Neither party hears cries of working class

November 14, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Reeling from last week's off-year elections, Republicans are binding their wounds and analyzing their defeats, hoping to recover by next year when congressional seats are in play. Even Virginia, usually a GOP stronghold, picked Democrats for several key posts. For their part, jubilant Democrats think it's a political D-Day: They're on the beach and ready to move inland.

Both parties believe they know the causes of voter resentment: the war in Iraq, soaring budget deficits, high energy costs and a certain whiff of malfeasance emanating not just from Congress (Tom DeLay under indictment, Bill Frist under investigation) but also from the White House (I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. under indictment, Karl Rove under investigation). Indeed, polls show that all those are sources of discontent.

But there is also a profound anxiety over the economy that neither Democrats nor Republicans have fully understood, much less tried to answer. It wasn't just the quagmire of Iraq that prompted a stunning 68 percent of respondents to say they were dissatisfied with the country's direction, according to a recent Gallup poll. Despite unemployment rates that remain relatively low, many Americans are anxious about their bills, uncertain about their retirement prospects and worried that their children won't fare as well as they did.

Slowly, stealthily, globalization is taking a toll throughout the American middle and working classes, shutting down factories, decimating unions, even threatening the Southeast's cotton farmers, who fear competition from cheap fiber grown in Africa and South America. The crosswinds of free trade have achieved hurricane force, battering factories and offices, rendering them unsteady spheres where a worker with 10 years of good performance reviews can walk in any morning to find he's out of work.

Add to that health insurance costs, which have left millions of parents stranded in a scary place where they ignore a child's hacking cough unless it persists for weeks and put off their own checkups indefinitely. Even families with medical insurance have discovered that a major illness can lead to bankruptcy.

You'd think Congress would be working hard to ease the burdens of average working folks - police officers, plumbers, paralegals. You'd expect Washington politicians would have devoted the past few years to helping parents who are still working to pay for their prescriptions, to demanding more energy efficiency in automobiles and household appliances, to funding more college aid for working-class students.

The GOP, of course, has done nothing of the sort. As lackeys of the big business, wealthy investor class (or charter members of it), congressional Republicans have done everything in their power to make the lives of working folks worse. They've resisted an increase in the minimum wage; they've squeezed Medicaid; they've championed tax cuts for the richest Americans and a plan to make Social Security checks less reliable.

But the Democrats have done little better. This year, they joined with Republicans in passing a bankruptcy bill that forgives less debt and makes it harder for folks struggling with big bills to dig themselves out of debt.

The bankruptcy legislation was a particularly shameless bit of exploitation. Banks have spent years stuffing mailboxes with solicitations for credit cards, cultivating people they knew were bad credit risks. When those same customers ran into trouble with their credit card bills, the banks insisted on kicking them in the shins. Congressional Democrats helped supply the steel-toed boots.

Isolated in Washington with comfortable salaries and generous health insurance plans, members of Congress are clueless about the financial anxieties of average workers.

If a bunch of them were dumped from office next year - Democrats and Republicans alike - their successors might be a bit more sensitive to the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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