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Urban Rhythms

Class Ax

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/7/2002

The 2000 Democratic running mates are finally arguing publicly about message. U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has suggested that the Al Gore campaign turned off middle-class, independent voters with a divisive "us vs. them" theme. Former Vice President Gore counters that his message defined what the Democratic Party is all about.

"I believe Bill Clinton and I were right to maintain during our 1992 campaign that we should fight for the 'forgotten middle class' against the 'forces of greed,'" Gore wrote in an opinion piece in the Aug. 4 New York Times. "Standing up for the people, not the powerful, was the right choice in 2000. And in fact, it is the Democratic Party's meaning and mission. The suggestion from some in our party that we should no longer speak that truth, especially at a time like this, strikes me as bad politics and worse, wrong in principle."

First of all, I'm glad to see the two losers, Gore and Lieberman, talking publicly about what happened in 2000. Second, I'm with Gore.

Lieberman sounds like a man who's cruising for a bruising. Like Democratic losers in the past, he's reaching out to the middle class by adopting the Republican vision of what the middle class wants. He told Fox News Sunday Aug. 4 that "the people-versus-the-powerful theme was too subject to misunderstanding and not representative" of the good things that occurred during the Clinton administration. Gore's populist approach, he said, was "not expressive of the fiscally responsible, pro-growth, grow-the-middle-class campaign we were running."

Lieberman echoes Republican leaders who accuse Gore and other Democrats of class warfare. "They think that ours is a country where people are seething with resentment over what others have and what we don't have," said Ed Gillespie, a Republican strategist speaking on NBC's Meet the Press that same Sunday.

In truth, we are engaged in class warfare. People are seething with resentment over what others have and what they don't have. Both parties try to tap that resentment; they just use different tactics.

Republicans feed the fear that Big Government is going to come in and snatch what we have worked so hard for and give it to those who don't deserve it. Democrats feed the fear that Big Business is going to steal what we have and then use its influence with lawmakers to make the theft legal. Either way, you'll note, the middle class gets screwed.

An example might be the new bankruptcy regulations just approved by Congress that make it harder for individuals to erase their personal debt. The credit industry has been pushing for tougher regulations for years, arguing that lenders need relief from the billions of dollars of debt that get written off when individuals file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. Lobbyists painted a picture of millions of unprincipled scoundrels who carelessly pile up debt and then manipulate the system to walk away.

Consumer groups painted a very different picture--of people seduced by easy credit who lose their income because of divorce, sickness, or layoffs, and who turn to bankruptcy as a desperate last measure. The preponderance of evidence supported the consumer groups, which is why the provision kept getting defeated year after year. But the preponderance of power rests with the lending industry, which is why the measure kept coming back each year. Now the president is about to sign a bill that will make it just a little bit harder for desperate people to get out from under.

The American Bankruptcy Institute says there were 1.4 million personal-bankruptcy filings in the year that ended March 31, and that personal and business bankruptcies during the first quarter of this year were at one of the highest levels in history. I would venture that most of the personal bankruptcies involved people who would have defined themselves as middle class. (Middle class has become a very flexible political term that essentially means anyone who works for a living--corporate attorneys and firefighters both regard themselves as middle class.) Add to the 1.4 million who filed last year the millions more who have not filed but are fighting just to make ends meet and you get a picture of the anger, fear, and sense of victimization that both parties manipulate so well.

The Democrats can point to the bankruptcy bill as an example of how government caters to corporate interests. And when individuals go to court looking for relief, Republicans can point to the thicket of rules and regulations they'll encounter there as proof that government works against, not for, the little guy. American politics today is all about which party taps that anger first and best.

Lieberman has drawn the wrong lesson from his defeat in 2000. The problem with Democratic campaign wasn't Gore's promise to stand up to the power of special interests. The problem was that too many members of the middle class didn't believe him. George W. Bush may be a scoundrel, they decided, but at least he's honest about it.

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