Sometimes a small observation speaks volumes. Recently CNN's Gloria Borger reported that when she asked Democratic voters what the Republican message was, they regurgitated it easily and correctly. When Borger asked them what the Democratic message was, the voters couldn't respond.
I have strong reasons to believe the GOP message is totally wrong on empirical and moral grounds. We do not need less stimulus right now, but more; we do not need less regulation, but more. We need to focus on job creation, not debt reduction, right now. And "leaving the money in private hands" will not do it, as many of the private hands are overseas (China, for instance, holds many of the treasury bonds we are using to finance our debt). And tax cuts for the rich lead them to save more, not to spend much,
However, the Me-Too Democrats have allowed to the GOP to make deficit-cutting the leading agenda of Washington policy discourse, despite the fact that according to a February 2011 Gallup poll, 35% of Americans felt unemployment was the most important problem facing America; only 11% said the same of the deficit. Another February poll conducted by Pew found that 44% of Americans held that the job situation was the economic issue that worried them most, while only 19% said the deficit worried them most. Even amidst all the recent talk of a debt crisis, an April Gallup poll showed that the top two concerns of Americans were still the "economy in general" and unemployment ranked by 45% of Americans listed as their top concerns, while the deficit and debt were so ranked only by 17%. And, as the special House election in New York just showed, one of the few things the Democrats have going for them is that they are known as champions of Medicare -- yet the Democrats keep saying that they too are willing to cut Medicare, only differently and to a lesser extent. The Democrats may hope that the voters will prefer their watered-down Republican agenda over the harsher GOP one, but they cannot presume the candidate the Republicans finally settle on will be a Tea Party mutant. On the contrary, after the primaries, the GOP candidate will very likely move toward the center.
Meanwhile, the Democrats must do better than arguing that the continued horrible job news, including the recent uptick of the unemployment rate to 9.1%, is merely a bump in the road, that the economy "is going to take a while" to mend, as President Obama put it. And they add that the tsunami in Japan and the Greece-EU debt crisis are at fault, and they soon will be behind us. The Democrats thus act as if they have a secret message from the gods of economics, that without any new major endeavors or policies , the economy will return to a strong growth, unemployment will fall, and -- voila! --they will carry the day, all without having to take the political risks involved in coming up with an active, interventionist economic agenda.
Nobody really knows what the economy will do next. If one had to bet, it would be safest to assume that the economy may recover some, but that it will continue to exhibit a rather anemic growth rate and high unemployment well into next year. Above all, the continued effort -- to which the GOP and the Me-Too Democrats seem to be leaning -- to take out four trillion dollars from federal spending over the next ten years, while states and cities are slashing their budget, is likely to make investors even more reluctant to start or expand enterprises and employers to hire people.
The Democrats need an agenda of their own. If more stimulus is impractical, they should call for massive outlays for retraining the labor force and public works that develop new domestic energy sources. They would be better off, even if the GOP succeeds in blocking such moves. They would demonstrate that they understand that what we now need is to focus on job creation, and cutting the deficit has its place -- later.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of The Moral Dimension (The Free Press, 1988).
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