09/04/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

What Kind of People Will We Be?

Both Republicans and Democrats go into the fall campaign with a perceptional weakness about their philosophy that could have big consequences. Each side will of course try to shore up its own weakness and attack the other side's, and how convincing they are will go a ways toward determining this election. For the Democrats, the perceived weakness is their supposed lack of sympathy for private business. For Republicans, it is their lack of compassion for everyone else. We saw the Republicans attacking Democrats hard on the business thing with their "we built this" message, and we saw them defending themselves hard on the compassion thing with a variety of strategies -- lots of speeches by various minority representatives about their parents' struggles, and carefully inserted lines into Ryan's and Romney's speeches about how we take care of the poor, old, and weak.

This week, we Democrats have our turn, and how we both attack Republicans' weakness and address our own will be critically important to framing the fall debate.

Let's talk about the business thing first. I was very concerned when I read in the Washington Post that "senior Obama advisers suggested that they will not address the anti-business allegations directly but will instead try to turn the tables on their GOP rivals by accusing them of being dishonest about what Obama meant." So, yeah, it's important to keep pointing out that the Republicans' hyper-ventilation on the Obama "didn't build that" quote is ridiculous and wrong. But campaigns that focus too much of their rhetorical fire on saying the other side is lying are making a mistake. For one thing, it's playing defense when they should be playing offense. And the American people assume everyone in a campaign is lying and exaggerating, so while they might accept the claim that the Republicans are lying, they may at the same time think the Obama folks are lying too.

To win this argument, I believe the Obama team needs to engage the debate directly, and make a forceful case as to why the president's policies are unabashedly pro-business: pro-small business, pro-entrepreneur, pro-honest business. Because when you regulate the worst abuses on Wall Street, you make the marketplace safe for the honest businesspeople and the up-and-coming entrepreneur. When you put more money into education, you help businesses by educating their workforces. When you put more money into roads and bridges and high-speed rail and airports, you allow businesses to compete better by helping them get their goods to market. When you put more money into high-speed Internet access and R&D, you help the next generation of Internet businesses get off the ground. When everyone's health insurance is covered, it means businesses have stable, healthy, and more productive workers, and it means those businesses don't have to pay for the people without insurance who go into emergency rooms to get their health care. And in general, when more teachers and firefighters and cops and construction workers have jobs at decent wages, it is a whole lot more likely that small business will have paying customers.

The idea that Democrats are anti-business because we believe in a regulatory system strong enough to give honest businesses a level playing field, because we want to spend more on schools and infrastructure and R&D, because we want workers to be paid a decent wage is simply goofy. And we should go on the attack. The businesses that Republicans are so eager to defend are predatory businesses like Bain Capital and JP Morgan Chase and Exxon and CIGNA. They want to help wealthy and powerful incumbents, the insurance companies and oil companies and Wall Street banks who have such massive control over markets that they are squeezing other businesses out of the marketplace. Democrats should be proud of their pro-business agenda,and should be aggressively proposing new measures to help business, like tougher anti-trust enforcement and freeing up credit for small business. It's time to stop playing defense on this issue, stop worrying so much about how much the Republicans are lying. It is time to get aggressive. Democrats do far more to help business than Republicans, as numerous studies of economic history have shown. The only businesses we are against are those that have become too big and too predatory, those that need to restrained so that they don't warp the entire market system and wreak economic destruction on the rest of us.

As to the compassion debate, here's what the Republican argument is: We are all for compassion, we are all for taking care of people in need, we just don't believe it is the government's job. Let the private armies of compassion, the churches and charities, take care of the poor. Let local communities look after their own. This has been a Republican theme for a very long time: George H.W. Bush had his thousand points of light, and his son talked of being a compassionate conservative. But the faith and non-profit leaders who run operations to help the poor overwhelmingly scoff at the idea that private charity can meet anywhere close to all the need we have in society. And most families with elderly parents or family members with disabilities (most of government's spending for the poor goes into those two categories) know that without Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government support, they would not be able to take care of their loved ones.

Beyond the practical question of the idea that private charity alone would fall so far short, of how many tens of millions of Americans would quite simply starve or freeze to death without government support, there is the more profound and fundamental question of what kind of people would we be if we withdrew our government's help from those who need it the most. Republicans want Americans to forget that in a democratic society, the government is us. It reflects the character and the will of the people. If we don't like what's going on, we can protest, we can vote those elected to represent us out of office. If our government lets people starve, it is us, the American people, who are responsible. If the government cuts Social Security benefits, if the government passes a budget that makes seniors pay $6,400 more for health care and no longer help seniors with nursing home coverage as the Romney-Ryan budget proposes, that is our society, the American people, making those choices. The actions of government represent us. They speak to our character, they say who we have become.

When Romney and Ryan talk about how in America, the strong should help the weak and that we need to care of our seniors and those in need, they are committing falsehoods far more profound than taking an Obama quote out of context or even making up lies about the welfare policy -- they are misrepresenting their fundamental values. Romney, while at Bain, stripped workers of their jobs, pensions, and health care -- and made millions on the deal. Ryan wrote a budget plan that is the single most uncompassionate budget document passed by a house of Congress in, arguably, all of American history. Those are not the values of compassion, of the strong helping the weak- instead they are the values of the strong taking advantage of the weak. Romney and Ryan have an excuse for this: they really think that if we help people too much, they will become "dependent". They believe in an unbridled capitalism where it is healthy for the strong to destroy the weak. They don't believe that we as an American people should show any more compassion to those in need than Romney did to those workers whose fate he controlled at Bain.

These debates, about government's role in helping business and in helping those in need, are deeply linked. The values debate they both speak to is about whether we will help only those who have already made it, the wealthiest and most powerful in society, or whether we will help build a better society for everyone. Romney and Ryan want to help only those who have already won big -- the wealthiest, most powerful, and biggest businesses. The Democrats want to lift everyone up -- the small businesses struggling to compete with the big boys, the families with older parents who need help, the workers trying to build a better life for themselves, the students wanting to make it to college. This values debate is central to this campaign, and Democrats should embrace it with enthusiasm.