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Guest Column: It's the New Economy, Stupid

Texas Democrats have a compelling message that resonates beyond the Party faithful: We believe investing in an educated workforce is essential to competing for high-paying jobs in an information-based economy.

By James Aldrete
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Editor's note: We asked prominent Democratic consultants from around the state about the moribund condition of their party, why they think voters should stick with them, how the party can become competitive and how they'd try to sell Republican and independent voters on their candidates. To read the other two guest columns on this subject, go here and here.

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Despite Rick Perry’s single digit numbers in the polls, everyone in the nation by now knows his recipe for the economy: low taxes, a predictable regulatory environment, and tort reform. That set of three talking points, he has down. But if you ask voters what is the Texas Democratic economic recipe, you’re likely to get Perryesque blank stares.

The fact is, Texas Democrats have a compelling message that resonates beyond the Party faithful, and it’s a near perfect fit for an increasingly suburban state. We believe investing in an educated workforce is essential to competing for high-paying jobs in an information-based economy. The Perry Plan, if allowed to continue, will further drive us into a low-wage state.

To adapt a line from James Carville, it’s the new economy, stupid. 

The divide between the new and old economy is brewing in Texas. On the Presidential trail, Mitt Romney attacks Rick Perry claiming 40% of the jobs created In Texas have been created for illegals. If you want a claim that can actually pass a PolitiFact test, Linda Chavez-Thompson brought this to the spotlight: Texas leads the nation in the percentage of workers earning minimum wage or less. And there’s “Dream Big,” the scathing report on the state of education in our state from none other than Bill Hammond’s Texas Association of Business.

Technology and innovation-driven sectors depend on an educated workforce.  That’s why Dell employees are on 2 a.m. conference calls with engineers in Pakistan. The old economy, on the other hand, increases profit margins off low-wage labor. That’s why they’re on 4 a.m. conference calls with manufacturing plants in China. But even Texas retail leaders are worried, frightened by the Prophet, former State Demographer Steve Murdoch, who warns Texas’ neglect of education will lead to declining median household incomes. It’s hard to make more money off families who are making less.

But when you’ve been exiled to political irrelevance as long as we Democrats have, sometimes you need a 2 x 4 to the head to get the message. And the 2 x 4 came in the form of an email from the President of the Texas Exes declaring war on the Regents, and Chairman Gene Powell in particular, for the hiring of a consultant previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The consultant’s crime: undermining academic research and trying to commoditize a university education that is critical to an innovation economy. (If the 2010 Republican primary taught us anything, when cheerleaders go political, watch out.)

The combination of old economy interests (Texans for Lawsuit Reform isn’t made up of tech stocks, after all) and Tea Party activists have cemented Republican boots in the economy of the past that doesn’t speak to the aspirations of suburban voters. For proof, see Kay Bailey Hutchison. The political opening is there and is ours for the taking. But the Democrats’ dilemma is that despite widespread agreement on the importance of education to Texas’ economic competitiveness, it has yet to significantly alter voter behavior.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, it’s hard for a message to compete when no one knows it’s out there. We have all the obvious problems: Not enough money, no statewide elected officials, and a 2010 ticket with only one viable, funded candidate whose strategy didn’t include hard punches — much less a stark contrast of competing economic visions.

Voting, in the end, is part choice and part confidence game. Everyone focuses on the horse race but that’s not where the movement starts. Shifts in candidate favorables and unfavorables precede shifts in the trial heat. And favorables don’t move until attribute numbers move. In other words, before you change the percentage of Texans who self--identify as Democrats, you have to address perceptions on individual attributes, such as, which party do you trust more on the economy? 

That means it’s not about one message, but about an ongoing, strategic, coordinated effort to broaden and shape voter perceptions. With the understanding that money is tight — and money too is a confidence game — here’s a quick to do list: Put the plan in writing, flesh it out, label it an economic plan, and then get new economy business leaders to sign on and endorse it. There are plenty of techies in our donor base. Put them on stage already — they’re a bigger draw and we’ll benefit from the association. Start a New Economy Caucus and take the show on the road. This all takes work, but it takes winning the attributes to win more elections, not the other way around.

James Aldrete is president and creative director of Message Audience and Presentation, an Austin-based political consultancy.

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