Editor’s note: This article is a guest commentary and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Atlanta editorial staff.
It only took moments for Democratic soul-searching to commence after Jon Ossoff lost the Georgia sixth district special election to Republican Karen Handel.
His campaign spent a staggering $24 million in an attempt to pry the suburban district from gerrymandered GOP hands. So why couldn’t the Democratic Party pull off a win in a highly educated suburb that is increasingly diverse?
There were lots of reasons. I live in that district, and some friends and neighbors cited Ossoff’s alleged ties to Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the fact that he had little experience, and he didn’t even live in the district as their primary concerns. Basically, they declared that the 6th District was “not for sale.”
While it is true Ossoff was unwillingly tied to Pelosi, an unpopular figure outside of California, Handel was equally tied to President Donald Trump and his sub-40 percent approval rating in spite of her best efforts to distance herself during the campaign.
In the end, it came down to messaging that the Democratic Party is going to have to reinvent if it is to win elections in the South and Midwest. Ossoff’s loss illustrates that they need a new and fresh economic platform in the absence of social-issue motivators that drive progressives to the polls in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
Never has there been a better time for the party to refocus on jobs and economic growth. The GOP is teetering between old-school conservatism that embraces free-market principles and the new Trump-era economics that advocates for higher trade barriers and a slowdown of foreign influence. This uncertainty on the right leaves a glimmer of hope for the Democratic Party to show that it’s working on behalf of the middle class.
To flip Congress and regain the White House, Democrats can’t stick with run-of-the-mill economic development rhetoric. Already many leaders are calling for the party to reframe its approach to jobs and wages.
One easy way to do it? Focus on embracing the global community for the U.S.’s economic benefit.
Think about it: Progressives welcome international pacts like the recently abandoned Paris climate agreement, and they stand by the benefits of the EU and United Nations. Yet rarely do they openly support free trade and foreign direct investment.
That has to change. Democrats have a chance to explain to voters the benefits of free trade, capital investments and export-based industry. According to the Brookings Institution, foreign-owned U.S. affiliates directly employ some 5.6 million American workers, with the average worker in those affiliate firms making $77,000, compared to $60,000 in comparable U.S.-owned companies.
If that isn’t enough, foreign firms spend well over double the private-sector average on benefits per worker. And even better, a significant portion of FDI goes into manufacturing, often in the Midwest and South, areas of Democratic weakness. In 2012, 48 percent of all FDI dollars destined for the U.S. flowed into manufacturing. Knowledge of these benefits is severely lacking, as is the economic platform of the Democratic Party.
To make this shift in focus more intriguing, democrats could focus on areas of intersection between their education platform and the main thing foreign firms need: skilled labor.
Manufacturers face a shortage of workers, and most positions don’t require a four-year degree. Democrats could adjust their focus to supporting vocational and technical education to fill manufacturing jobs brought to the states through FDI, making their platform more relatable and tangible to the average American and giving them a real shot at pulling people out of poverty.
By accepting a focus on inbound investment, the Democratic Party in one fell swoop can reimagine their economic, international and education policy platforms in a way that promotes their dedication to the global family, ensures increased spending on higher education, creates jobs, raises wages, and actually gives them something to run on besides Trump’s failures.
Without a clear and directed economic platform, the Democratic Party will continue to fail. Embracing foreign direct investment provides a new strategy for winning key districts like GA-6 in the future.
Brian McGowan is a principal at the global law firm Dentons and a nationally-known economic development authority. As a member of the firm’s US Public Policy practice, he directs vision and provides strategy for clients looking to expand their global economic development initiatives. Prior to joining Dentons, McGowan served as executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and was appointed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed as president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm. Earlier in his career, he was appointed by both President Barack Obama to be US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Commerce for the State of California. McGowan is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy program.