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Rebuilding the Democratic brand with jobs

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not to be difficult, mind you, but what is it that the Democrats see themselves running on in the next 75 days -- or, for that matter, the next two years? Health-care reform? Since many of its benefits don't kick in until 2014, it exists in the minds of millions of Americans chiefly as a nebulous threat. Financial reform? A major achievement, but largely negated by the public's perception that the Obama administration, like its predecessor, moved heaven and Earth to bail out the banks. The economy? The evidence is overwhelming that the Obama stimulus saved millions of jobs, but the economy is still the worst we've seen since the Depression, and there are almost no signs that it's going to get better.

The Democrats have a doctrinal problem: They (well, many of them) believe, with good reason, that the government must step in where the private sector fears to tread, boosting consumer demand through stimulus, subsidizing health insurance for millions of Americans who otherwise would go without. But the administration's failure to jolt a structurally dysfunctional economy back to health has discredited the very idea of governmental activism with much of the public, and not just the far right. That leaves the Democrats not as the party of government so much as the party of paralyzed government. That the Republicans are largely responsible for the paralysis isn't a big problem for a minority-status GOP so long as the public has concluded that activism per se is a bad idea.

So how do the Democrats defend and improve their brand? Is there a type of governmental activism that still retains public support -- and actually extricates us from the deepest hole we've been in since the '30s?

There is. If the Democrats focused on boosting manufacturing, with a corollary upgrade to our infrastructure, they'd tap into the only area in which the public wants a more activist government.

Several recent polls have called the Democrats' attention to what should have been obvious to them: That helping America regain its industrial preeminence is one government activity that wins support across the board. One recent survey by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman found 78 percent support for having a "national manufacturing strategy," while 92 percent said they supported infrastructure improvements using only American-made materials. Another survey from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found 52 percent of respondents preferred government investment "in the future," while just 42 percent favored the alternative course of large spending cuts.

The appeal of bolstering manufacturing and upgrading infrastructure cuts across lines of race, gender and class. Even a demagogue like Rush Limbaugh would have trouble characterizing them, as he did health-care reform, as "reparations." Just as important, the public is right. Every bit of economic news confirms its apprehensions that by off-shoring our manufacturing, we have not only eliminated millions of good-paying jobs but we have also rendered ourselves incapable of regaining our economic health. The two major economies that are booming amidst the global bust are China's and Germany's -- that is, the two major economies most oriented to manufacturing. In the month since I first noted this in a column, China has surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy, and German exports have continued to soar. If China and Germany's growth rates for their second quarter are annualized, they come to 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

When it comes to reviving American manufacturing, however, the Democrats have sounded an uncertain trumpet. The Mellman survey asked whether, on balance, the president and the two parties have bolstered manufacturing or not. While Obama's ratings were modestly favorable, those of the Democrats were not (45 percent to 48 percent), and those of Republicans were worse (35 percent to 57 percent).

Democrats have responded to these numbers by throwing together some modest pro-manufacturing legislation, but it's all fairly small beer. A bolder and more effective proposal is that of Intel's legendary former chief executive Andy Grove, which ran in Bloomberg BusinessWeek last month: Tax the products of off-shored labor, and put the proceeds in a fund that can be tapped by American businesses increasing their American hiring.

Throughout his term, Obama has spoken eloquently -- but only sporadically -- about the need to shift from an economy that makes deals to an economy that makes things. Not only does he need to say that more often, and put some serious legislative substance behind it, but it should be the mantra for congressional Democrats who need all the help they can get in the election looming darkly before them.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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