis on economic grievance and victimization doesn't even appeal to a good chunk of the Democratic rank and file. Take trade, for example. With dreary predictability, all of the candidates have toed the labor line and slammed President Barack Obama's proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Yet a new report by the Pew Research Center finds that 45% of Democrats polled would be more inclined to support a candidate who wants to expand trade agreements compared to 19% who would be less likely to support such a candidate.
    Unlike the Republicans, Democrats are still an ideologically balanced coalition. It's true they've become more liberal since 2000, according to a Pew survey (up 14 points to 41%), but 56% still identify as either moderate or conservative. And we know from previous studies that moderates prefer problem-solving to reflexive partisanship, give economic growth much higher priority than redistribution, and are more skeptical of expansive government than liberals.
    Clinton and her party need a campaign message as balanced as their coalition. That will enable them to expand their appeal beyond core partisans and left-wing ideologues to persuadable voters across the middle of the spectrum, especially if Republicans give them an assist by nominating an arch-conservative (or, as they did last time, someone pretending to be one).
    Mesmerized by Donald Trump and distracted by anti-immigration sentiment, the Republicans for now are incapable of coalescing around a coherent vision for economic renewal. Today's conservatives are so addled by anti-government populism that they can't even distinguish between investment in modern infrastructure, which generates measurable economic returns, and "wasteful" government spending.
    The GOP's disarray gives Democrats an opportunity to seize the high ground of economic optimism and progress in the 2016 elections. Clinton would be wise to use Friday's debate to start pivoting away from a polarizing populism toward a hopeful and unifying vision for pro-growth progressivism.
    Such a vision would build on our country's core economic strengths, especially in technology and innovation. The digital revolution, in fact, is one of the few developments that "evokes optimism in every major segment of society," notes the Atlantic's Ronald Brownstein. In a recent survey, 78% of the public said advances in computer and communications technology made them hopeful about the nation's future.
    The big question now is how to extend the digital sector's creativity and dynamism to the rest of the U.S. economy. Let's hope we hear some answers Friday night in South Carolina.