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How Body Language Could Blow it for Democrats

Class Warfare 2008

Progressive economists meeting in Washington last week concurred: America needs a new New Deal—an aggressive federal agenda of re-regulating the financial markets, national health care and pro-worker programs like the one enacted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It’s time, they said, to undo the excesses of what many have come to call “free-market fundamentalism,” which has been the Washington mantra since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

With consumer confidence dipping low, and a historic squeeze on working- and middle-class incomes and employee benefits, it may even be politically possible.

But Democrats have a problem explaining progressive economic policies when pro-union, pro-regulation Democrats have been successfully caricatured as cultural elitists and snobs who sneer at the tastes, faith, gender roles, and economic aspirations of working people.

Thus the vulnerability of Barack Obama, which is all the more unfortunate, because he recently gave a dramatic, even radical speech to Wall Street, the gist of which is this: The days of Reaganism and free-market fundamentalism need to end.

Class warfare, again

We saw it happen in 2004. Senator John Kerry, who had actually killed the enemy face-to-face in battle, and who has always been a progressive on social and marketplace issues, lost touch with white, working-class men—a key target demographic—because they perceived him to be an elitist, intellectual preppy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s activist federal government rescued American capitalism. Folks who want a new New Deal are like commentator Justin Fox, who hopes for “a wise, disinterested regulator who…combines a light touch with an iron fist.”

Barack Obama

But the white working class has to endorse that plan if it is ever to be enacted.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain both win this group over Barack Obama by 25 points or more, according to recent polls.

Educated progressives all love Obama, but a few quietly admit to fears that an Obama nomination could lead to a candidacy quashed by the Republican rhetorical strategy that has worked for so long—followed by a continuation of more free-market fundamentalism, with the added twist of Lemon Socialism for Wall Street.

Meanwhile, religiously observant Protestants, whose income profile should make them economic progressives, hear other messaging. Every week, preachers like Joel Osteen reach millions with his message that God blesses believers with riches.

Economic progressives rebut this thinking with mere facts—that under-regulated markets, regressive tax policy, and lax trade rules have injured working people. The rhetoric of free-market fundamentalism has disguised some of the most egregious “crony capitalism” in history—but the rhetoric of freedom, of American values, and of personal opportunity has proved more powerful than those facts.

Since Ronald Reagan, working-class American white males in particular simply do not vote their economic self-interest. If they did, then all Barack Obama would have to do would be to replay his New York speech on the economy for the rest of the campaign.

Into the lion’s den

“If you can borrow from the government,” Obama said in his Wall Street speech, “you should be subject to government oversight and supervision.”

That’s the gist of it. Like every proposal for radical change, it is quite simple.

Obama forcefully restated the case for creating a new regulatory framework for the capital marketplace.

“The core of our economic success is the fundamental truth that each American does better when all Americans do better; that the well-being of American business, its capital markets, and the American people are all aligned,” said Obama.

Indeed. The Economic Policy Institute publishes many a paper detailing that Bush-era free-market fundamentalism has seen income for the richest one percent of Americans grow beyond inflation at well over 10 percent a year, while income for the bottom 90 percent has either stagnated or declined. The think-tank Citizens for Tax Justice has published dozens of reports on how the corporate tax system has once again become a Swiss cheese of loopholes and preferences that leave big banks, hedge funds, brokerage houses, and other corporations paying next to nothing in taxes, while wealthy individuals—who get most of their income in capital gains and dividends—enjoy lower tax rates than people who earn wages and salaries.

Obama bravely seeks to roll back the Bush tax cuts, and to increase the tax rate on capital gains, which even Ronald Reagan agreed in 1986 to keep the same as on ordinary income earned from work. Obama would pay for restoring stability to the Medicare and Social Security trust funds by rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the top one percent. Obama, much more explicitly than Hillary Clinton, has rejected free-market fundamentalism.

That’s why the most important speech Obama has given so far in this campaign was not about race but about money.

Even more impressive is that despite receiving massive campaign donations from the Wall Street speculators who bought de-regulation in 1999, Obama went to Wall Street to present the case for reining in Wall Street. It was brave stuff. It was Daniel walking back into the lions’ den.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the class divide

John McCain is spending the spring season going to his own version of the lion’s den. He is taking his newfound free-market fundamentalism—his endorsement of keeping the Bush tax cuts, of privatizing social insurance, and his opposition to universal healthcare—to Appalachia and to the Midwest on a campaign swing targeting working-class voters.

McCain uses the language of fairness, freedom from government intrusion and of the free market during a season when his heroic biography will receive lots of air-time—as will stories of his deep personal decency, like his loyal deathbed hospital visits to the late Democratic presidential candidate Mo Udall.

It’s sad that sound regulation of runaway, run-amok financial elites should have to depend upon the psychological characteristics of campaign messaging.

But that’s how our politics has worked for the past 30 years, and will work again—unless events become so ugly that the pure pain of working people drives them back into the arms of Democrats.

Bruce Fisher has been a campaign press secretary, a speechwriter and a consultant for Democrats including the late Paul Simon, Joseph Biden, Carol Mosely Braun, and Bill Clinton. He left the campaign trail to raise kids in Buffalo and served eight years as deputy county executive for Erie County.

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