Once again, working folks get soaked

October 15, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE SPEECHES went on too long. The rain came and went, and the temperature dropped, and then the rain came back harder. Nobody left. They stood there and they got wet, hundreds of them at Oriole Park gathered near the Babe Ruth statue, holding up their signs: Iron Workers Local No. 16, and Operating Engineers Local 37. They were asbestos workers and bricklayers and plumbers. They were carpenters and roofers and sheet metal workers. The speeches went on, and so did the damned rain. And nobody moved.

An airplane circling through the inky sky overhead trailed a banner: "Bush A Miserable Failure." Babe Ruth's statue wore a Kerry-Edwards sticker on its breast and carried a sign: "Home Run No. 715: Kerry Wins."

A few guys marched through the big crowd carrying a banner with photos of the White House warriors, Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld, and this caption: Weapons of Mass Destruction.

This was three hours before Wednesday's third presidential debate, when the candidates talked about domestic issues. President Bush and Sen. John Kerry on television wore dark suits and talked about dollars in the trillions.

Those standing in the rain in downtown Baltimore wore T-shirts and had callused hands and talked about holding onto vulnerable jobs where the paychecks are worth less today than they were four years ago.

As union guys, they are the heart of the old Democratic Party. But, in the modern parlance, a lot of them have called themselves Reagan Democrats, torn between traditional Roosevelt/Kennedy loyalties and the seismic political shifts of the last two decades.

But there wasn't much ambivalence in this crowd. The mood felt like a punch in the mouth. Because, once you get past the awful matter of terrorism, and the orchestration of lies that took us into Iraq, the fundamental issue in this campaign is simple: Who's getting fat, and who's going broke?

The American economy needs about 1.6 million new jobs each year just to keep up with population growth. Bush is famously the first president since Hoover to lose jobs on his watch. When this was mentioned at Wednesday's TV debate, Bush did what he had to: He changed the subject. He went immediately to No Child Left Behind, and hoped nobody would notice that his best-known education initiative never got the money he promised.

Six weeks ago, the government reported that the ranks of the poor and those without health insurance grew last year for the third straight year. The disparity in incomes widened between the rich and the poor. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the cities, among immigrants, or in the South, already the nation's poorest region. And the wage gap between men and women widened.

Nobody in the rain Wednesday needed government figures to understand this. They have paychecks that are eloquent. When Bush talks of economic troubles, he blames the terrorist attacks. He's partly right -- and Kerry has taken far too long getting his own story straight on why we went into Iraq in response to those attacks. But Bush is right; Sept. 11 changed everyone's economic calculations.

Here's the problem: Congressional Budget Office estimates say it was Bush's tax cuts that caused about two-thirds of the 2004 deficit.

"Where's your big tax cut?" AFL-CIO leader Ernie Greco asked the big crowd in the rain Wednesday.

"Went to the rich," came a hoarse reply.

"Working men and women have been passed over in favor of the wealthy and the big corporations," said Jim Correll, head of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council.

"It's Robin Hood in reverse. Rob the poor to give to the rich."

The Congressional Budget Office says most of the Bush tax cuts went to the richest 10 percent, and more than one-third went to the top 1 percent, whose average income is more than $1 million.

In Wednesday's debate, the candidates looked at the other side of the economy: minimum wage. It's been stuck at $5.15 for the past seven years. Kerry said he'd raise it. Bush gave it one full sentence -- a Republican plan "I supported" to raise the minimum wage -- and then he went right to No Child Left Behind, which he called "what's really important for the worker you're referring to."

What's also important to those gathered at Oriole Park are those tax cuts for the rich, and those working-class paychecks falling behind the cost of living, and the loss of health benefits. They vented a lot of anger Wednesday. They stood there and got drenched, and heard speeches that went on too long. But nobody moved. They're accustomed to standing in the rain.

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