As we move from Labor Day into the rough and tumble of the campaign year ahead, some significant events recently occurred that crossed all party lines. Parents brought their children back to start the school year, young adults returned to their college semesters, the Department of Labor announced not a single new net job was added in America in the month of August (not a good way to go into a holiday weekend honoring workers in this country), and we all anticipated with somberness the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.
All these events affect and involve a convergence of Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and a shared emotional arc of hope, nervousness, concern, and community, but will they show the folks running for president the way citizens want our leaders to govern? Two big moments this week will make it clear whether the candidates are listening to the anxious majority or the angry minority.
First up will be the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in California on Wednesday -- a significant moment since this will be the first debate involving the leading Republican candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. My expectation is that the debate will involve many attacks on President Obama, some attacks on fellow candidates, and lots of talk concerning the troubled economy. Today there is a consensus on the problem: A vast majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents believe we are already in another recession.
Will Republicans offer a new array of innovative solutions to move the economy forward? Unlikely, since all we have heard thus far is standard Republican rhetoric about budget cuts combined with tax cuts and deregulation. And there is no real evidence that this array of policy points will actually add jobs to this economy. This isn't the early 1980s, and a solution from 30 years ago is probably not the "new" solution in a 21st-century world.
The second big moment this week will be President Obama's economic speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday. And what we are likely to hear from him is flowery language and promises about bipartisanship while aiming barbs at Republicans and a call for increased government spending combined with increasing taxes on the wealthy. Again, there is no real proof this will work in recharging a stagnant economy, and solutions adapted from 80 years ago are also not the right way to deal with an economy today.
The next president will likely be one of those speaking from opposite ends of the country this week. They will be pointing fingers and talking right past each other across the cities and towns and farmlands and mountains in between. Republicans say raising taxes in a bad economy will hurt momentum, and Democrats say cutting the budget in a bad economy will hurt momentum. Neither can be proven true by the historic record.
This is why Americans across the political spectrum are so upset and frustrated, and why they have diagnosed our current politics as nearing total dysfunction. Republicans at their debate will appeal to a very tiny partisan audience, and Obama will move a few people, if any (as I pointed out in another column, these big presidential speeches usually never move voters, despite what former speechwriters like to spin). But none of these candidates will connect with the majority of Americans.
What Americans want to see is a combination of few simple things: 1) Fix the broken process first. 2) Call the American public to a shared sense of sacrifice (some combination of tax increases and budget cuts), and embrace the value of living a more simple life involving less retail therapy. 3) Inspire younger adults to participation in some authentic national service program (a domestic version of the Peace Corps but driven more locally) which could bridge the generational, income, racial, and religious divide. 4) Drop the rules that politicians have lived by over the last 50 years and look at solutions creatively, without boundaries.
We are at a moment when the rules and institutions we have lived by at every level no longer work. And we need to let them go slowly and begin to build a whole new system and new relationships with each other. As Doc Brown said in the movie Back to the Future, "Where we're going, we don't need roads."
This is an exciting moment in time and one we should embrace. There is a great life dictum I have seen quoted that says we should be "in perpetual creative response to whatever is present." I don't expect President Obama or the Republican candidates to follow that in their big moments this week, but I sure wish they would. Even if they can't find the courage, we can, and it will not only improve society as a whole but ourselves as individuals.
Cross-posted from National Journal.