10/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Keepin' It (A Little Bit) Real

So this friend of mine told me she really liked the Democratic National Convention. "Why?" I asked. "Because it wasn't 100% phony," she said.

I agree. The event was, of course, highly scripted. You can bet every speech was closely vetted. The only truly spontaneous words from that stage were spoken by Obama's (unbelievably cute) kids, when their mom, in what had to be the riskiest call of the week, handed them a live mike to chat with dad in another city.

But what I think my friend meant was that some actual truth and unity managed to break through the pageantry and positioning. Truth regarding the challenges we face in our economy, our foreign policy, health care, and our environment. Unity regarding the critical need to come together in support of a ticket that wasn't everyone's first choice.

From what I heard, the keynote speakers all understood and articulated the substantive challenges, and Obama/Biden have a viable plan to meet them. That, to my ears, is what "change" is all about. "Change" is one of those empty-vessel concepts into which you can pour any idea you want. But after last week, I get it quite clearly, and that was why I think the DNC convention was a success.

"Change" for Democrats in 2008, means two things. One, we engage in reality-based diagnoses of the challenges we face and two, we propose solutions that are very different from the ones we've been pursuing for the past eight years. And very different from those that the other side is proposing.

Take issue #1: the economy. In terms of diagnostics, the Census Bureau released some important numbers last week, which I reviewed here. Though middle-class incomes rose slightly last year, over the full business cycle of the 2000s (that's 2000-07), they were unchanged. That's never happened before. Yes, for decades there's been an evolving gap between overall growth and the living standards of the middle-class, but never before has the median household failed to make at least some economic progress over an economic expansion.

Some highlights from the Census report:

• The income trends were worse for working-age families, headed by someone under 65. The weakest job market on record meant diminished earnings opportunities over the 2000s, and the real median income of these households was down $2,010, 2000-07.

• This is an even more amazing loss when you consider that working families contributed to quite stellar productivity growth rates over these years. This measure of how efficiently the workforce is producing rose 2.5% per year, 2000-07, half-a-percent faster than in the 1990s, when the real median income of working-age households rose more than $5,000. Middle-income workers were more productive, but ended up with less.

• The growth that occurred over these years also bypassed low-income families. Poverty rates were 1.2% higher in 2007 than in 2000, up from 11.3% to 12.5%, an addition of 5.7 million to the poverty rolls, making this the worst cycle for poverty on record.

All week long I argued about these numbers with conservatives on CNBC. They wanted to adjust the data differently, to choose different years for the comparisons. They argued on Wednesday that strong capital goods orders were signs of a turnaround, and on Thursday that better-than-expected GDP growth in the second quarter meant the economic debate was over.

I fought back, of course...adjustments and end-points don't change the conclusion that this recovery has been uniquely unrewarding for most families. Regarding GDP growth, if we've learned anything over the past eight years, it's that you can't talk about overall economic growth and assume you're saying anything about how most families are doing (that the problem when there's so much inequality embedded in the economy; and for the record, the GDP spike was likely temporary due to the tax rebates and unusually strong exports in the quarter). Yes, there was a welcome upside surprise to non-defense, ex-aircraft purchases in the durable goods report. But somehow I suspect the fact that jobs and wages are down every month this year is more important to voters right now.

While the conservative economic punditry fails to recognize that it's politically tone deaf to take the Phil "it's-all-in-your-head" Gramm stance on the current economy, McCain gets this, and he's been trying to talk populist these days. But his only plan to help those who've been left behind is to double-down on Bush, further slashing taxes of the wealthiest, cross his fingers and hope that contrary to our experience in the 1980s and even more so in the 2000s, prosperity trickles down to the have-nots.

So there is an inherent non-reality to the Republican platform, a cognitive dissonance that wasn't there in Denver last week. They'll distance themselves from Bush, of course, but since they've signed onto his economic program -- that will take some fancy dancing. They'll pretend that the war, especially the surge, has been a success, because their candidate is stuck in that particular bubble. They'll argue, against the evidence (see the figure on the top of page 3 here), that their guy's health care will cover more of the uninsured at less cost than Obama's plan. They'll have to pretend that McCain's gas tax holiday is a great plan for strapped consumers, and that drilling today will lower prices at the pump tomorrow.

And now with Sarah Palin as VP, they'll be deeply engaged in the cynical and fantastical math that figures women for Hillary Clinton = women for Palin, as if Clinton supporters care nothing about choice, creationism in schools, policy acumen, health care, the environment, and the war.

None of this means that because the D's have a better bead on reality this year, they'll win. These days, closely fought elections turn on a narrow slice of independents who often seem to be so overwhelmed by the info-fog created by the campaigns that they make their choice on which candidate feels better at a gut level.

This year may be different. The contradiction of a growing economy that fails to lift living standards is knocking on too many households' doors (assuming you still own your home) and is too real to ignore. Too many people have died in this terrible war to pull the lever based on who you'd most like to have a beer with. The public's fatigue with Bush and the Republican agenda is evident in the wrong-track polls, and this should help boost the case for reality-based diagnoses and solutions of the type presented with great clarity by Obama on Thursday night.

But there are still weeks to go, and we are likely to be reminded that while the R's may be lousy at governing, they are masterful campaigners (no question that the surprise Palin choice diminished the Obama post-convention bounce). They'll be working hard next week to convince the median, undecided voter that contrary to reality, McCain's economics are different than Bush's, and that Obama will raise taxes on almost everyone (guaranteed, you'll hear this mantra incessantly, though Obama's tax increases only begin at $250,000; he cuts taxes far more aggressively than McCain for the bottom 95% of households).

Behind the scenes, their shock troops will be pushing equally false themes that Obama is too unfamiliar, the kind of guy with whom you really don't want to have a beer. Look for a lot of this nonsense next week, because both Michelle and Barack Obama presented themselves effectively and naturally in Denver.

Like my friend said, our convention, for all its calculated moments, was a little bit real. Within that little dose of reality -- that increasingly rare moment in today's politics when something real is revealed -- lies the difference between a more positive future and more of the same.

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