09/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not About Us: Time for Democrats to Come Together

I once witnessed a harrowing incident in which a dazed SUV driver veered off course, smashed several parked cars, and coasted maybe 100 feet before coming to a stop on the adjoining sidewalk. Then she just sat there, red-faced and out of it, looking oddly determined. Amazingly no one was hurt. An angry crowd gathered, but an older gentleman simply walked over to her car, touched her on the shoulder, and asked "Are you all right? Let me hold your car keys." They talked quietly until paramedics came. In so many ways, Republicans have driven us off the road during these past eight years. I fear they won't yield the car keys as willingly.

Everyone recognizes the challenge Barack Obama faces. He must down-shift his inspiring message of hope and change down to a human scale and hammer the differences between Democrats and Republicans on the pocketbook issues that immediately matter to millions of people. Undecided voters care about other things, too: Iraq and Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, Katrina, AIDS, the environment. Yet when people are hurting, you must address their meat-and-potato issues before they will grant you another hearing.

This won't be easy, because the other side desperately want to avoid the straight-up comparison. They're right to worry. As a man, John McCain is more admirable than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. As the leader of his party, however, he peddles the same supply-side economics that has broken the budget while providing irresponsible tax breaks to the wealthy. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center recently ran the numbers on the two candidates' tax plans, in consultation with the economic staffs of the Obama and McCain campaigns.

In their wonky way, the Center's dry charts and bar graphs are rather breathtaking. They show that the Obama tax plan is much more progressive and much more fiscally disciplined than Senator McCain's plan is.

It's no surprise that the Obama tax plan is more progressive, but the differences remain striking. Eighty percent of American households pay markedly lower taxes under the Obama tax plan. As the Tax Policy Center analysis describes:

The Obama plan would make the tax system significantly more progressive by providing large tax breaks to those at the bottom of the income scale and raising taxes significantly on upper-income earners. The McCain tax plan would make the tax system more regressive, even compared with a system in which the 2001-2006 tax cuts are made permanent. It would do so by providing relatively little tax relief to those at the bottom of the income scale while providing huge tax cuts to households at the very top of the income distribution.

What about the deficit? Compared with current policy, the Tax Policy Center estimates that the McCain plan would reduce federal revenues by $598 billion between 2009 and 2018. It estimates that the Obama plan would raise revenues by $778 billion over the same period. That difference, about $200 billion annually by 2018, is more than enough to finance healthcare for every uninsured American. It is almost enough to finance two Iraq wars.

Again -- this isn't Democrats talking. This is the verdict of nonpartisan experts who ran the numbers provided by the McCain and Obama campaigns. Senator Obama wants to restore the same fiscal sanity that produced budget surpluses under Bill Clinton: reducing the tax burden on working people while restoring modestly higher rates on people making more than $250,000. There are no smoke or mirrors, and this is no radical scheme. Under the Obama plan, wealthy Americans would remain much better off than they were ten or fifteen years ago.

Then there is healthcare. This is a meat-and-potatoes issue, too. It's not just the 45+ million uninsured according to the latest census figures. It's the millions of others who can't afford their insurance premiums, who are under-insured, or who can't pay their medical bills. A just-released 2007 survey finds that 72 million Americans of working age had accumulated medical debts or had problems paying medical bills. An estimated 28 million had been contacted by collection agencies over unpaid medical bills. Every observed measure of medical debt and associated economic hardship really worsened between 2005 and 2007 and is probably worse today. Millions of Americans fail to get fill prescriptions or get needed preventive care because they cannot pay for it. Despite spending $2.1 trillion on healthcare, we cannot seem to treat people decently.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, many politicos regard health reform as a boutique issue for goo-goos and liberal bloggers. It's more than that. This spring, my daughter and I went canvassing in northwestern Indiana. It was a tough day in unfriendly territory. At a garage sale, we met one family who were strong Obama supporters. Over coffee, the home-owner explained that she was raising money for her son-in-law who suffers from liver disease and has huge bills.

I recently posted a HuffPo essay on Democrats' edge among the disabled and their families. The essay soon disappeared into justified oblivion. Yet as often happens when I post on such topics, I got heartbreaking comments from people with personal concerns. Here is one:

As a 50 year old woman with multiple sclerosis, I am voting for Obama. My insurance company raises my premium every 6 months. It is currently $1,300 a month. If I drop it, I will never find another carrier. Right now I am not having too many symptoms and on no meds, but they have just been raising my premiums as soon as I got the diagnosis. I am a hostage.

As Jonathan Cohn noted sometime back, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards presented and debated serious plans to help this woman. John McCain has not.

Placing himself to the right of Republican Senators Charles Grassley and Orrin Hatch, McCain wouldn't even support the bipartisan SCHIP expansion. He called President Bush's veto "the right call," going on to say, "The American people have rebelled against out of control spending. If they could find a legitimate way to pay for it, I would consider it."

Actually, the bill included all the required financing through a $0.61 cigarette tax increase -- itself an important public health measure.

It would have cost $7 billion per year to cover 3.3 million children. Senator McCain supports huge tax cuts that dwarf the cost of this measure, not to mention the Iraq war. Yet the modest amounts needed for SCHIP represent "out of control spending." The benefits are apparently not worth the cost.

Hillary Clinton noted many times that SCHIP is a centerpiece of her legacy. It is something Barack Obama and any Democratic president would strongly support. Some unknown minority of disappointed Clinton supporters are considering voting for John McCain, dragging their feet, or just staying home this November. I appreciate their disappointment, but I hope they consider the impact of this election. Barack Obama would protect and extend the Clinton legacy on many fronts: SCHIP, reproductive rights, the Supreme Court. Senator McCain would do the opposite. Rightly or wrongly, the impact on Senator Clinton's own political future will be devastating if PUMA activists are blamed for an Obama loss.

This election is not about the mojo of party activists. It's not about the egos of Obamas, Clintons, and their various retinues. It's not about John Edwards' affair. It's not even about Michelle and Barack Obama's inspiring personal story, told so beautifully last night. It's about millions of people who need real help, and are wondering whether and how Democrats would provide it.

Ted Kennedy was there to remind us that these men and women are part of a larger and longer story. He was fighting for universal health care when Hillary Clinton was still in college and Barack Obama was still in diapers. This fight won't be over soon, either.

It's time for Democrats to come together. We have our rivalries and disagreements, but we can't get derailed by them when so much is at stake. This means that Barack Obama must hone his message. He must honor and own the best parts of both Clintons' legacies. This means that Hillary Clinton must honor her promise to work as hard for Barack Obama as she did for her own candidacy. This means that Bill Clinton must get over his personal funk to reach white working-class voters as only he can do.

It's not about us. We need to act like we all understand that.