In the Arena

On Target

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David Brooks is totally on target today. The Democrats lost, in large part, because they spent too much time on issues that either hurt the middle west middle class in the short-term (cap and trade) or seemed too peripheral or distant to their immediate needs (health care). By threatening to repeal health care and fixing on deficit reduction (a long-term issue that needs to take a back seat to restoring the economy),  the Republicans are threatening to do the same.

The message I received when I traveled across the country was not complicated. What these people want, I think, is some real meat and potatoes talk about the following issues: trade/China, education, Wall Street (Add: and, of course, jobs and more jobs). They will, I expect, be receptive to bad news: the impact of China on their lives isn’t as dire or direct as it seems. But they will expect the government to respond–and the President to speak out–when China is caught cheating (on currency manipulation). They’re not so much concerned about choice in education as they are about real skills; they’d be receptive to a new emphasis–a revolution–in vocational education, where companies join together with school systems to train students for specific jobs. They’re skeptical, appropriately, about the steps Obama has taken to restrain Wall Street and they’d be open to a more rigorous regulatory process that either restores the wall between commercial and investment banking or–my choice–establishes a financial transaction tax on derivatives. They’d also be open, I suspect, to some big, old-fashioned stimulus spending: no more road paving, thank you–but bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants, a new air traffic control system, a smart electric grid (but not wires overhanging their neighborhoods). A payroll tax holiday–to the horror of entitlement-spending hawks–would speak more directly to former factory workers now toiling at mini-marts than any other policy proposal.

On the conservative side of the ledger, they want to see the growth of the federal government restrained. They’re also sensitive about  money that seems to be going to the undeserving poor and not to them (this was another problem with the health care bill). They don’t like the money that’s being spent in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. They don’t like foreign aid. They probably wouldn’t mind the closure of costly U.S. bases around the world, especially in safe places like Germany,

Some of these preferences and prejudices are wrong; some emphasize the short-term over the strategic. There are issues, like climate change, that will have to be addressed by a responsible government whether folks in the middle of the country want to or not. Free trade in many product areas is absolutely necessary to the economy’s growth. Neither political party could, or should, accede to this entire agenda. But it should be the basis–the heart–of our policy discussions in the immediate future.

A colleague recently said to me, “The middle class is just totally screwed.” I replied, “then this country is screwed.” These issues, no matter how difficult, are not optional. We need to start acting on them now.