September 7, 2012

She appeared to be in her eighties. Standing alone, tightly clutching her purse, anxiously watching the cash register.

When the total was announced, she handed first one, then two cans of soup back to the cashier. She didn’t have enough money.

A customer in the line behind her quietly told the cashier he would make up the difference. With a quick glance at him, the seemingly embarrassed senior citizen accepted the offer with thanks.

Her groceries, totaling less than $20, were bagged. She slowly walked out of the supermarket. I can’t put her out of my mind.

There are people in our community, in our midst, who live like that. Choosing between a can of soup and a package of rice because they can’t afford both.

Stand with me at the bus stop in the early morning hours. Look at the passengers traveling to their low-wage jobs beyond the city limits. Their faces are mostly brown and black. They used to all be black. My mother and the grandmother of my wife, Gwen, were once among them, both domestic workers.

Tired when they board the bus, these riders will be worn out by the time they return home many hours later.

See children headed off to school to get the education that their moms and dads never had. The law requires them to attend school. Their parentshave warned over their shoulders as they walked out the door that the kids had better get to school on time or else.

Sorry, can’t walk the little dears to school and get to work at the same time.

And so it goes.

These American lives were lost on the crowd of Republicans who gathered in Tampa last week.

To those GOP conventioneers whooping it up for Mitt Romney, that well-connected rich kid who grew up to make millions taking tender loving care of other people’s money, America is a land of makers and takers.

And for those makers convened in Tampa, the United States is in danger of being overrun by, as Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan put it in an appearance at the Heritage Foundation last fall, “a net majority of takers.”

And who, pray tell, are those good-for-nothing takers who are nothing but costs to the makers?

Why, they’re the old woman in the supermarket. You don’t need to know her history to know that she is, at least, healthy enough to get out of the house and shop for herself, thanks to health care she receives through the 1965 amendments to the Social Security Act, which authorized Medicare and Medicaid.

And they’re those folks on the bus on their way to low-wage jobs. They don’t get much by way of pay and respect, but they are able to work and put food on the table, some with federal assistance. And their kids get medical care too, again thanks to the Social Security Act.

Ah, but that’s not the way the makers see it.

That old woman in the supermarket and folks like her are viewed as a threat to individual freedom. Those brown and black bus riders are a threat to good old American self-reliance, the makers might argue.

They are what’s taking America down — if you buy claims of the well-fed, comfortably housed, conservatives who appeared to be having the time of their lives in Florida.

They have it so wrong.

The well-off have no idea what’s on the minds of those bus riders, the little old ladies in the supermarket, or the people who cleaned the toilets and swept the floors after the GOP conventioneers blew town.

Those faceless people, ignored by the privileged, are giving it their all because they, like the mother of Democratic National Committee keynote speaker and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, are fighting hard so that, as he put it, “instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone.”

Bill Clinton, speaking a language that’s foreign to conservatives in America, said it best: “The country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think ‘we’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’ ”

Sadly, conservatives, led by Romney, Ryan and their well-heeled supporters on the right, will never understand or accept anything other than winner-take-all.

kingc@washpost.com