Friday, December 06, 2013

Is Equality Of Opportunity A Salient Campaign Issue? You Bet It Is… At Least In California's Inland Empire


Last night I was at a fundraiser for Eloise Reyes thrown by the Mexican American Bar Association PAC. It was wonderful watching the candidate speak from her heart to a roomful of successful attorneys about preserving Social Security by raising the cap and preventing any president-- be it a Republican or a Democrat-- from imposing Chained CPI. This wasn't a union crowd; this was a crowd of wealthy lawyers and her proposal for raising or eliminating the cap, would take money right out of their own pockets. The applause was thunderous and this was a smart, sophisticated crowd that knew exactly what she was saying and what the ramifications were.

In some ways it reminded me of the very first time I met Barack Obama. I was on a small host committee that invited the then little-know Illinois state senator to Los Angeles to speak. He was running 4th in a primary battle for an open U.S. Senate seat at the time. We didn't think many people would give so we asked that everyone write their checks before the event and they did. Then Obama spoke. I'll never forget the reaction. Again, this was a wealthy audience-- primarily entertainment industry executives and attorneys. After Obama was finished speaking there was not one flat surface available in the house; everyone had whipped out their checkbooks to write another-- bigger-- check. That's how inspiring he was, even though his message was a message for greater income equality, just like Eloise's was last night. And last night her finance director was dancing on air. He told me afterwards that after her strong, populist message, they went right through there contribution goals for the event. Paul Krugman wasn't there and he wasn't at the little event we put on for Obama in 2004 either. But his NY Times column on Thursday night, Obama Gets Real, indicates he didn't have to be to understand the dynamic of what happens at at event like those two.
Much of the media commentary on President Obama’s big inequality speech was cynical. You know the drill: it’s yet another “reboot” that will go nowhere; none of it will have any effect on policy, and so on. But before we talk about the speech’s possible political impact or lack thereof, shouldn’t we look at the substance? Was what the president said true? Was it new? If the answer to these questions is yes-- and it is-- then what he said deserves a serious hearing.

And once you realize that, you also realize that the speech may matter a lot more than the cynics imagine.

First, about those truths: Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing-- and, unfortunately, all too accurate-- vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.

This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.

And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.

And there was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Finally! Our political class has spent years obsessed with a fake problem-- worrying about debt and deficits that never posed any threat to the nation’s future-- while showing no interest in unemployment and stagnating wages. Mr. Obama, I’m sorry to say, bought into that diversion. Now, however, he’s moving on.

…[I]deas matter, even if they can’t be turned into legislation overnight. The wrong turn we’ve taken in economic policy-- our obsession with debt and “entitlements,” when we should have been focused on jobs and opportunity-- was, of course, driven in part by the power of wealthy vested interests. But it wasn’t just raw power. The fiscal scolds also benefited from a sort of ideological monopoly: for several years you just weren’t considered serious in Washington unless you worshipped at the altar of Simpson and Bowles.

Now, however, we have the president of the United States breaking ranks, finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. This is going to change the discourse-- and, eventually, I believe, actual policy.
Back to Eloise Reyes for a moment. She has two opponents in California's open-- or jungle-- primary: multimillionaire out-of-touch Republican reactionary Gary Miller (the accidental incumbent, accidental insomuch as Steve Israel is the most incompetent DCCC chairman in history) and the empty suit Israel backed in 2012 and is backing again, Pete Aguilar. Eloise is going in front of voters and explaining about equality and opportunity and why Chained CPI and Simpson-Bowles is the wrong solution for the Inland Empire and for America. Aguilar? The DCCC calls every shot for him-- how do I know? His campaign manager told me a few months ago when I asked about where he stood on issues and they said the DCCC hadn't told them yet. They've told him to not say anything about any contentious issues-- and he doesn't. But when he ran last time, he was a full-on conservative looking to cut Social Security benefits-- just like Gary Miller.

Aguilar doesn't want to admit it to voters today but in May of 2012 he told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin he would have voted for the Simpson-Bowles plan if he was in Congress. For anyone who doesn't recall the specifics, that's the conservative plan that seeks to balance the budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it by, among other things, embracing Chained CPI for retired workers. When the very right-wing editorial board of the San Bernardino Sun News endorsed Republican Bob Dutton last year, they said they had almost endorsed Aguilar. They sensed in him someone as conservative and unfair to working families as Dutton (and Miller). "Aguilar," they wrote admiringly, "has been something of a fiscal hawk in Redlands. The city work force has been reduced by 17 percent over five years, and the city is currently negotiating with unions to get employees to pay toward their own retirement benefits. On the federal level, Aguilar told us, he would have voted for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan (which did not, unfortunately, get to Congress for a vote)."

This year the DCCC wants him to try sounding a little more like a Democrat in this D+5 district. They may even get him a tutor so he can learn to speak Spanish in a majority Hispanic district. But he'll never sound-- in any language-- as committed to the values and principles of the Democratic Party as Eloise Reyes. Because she is and he isn't; that simple. In 1933 Eleanor Roosevelt testified in front of Congress, warning them that “Refusing to allow people to be paid less than a living wage preserves to us our own market. There is absolutely no use in producing anything if you gradually reduce the number of people able to buy even the cheapest products. The only way to preserve our markets is an adequate wage.” Eloise very much embraces the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. I sincerely doubt Pete Aguilar or Gary Miller even has a clue about what that spirit means. You can help Eloise win this election here at the Blue America ActBlue page.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home