Two questions will dominate the 2004 presidential campaign: how to make the United States secure in an age of terror, and how to get the economy to work for all Americans. George W. Bush’s responses have been to call for unilateral pre-emptive wars and high-end tax cuts. With US soldiers continuing to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the President presiding over the worst job contraction since the Great Depression, voters are starting to look for better answers. In the first primary debate, Democratic presidential candidates argued alternatives to the Bush war doctrine and the Iraq debacle. The next official debate, on September 25, will focus on the economy. It comes as the Administration hails the economy’s sputtering revival. But even with renewed growth, Bush is likely to be the first President since Herbert Hoover to end his first term having lost rather than produced jobs.
Democratic candidates should lay out a clear critique of Bush’s failures and an alternative growth agenda. The main problem with Bush’s economic policies is not the deficits per se but what produced them: primarily tax cuts for the wealthy and the pre-emptive wars. America would have been far better served if we’d invested that money in education, energy independence, vital infrastructure and domestic security needs. These would have put Americans to work, avoided destructive cuts of school programs now cascading through the states and prevented long-term fiscal imbalance.
The Democratic candidates must also address the unsustainable $500 billion annual trade deficit, which records a hemorrhaging of jobs in the manufacturing, high-tech and service industries. Vulnerable on this key issue, Bush is now rolling out a public relations campaign–starting with the appointment of a “jobs czar” in the Commerce Department–to show he cares. Democrats should go beyond such gestures to serious policy proposals. It is one sign of progress that major Democratic candidates now pledge to support future trade accords only if they protect labor rights and the environment.
But what is needed more fundamentally is the articulation of a new form of globalization that is worker-centered, not corporate-centered. Rather than try to ram through another round of corporate trade treaties that will only accelerate the race to the bottom (an effort now at least made more difficult by the collapse of the WTO talks in Cancún), the United States should work with the industrial nations and the South group headed by Brazil to erase burdensome Third World debts (which will never be repaid) and to increase the buying power of workers here and abroad, thus stimulating global growth from the bottom up.
Democrats should also stop biting their tongues about the alarming growth of inequality and poverty, which has reached Gilded Age extremes. They should combine a campaign for fair taxes with a growth strategy based on empowering workers–not paying off millionaires. A good start would be a national living wage that would enable full-time workers to lift their families out of poverty, combined with a right to organize that would let workers create a union simply by signing up–rather than through elections corrupted by corporate intimidation.
Finally, Democrats must address support systems that are essential to basic security in a changing global economy, starting with alternatives to a broken healthcare system whose costs are soaring. With the largest wave of kids hitting the schools since the baby boom, likely the largest wave of teacher retirements ever and schools that are decrepit and overcrowded, the country needs a recommitment to public education at all levels: more early-childhood education programs; more schools; initiatives to recruit and train teachers and to insure that universities are not priced out of reach of most Americans. On pensions, retirement security, paid vacations, overtime pay, workplace safety, clean air and water–the whole range of what Paul Wellstone called “kitchen-table issues”–Bush has systematically sided with the top floor over the shop floor. By politicizing September 11 and wrapping himself in the flag, Bush has deflected attention from his failed economic policies. If he is to be challenged successfully in 2004, Democratic candidates must speak boldly about a new economic course.