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Robert Kuttner Headshot

The Uniter-Divider and His Bare Cupboard

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On Thursday, John McCain pledged to end partisan rancor. On Wednesday, his running mate, Sarah Palin, and the rest of his crew did everything possible to stir it up. This will evidently be the nice-cop/bad cop act through the campaign.

As if to rain on McCain's parade, the unemployment rate hit 6.1 percent. That's the highest rate since 1993, except for a brief spike in the summer of 2003. Drilling down into the report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the news only gets worse. Monthly job losses were 84,000 in August, worse than expected. The number of long term unemployed rose by twice that number, to a total of more than 1.8 million.

In his acceptance speech, McCain went out of his way to emphasize his independence from the wretchedly failed administration of George W. Bush. But his differences on the key pocketbook issues that should be front and center in the campaign are...exactly what?

Here's what: If anything, McCain will double down on Bush's policies--even more tax cutting; even more slashing of social spending; even more license for speculators to take down the whole economy. Even more coziness with big oil. Despite the rhetoric of independence, the program was the same-old same-old--on Alaska-scale steroids.

What does it offer the average citizen? If your job doesn't pay a living wage, or if it is at risk of being outsourced, or if the price of college is exorbitant debt, or you are locked in because of health insurance concerns, if good housing is unaffordable, then a tax cut of another few dollars and offshore drilling that yields some oil in 2023 doesn't exactly solve your problems.

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the unemployment rate is expected to keep rising. In anticipation of this morning's bleak numbers, the stock market Thursday took a big tumble--because it is dawning on investors that this recession is not just a passing blip. Retail sales are down because consumers are tapped out. More banks are on the verge of folding. The federal guarantee did not restore investor confidence in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Despite the most extensive set of bailouts since the 1930s, the financial system is still in deep crisis. Most ominously, the recent precipitous drop in energy prices did nothing to brake the slide into recession. So the election will play out against a dramatically worsening economy.

Memo to the Obama campaign: Connect These Dots.

People know all too well what is happening in their own lives. These private travails need to be made the stuff of politics once again. All of these misfortunes are the result of thirty years of conservative ideology, which had its way with the American economy. What more proof do we need that rightwing policies promoting the rapacious genius of free markets yield practical failure for most ordinary people?

What we do need is uncommon leadership on the progressive side. So leave Sarah Palin to be the tabloid sideshow that she is, and let's get back to the economy. (Thank God the talking heads have a short attention span.) There is only one Sarah Palin issue worth keeping in play: Even if she was a great mayor and a great mom, and contrary to the National Enquirer never had an affair with her husband's business partner, do you really want her to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office? And what does this pick say about McCain's judgment? (There is one comforting thought, however. Whatever Sarah Palin is, she is no Dick Cheney.)

As they say in workaday middle America, Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We have seen this show before. The rightwing presidential candidate as "a uniter, not a divider;" the rhetoric of independence and bipartisanship coupled with the reality of vicious divisiveness; the economic program that rewards the very top and does nothing for regular Americans, who have already had seven years of skidding economic security, and now face a deepening recession.

If we are fooled twice, shame on us all--and especially shame on the Democrats for not hitting this one out of the park.