Iraq . . . 24/7. That's what will dominate the news over the next two or three weeks, as Congress and the president struggle over what to do with the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Democratic voters will be looking to see if the Democratic leaders in Congress stand up, and which of the Democratic contenders for the presidency is ready to lead in bringing the war to a close.
But if Iraq dominates the airwaves, another set of concerns dominate the discussions Americans are having around their kitchen tables. Can we keep the house? How do we pay these college bills? What are we going to retire on? What happens when the plant shuts down and my job gets shipped abroad? Can I afford the operation I need? How do we get on top of these credit card payments? What happens if Mom gets weak and needs assisted living?
This reality, along with the war in Iraq, will be -- and should be -- at the center of our elections next year. Republicans echo the mantras of the Bush years: tax cuts for the wealthy, big military budgets, deregulation, privatization and corporate trade policies. Their only criticism of George Bush is he didn't cut enough money out of domestic programs. All promise deeper cuts, without saying just what they would cut.
That agenda, however, is what has put America's working and poor families in what the AFL-CIO calls "the box." It's why wages aren't going up, even when the economy is growing and unemployment is relatively low. The minimum wage stagnates, and lowers the floor under workers.
Corporations use the threat of competition abroad to bust unions and frustrate wage demands. Workers are forced to pay more and more for basic health insurance (if they have it at all) and for any retirement savings. Corporate trade policies make outsourcing more attractive. Public investment in education and training doesn't keep up. Spending on affordable housing gets decimated. Perverse policies combined with vicious corporate campaigns virtually eliminate the ability of workers to organize in the workplace.
The result is that the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans capture all the gains of the increased profits and productivity. Corporate profits soar to record highs while workers' share of the revenue they help to produce declines. We are now witnessing the greatest income inequality since the Gilded Age of robber barons at the beginning of the 20th century. The top 1 percent of Americans make about as much as the poorest 50 percent. This isn't working.
Will the Democratic candidates pose an alternative? In 2006, Democrats won by running populist campaigns -- coming out against corporate trade policies, calling for raising the minimum wage, and investing in education and jobs here at home.
The Democratic presidential contenders have a bigger chore. They've got to lay out just how they will get America's families out of the box. If trickle-down doesn't trickle, how do they propose to irrigate the roots?
Americans are ready for a bold agenda: Roll back Bush's top-end tax cuts and invest in America; tax Big Oil to support investment in new energy sources and energy efficiency, putting people to work; balance our trade with mercantilist nations like China; empower workers to organize in the workplace; raise the minimum wage; provide universal health care, and more.
We need to change course in this country. The Republican candidates for president call for sustaining Bush's policies at home and abroad. This opens the door for the Democratic nominee to offer a clear choice. Out of Iraq; invest in America. That's a choice worth debating and an election worth having.
© 2007 The Chicago Sun Times