Democrats have to learn to listen to those who pay the bills

I was talking to one of my neighbors about writing a column on “the moderate suburban swing voter,” and she laid a hand on my arm: “Please remind people that we pay for everything.” As we approach the April 15 tax deadline, this is indeed a good place to start.

We think a lot about the bills. We fret about our own living costs, the costs for our children and sometimes for our aging parents. We pay a non-trivial amount of our income in taxes for schools and local, state and federal governments. We worry about the cost of food, housing, child care, health insurance and health care, and we worry about our own retirement, among many other sundry bills and responsibilities.

Our costs have been going up lately. Flipping through some of the bills on my own desk, our property taxes have increased by 23 percent over the past two years, reflecting a 40 percent increase in school property taxes – even as my son’s classrooms are jammed and his stressed teachers are assigning video games for him to “learn.” Our health insurance costs have increased by 14 percent in the past year alone — for a high-deductible plan that is essentially catastrophic coverage plus a once-a-year primary care visit. We all have experienced multiple inflationary jumps in the cost of food, transportation and energy.

It’s not just on the expense side. Almost everyone I know has retirement savings in 401(k)s or similar instruments, instead of pensions, because corporations and governments shifted the burden and risk to employees.

The fundamental day-to-day experience is one of hard work. Most of us work more than the standard 40-hour week while raising children and running households, and a significant number are caring for aging relatives. We also are key participants in the vast array of volunteer activities that make our communities function.

This is not a complaint. The great blessing of this country is that most of us get to enjoy the fruits of our labor and hopefully pass it on to our children. But, from a political standpoint, it’s important to understand that nothing about this life feels easy or privileged. Success, in most cases, is earned through hard work and sacrifice.

Now, into this somewhat stressed environment, Democrats are talking about running up the tab for more social programs. My concern is that this agenda is not particularly appealing to many of my friends and neighbors — those who “pay the bills.” It feels like putting one more rock in the pack they have to carry, largely for benefits they will not experience or don’t need, and for people who they believe have not worked nearly as hard as they have. My more conservative friends are quick to point to privileged college students getting their loans forgiven at taxpayer expense and unions advocating for a 32-hour work week. Many of my neighbors complained about receiving the expanded child tax credit payment in 2021-2022. They didn’t need it, and it looked wasteful. Local small-business owners complained it was paying their employees not to work. Yet, many Democrats were confused when the expiration of the expanded child tax credit was met with a tepid response instead of outrage.

Democrats try to reassure voters that new programs will be covered by taxing the “rich,” specifically “those making over $400,000.” This was a tough sell when I was in Congress. When I had to explain it, $400,000 sounded both weirdly precise and yet completely arbitrary. Meanwhile, the national debt is $34 trillion, with no end to the hemorrhaging in sight. Most middle-class taxpayers believe they are going to be on the hook for this one way or the other — and they are right.

President Biden is polling far worse than he should be. When people say they believe Biden has been captured by the far left, the pundit class acts confused. After all, he’s a “moderate.” The problem is that the policies the progressive-dominate Democratic Party is putting on the table are perceived as giving benefits to those who haven’t earned them. To many voters, they look more like something they are going to have to pay for than something they are going to benefit from.

In the Clinton era, my formative years, Democrats framed social policy as helping those who “work hard and play by the rules” should be able to make it. The dialogue was about balancing the budget and governing like adults who can make hard choices. That was resonant then, and it’s resonant now. Meanwhile, Republicans are largely seen to be in the pockets of corporate interests, wringing money out of middle-class taxpayers. Republicans aren’t particularly popular either. But if Democrats want to win elections in Georgia again and recapture the moderate center, step one is to recenter themselves around the people who pay the bills.

Carolyn Bourdeaux is a former member of Congress from Georgia’s 7th District. She is a contributor to the AJC Opinion page.

                        President Joe Biden speaks at an event at the YMCA Allard Center in Goffstown, N.H., Monday, March, 11, 2024. The president’s $7.3 trillion budget for the next fiscal year proposes new spending on social programs to help the middle class that are offset by higher taxes on high earners and corporations. (Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

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Credit: NYT

 Carolyn Bourdeaux, Democratic nominee in Georgia's 7th Congressional District, poses for a photo at her Suwanee headquarters Saturday, August 8, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer