Editorial: Which way will middle class go?

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Apparently Democrats are of the opinion that the road to re-election for President Barack Obama goes through the middle class. You might say that's something of a double-edged sword.

Speaker after speaker at Tuesday's opening night of the Democratic National Convention returned to that theme, prominent among them first lady Michelle Obama. "Barack knows what it means when a family struggles," she said, which of course was also code for "and Mitt Romney doesn't." "Barack knows the American dream because he's lived it, and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we're from, or what we look like, or who we love."

On the one hand, within the Republican Party there certainly exists a faction of trickle-down true believers who don't invoke the struggling middle class much, and when they do it's often as the secondary beneficiaries standing in line behind the "job creators" they hold most dear.

On the other hand, Democratic leaders will forgive some of those even within their own ranks who believe the Dems talk a better game than they play when it comes to the middle class, who are not better off than they were four years ago, who want results, not just rhetoric.

It's that crowd to which Republicans such as vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan were appealing at last week's Republican National Convention. "Right now, 23 million men and women are struggling to find work. ... Nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty. Millions of young Americans have graduated from college during the Obama presidency, ready to use their gifts. ... Half of them can't find the work they studied for, or any work at all," noted Ryan in his prime-time speech. "We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years. ... College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. ... You have not failed. Your leaders have failed you."

That may well resonate with many folks. Thirty years ago they might have been called "Reagan Democrats."

Oh, it is a myth to which many an American stubbornly clings that a president "runs" something as large and as complex as the U.S. economy. To suggest that we are all living in an "Obama economy," as Ryan did last week, is as nonsensical as saying that, should Republicans prevail in November, we'll have a "Romney economy," for better or worse. To be sure, politicians can pass laws that establish a climate that helps or hurts economic growth, but tens of millions of decisions are made every day in U.S. businesses in which the person sitting in the Oval Office is not so much as an afterthought.

In his convention address Ryan also defined his American dream: "When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path ... an American journey where I could think for myself, define happiness for myself. ... That's the American Dream. That's freedom, and I'll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners."

But there's another definition of the American dream that isn't quite so ethereal, that does have a material component. It's held by those for whom wealth may not be the mission, but just being able to own a house and car and send the kids to college and sock away some besides. The greatest indictment of the 21st century in this country so far is that a lot of Americans are giving up on those once-quite-achievable goals.

In any case, Ryan is right that Democrats and Republicans have very different methods for achieving their versions of the American dream. If the former would have Uncle Sam provide more of a helping hand, the other would have Uncle Sam get out of the way.

As with all matters there is a balance here that seems to evade the grasp of both parties. Perhaps both parties would be wise to recall the prosperity of the late 1990s and to heed that centrist viewpoint now.

Don't hold your breath.

Ultimately, we've heard a lot about the "war on women" and the "war on religion" in this campaign, and we can debate all day long about whether either of those is true. But it's indisputable, with ample statistical evidence, that there has been a war on the nation's middle class for some time now. At the end of the day on Nov. 6, which way will most of that middle class go? As deciding factors go, there may be no bigger one.

Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.