The most interesting thing Quinnipiac University pollsters found when they surveyed New Yorkers ahead of November’s elections was not that the Republican candidate for governor is within four points of ousting his opponent, the incumbent Democratic governor. That poll’s exploration of how partisan voters are navigating the dominant political issues in this election cycle is even more intriguing.
Among Republican voters in the Empire State, crime has surpassed inflation as this year’s most urgent issue. Crime is a salient electoral issue (it’s the primary concern among independent voters, too, followed closely by inflation). But New York’s Republican candidates have emphasized crime, which conveys to Republican voters that crime is what they should be talking about. That phenomenon works both ways. When Democrats in the state are asked about the issues they regard as paramount, they cite “protecting democracy” first, followed by crime and, in a distant third place, inflation.
Political parties and their candidates emphasize their strengths. Democrats have done little to neutralize the GOP’s advantages on crime save for their efforts to tar Republican candidates with the stain of January 6, which doubles as a way to shoehorn “protecting democracy” into the national conversation. But voters are not thinking about historic black swan events when they say they’re worried about public safety. Just the opposite: It’s the casual, everyday violence they hope to avoid.
Crime is, however, a localized concern, and being unable to navigate the issue will have localized consequences. Inflation is another matter. On a national scale, it’s hard to find a poll in which inflation and its effects on the economy are not the number one issue on voters’ minds. If Democrats are priming their voters to say (if not believe) that inflation is a tertiary issue in 2022 only because their candidates don’t know how to talk about it, that would be an act of political self-sabotage of the highest order. But that’s what they seem to be doing.
“Inflation’s an issue, but it’s global,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week in an attempt to provide her party with more rhetorical ammunition on the subject. If part one of Pelosi’s strategy is to downplay the shock of an 8 percent increase in consumer costs in a single year, part two is to pretend that no one knows how to get their hands around it. “They ain’t got nothing” on inflation, Pelosi said of the GOP. Indeed, she suggested the overheated economy is a good thing insofar as it is a function of lower unemployment, which makes you wonder why we haven’t experienced an inflationary cycle like this in 40 years despite periods typified by full employment. And anyway, who cares? “I think we’re in great shape,” Pelosi concluded.
The president agrees. “Our economy is strong as hell,” Joe Biden insisted during a weekend campaign stop in Oregon. Ponderously enough, the president’s prepared remarks concede the legitimacy of the GOP’s contention that Democrats are indifferent to rising consumer costs. “When it actually comes time to do something about inflation,” Biden warned, “Republicans in Congress” will balk. Even voters who are leery of the GOP’s economic preferences cannot fail to note that the president apparently believes the time to address inflation is later.
This is bewildering because the president and his party claim that they already tackled inflation in the form of the “Inflation Reduction Act.” It is, however, hard to find a Democrat that emphasizes the anti-inflation provisions in a bill supposedly dedicated to that purpose. What the party likes—and, therefore, what it talks about—are the provisions that led preliminary analysts of law to conclude that it would actually make inflation worse in the short term.
“What are some parts of the ‘Inflation Reduction Act,’ this amazing new law, that you are most excited about?” Vice President Kamala Harris was asked this week at a Bay Area climate-change conference. “I have a particular fondness, I must tell you, for electric school buses,” the vice president inexplicably replied. “I love electric school buses!” What do electric school buses have to do with inflation, you ask? “A lot of it has to do with a real intentionality that we have to re-shift industries,” she continued, “and to do that in a way that we are emphasizing the importance of U.S investment in U.S.-based R&D.” If you sift through all the empty managerial jargon, Harris’s emphasis on “U.S. investment,” e.g. the emptying of the Treasury into an already overheated economy, you can see why analysts are skeptical of the law’s impact on inflation.
As maladroit as the performances these Democrats turned in may be, they look like Baryshnikov compared to how Stacy Abrams handled the issue. In a Wednesday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Georgia’s Democratic candidate for governor managed at once to appear indifferent to inflation and disturbingly cold-blooded on the issue of abortion.
“Let’s be clear,” Abrams replied after she was confronted with her party’s messaging failures on the signature economic issue of our time. “Having children is why you’re worried about the price [of] gas. It’s why you’re worried about how much food costs.” She inadvisably continued: “You can’t divorce being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy from the economic realities of having a child.” Abrams did not follow her own logic to its own monstrous conclusion, but any sentient observer must. After all, a Swiftian decimation of the surplus population would surely decrease aggregate demand.
Inflation blots out the sun. It is the prohibitive issue that will decide how most voters cast their ballots in three weeks. And the party that has presided over an explosion of higher costs doesn’t know how to talk about it. If Democratic lawmakers really believe that the time to deal with inflation is tomorrow, the time for Democratic voters to panic is right now.