The presidential prelims are essentially over. Now as the general election begins, it is time to define the stakes. What is this election about?
We know what John McCain thinks. He thinks it is about "winning" in Iraq, which he describes as sustaining our course there until at least 2013, and then keeping bases there for decades. This is McCain's passion, his purpose. The rest is, at best, a distraction.
What does Barack Obama think? We know he thinks the election is about change. He's spent much of the last few weeks arguing with McCain about Iraq. But for Obama, Iraq is an obstacle, not an obsession.
Now it is time for Obama to lay out the stakes, to describe what he will carry in the wagon that he wants Americans to push. That begins not in Baghdad but at home.
The first priority must be to rebuild an economy that works for working people. Stop squandering resources in Iraq and start rebuilding America. Invest in conservation and renewable energy and end our dependence on foreign oil. Create a new strategy in the global economy that works for Main Street, not Wall Street. Empower workers and hold corporations and the shadow banking system accountable. Crack down on predatory lending, on usurious interest rates, on hidden mortgage and credit card charges. If we don't get the economy working and ensure that prosperity is widely shared, our security will continue to erode.
Second, we've got to build a basic foundation for middle-class families, so they can navigate the increasing risks and upheavals of the new economy. That begins with affordable, high-quality health care for all. Obama's health-care plan is a good start. Then we need guaranteed paid sick days, minimal paid vacations and enforcement of labor standards, including the 40-hour week.
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Third, we must invest in people and in equal opportunity from the start. The first priority is to provide every child with a world-class public education: pre-kindergarten, small classes in early grades, skilled teachers, organized after-school activities and the guarantee that they will be able to afford the advanced education or training they earn. America has built its prosperity by having the best-educated workers in the world. Now we must invest in its future by extending that promise to every child.
Fourth, we need to make America safe. We lose more people to guns at home than in Iraq. It's time to ban assault weapons and track down those who are selling guns wholesale to gangs and criminals. We need to stop the cuts that are about to take place that would reduce police, firefighters and teachers in states across the country. And then we need to challenge the harsh discrimination of our criminal justice system -- the disparities in arrest, school discipline, juvenile sentencing, drug sentencing and the like that have created a prison-industrial complex, wasting billions warehousing nonviolent offenders, while destroying the lives of much of a generation of young African-American and Latino men.
Fifth, we need to revive idealism and hope. Summon young Americans to national service; they will respond. Abroad, we need food-boat diplomacy, not gunboat diplomacy, helping nations now wracked by food riots and stalked by silent hunger. We will win more converts in the struggle against terrorism with wise compassion than with smart bombs.
This list could go on. It is time to define the stakes. This election isn't really about Iraq. It is about America. Our overriding challenge is to make America strong again from the inside out. McCain wants to rebuild Iraq; Obama should make it clear his priority is to rebuild America.
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