There is more to fear than fear itself as the 2008 electoral calendar turns from a summer silly season of debates over tire inflation to a fall when voters will charge a President and Congress with cleaning up the economic mess we’ve fallen into. The details are all too painfully enumerated. Housing foreclosures in June were up 50 percent compared with the same month in 2007, and we still haven’t hit the worst of the credit crunch. Gas prices have risen 33 percent over the past year, and heating oil is expected to rise by 60 percent. Food prices, up 4 percent last year, are rising at the fastest rate in almost two decades. As the cost of living skyrockets, opportunities to make a living are disappearing. Employers announced plans for 103,000 job cuts in July–a 141 percent increase over the previous July. A downturn that began in the housing and financial sectors has spread throughout the economy.
The crisis may be uneven–a “downturn” in some states, a recession in Michigan–but it is national in character. A Rockefeller Foundation/Time survey found that 85 percent of Americans think we’re headed in the wrong direction; the majority say the American Dream “is no longer attainable.”
The response of John McCain is no response at all. The GOP contender admits to his own economic ignorance, takes counsel that dismisses worries about keeping homes and jobs as “whining” and threatens to do more than Bush to dismantle regulatory and safety-net protections. Democrats who gather in Denver to nominate Barack Obama should be trouncing Republicans who promise more of the same and maybe worse. Yet polls portray a close presidential race.
Obama, under pressure to avoid appearing “liberal,” errs too frequently on the side of caution. And because presidential candidates define the debate, Obama’s populism deficit constrains Democrats even as Americans demand more than mere “hope.” The Rockefeller/Time survey found almost 80 percent believe that the social contract they could once depend on has deteriorated and say they want a new one.
The tepid platform Democrats will adopt in Denver is not a new social contract, but it does go places Republicans never will. Because of popular mobilization, it calls for strengthening rather than privatizing Social Security and embracing the healthcare guarantee proposed by Progressive Democrats of America and the California Nurses Association. And a push from the Citizens Trade Campaign and its union allies strengthened sections on trade policy and on the right of workers to organize.
But this document still pulls too many punches. Obama and the Democrats should do more to distinguish their agenda from McCain’s empty rhetoric. Popular longing for a new economics creates what the late Paul Wellstone called a “teaching moment.” The Democrats should seize it and present a bold governing program–the Apollo Alliance plan for energy independence, detailed infrastructure programs that emphasize smart growth and sustainability, industrial and farm policies that invest in job creation, and health and retirement guarantees to provide all Americans with security. It is not enough to hint at good intentions.
Americans are ready to rally behind the idea that government can be a part of the solution to our economic woes. As we argue in this special issue, these times demand a popular movement on behalf of a vision as bold as the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society, whose Democratic supporters won not just the White House but sufficiently robust Congressional majorities to turn the ship of state off the crash course charted by previous George Bushes and John McCains.