It's about Main Street, not the mosque

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pundits and politicians are working themselves into hysteria over a mosque near Ground Zero. But this election won't be about mosques in Manhattan. It won't even be about the deficit, really. It will be about manufacturing on Main Street, and which party can talk effectively about the progressive solutions Americans desire.

Not surprisingly, polls from Gallup to the Wall Street Journal show Americans are worried most about the economy and jobs. And a just-released poll -- from progressive outfits Campaign for America's Future and Democracy Corps with sponsorship from Political Action and two labor unions -- gives a more detailed look at what voters are looking for. Respondents, in particular the "rising American electorate" -- youth, single women and minorities that constitute a majority of voters and are President Obama's most supportive base -- support bold steps for renewing the economy.

The poll tested a range of messages, with the greatest support for one calling for "rebuilding infrastructure" and another calling for constructing "an economy on a new foundation" -- that is, investing in education and a 21st century infrastructure, leading in the green industrial revolution and balancing our trade.

But what about that deficit? Americans worry about the deficit, but less for reasons usually given by deficit hawks than because they think it may get in the way of creating jobs and of protecting Social Security. The poll shows equal support for a five-year plan to revive America's industry and a five-year plan to cut deficits -- and in equal intensity. The two are linked. Put people to work and revive manufacturing, and you will bring the deficit down. Bring the deficit down, and you'll help put people to work.

In a time of gilded-age inequality, voters also want to go, like the famous bank robber Willy Sutton, where the money is. Eliminate tax breaks for corporations that export jobs overseas. Impose an excess-profits tax on Wall Street banks. Let the Bush tax cuts expire on incomes over $250,000. Eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for corporations. A majority of respondents favors each of these.

And by large margins, Americans don't think deficit-cutting should include cuts in the federal benefits workers have already fought to get. It is widely rumored, for example, that President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission is considering raising the retirement age on Social Security as part of a deficit-reduction plan. It better think again. Poll respondents want Social Security and Medicare protected. Over 60 percent of Republicans, of independents and of Democrats oppose raising the retirement age on Social Security -- or Medicare, for that matter. Similarly, when AARP asked if Social Security should be cut as a "way to help reduce the federal deficit," 72 percent of respondents were strongly opposed.

Most Democrats seem not to understand that articulating this kind of vision is their best bet for November. Instead, we have episodes such as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs taking a stick to the progressive beehive, attacking the "professional left" for pushing the president in this direction.

Americans are focused on an economy that isn't working for them, even as politicians talk of limiting the benefits they might receive in retirement. They are angry that billions were spent bailing out Wall Street, and now there isn't money to bring jobs back. They are increasingly skeptical of the claims of both parties, which they see, not without reason, as dominated by entrenched corporate interests. Who stands for holding the big banks accountable? Who will protect Social Security and Medicare? Who will stand up for taxing the rich and giving the little guy a break? Who has a plan that will get this economy going?

The real winners this election cycle will be the candidates who can speak about the progressive vision Americans want to see, not the ones who can win the mosque debate.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company