Sunday, September 14, 2008

Are we better off?

Republicans have fallen in love with Harry Truman.  I was just a kid when “Give’m Hell Harry, was in office, but I doubt he would return the favor.  When it comes to this election campaign, I’d suggest two Republican President models to my fellow Democrats: Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.  Ike, in case you don’t remember, was the man who ran on the theme, “It’s time for a change”.  Sound familiar?  He won big.  Barack Obama has been running on an updated version of “time for a change”, and it’s worked well because in our national gut we know it’s true.  But Eisenhower was no great orator or communicator so the comparison with Obama has its limits.  That brings me to Reagan.  Like him or not, Nancy’s Ronnie had the gift.  But interestingly, his most powerful argument for change didn’t come in a big speech but in the debate when he turned to the camera and simply asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  To me, that’s the logical and essential argument of this campaign going forward, not change, which is inspiring but vague.  Moreover, change, as we have seen can be co-opted, albeit disingenuously.  Are we better off, on the other hand, is a question that begs an answer, the engagement of the listener.  It is about the voter not the candidate.  And it’s a question John McCain dare not ask.

For sure Americans are concerned about our place in the world, the ill conceived or executed wars in which we are engaged, but their real concern is much closer to home, literally.  Everyone who hears the Reagan question will have an answer and it’s not one that John McCain and the Republicans will like.  With more than 80% of us thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction, it makes no sense to waste time on trivia, which is exactly where the Republicans, aided and abetted by the media they vilify, want us to do.  Voters, myself included, want to know that their next President will not merely feel their pain, but has a plan to ease it.  What we don’t need is another election about who has more faith, can frighten us more or is the more authentic American.  We want this election to get us headed in the right direction.

Bill Clinton’s brilliance in 1992 was to focus on the economy stupid.  Barack Obama could win in a landslide if he puts a laser-like focus on our comparative well-being.  Ask us if we’re better off and do it in every speech.  Make John McCain tell us with a straight face that the Republican approach, evident in his choices and the actions of his campaign, is going to take us in a new direction.  Let him tell us that re-energizing the Cold War and the Culture Wars is going to do much for lifting wages, gaining jobs, repairing our crumpling infrastructure and, yes, saving a planet headed toward destruction.  Ask us whether our nation’s financial health is better after nearly eight years of MBA stewardship, or who is going to address those deficits that Republicans (Bush and Reagan) seem to leave for Democrats to clean up.

I’m not pessimistic about November, quite the contrary, but I think the country could use a decisive election.  We also need a President who, in running for re-election four years from now, will be able to ask Americans if they are better off and be confident that the answer will be yes.  Time to move beyond the myopia of Alaska and old war stories and focus in the real issues, yours and mine.

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