Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the White House pulled ahead of his opponent, Senator John McCain, as soon as the current financial crisis hit the headlines. As one of McCain's top strategists recently blurted out, "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose."
There's a reason for this well-established trend that the Democrats tend to win among those who vote on economic issues. Although both parties are subject to undue influence from powerful corporate interests, the Republicans have been much more consistent in advocating government policies that redistribute income from working and middle-class Americans to the rich. They are also much less friendly to the most important government programs that insure people against economic catastrophe, such as Social Security and Medicare.
These partisan differences are evident in the current presidential campaign. On Social Security, McCain has in the past supported President Bush's partial privatization plan, which was rightly rejected as an attempt to undermine the nation's most important anti-poverty program and social safety net. McCain has also undermined Social Security by wildly misrepresenting its financial condition, alleging that the program is "going broke." (For the record, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security will pay all promised benefits for the next 40 years without any changes whatsoever. It would need only minor changes, less than those adopted in each of the decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s to remain solvent for 75 years).
Obama rejects privatization of Social Security - as well as Medicare, where the Republicans have increased the role of private insurance companies by giving them wasteful taxpayer subsidies. On health care, one of the most interesting features of Obama's proposal is the establishment of a public insurance program similar to Medicare, which employers and uninsured individuals could buy into. This would be subsidized and could be an important step towards universal health insurance.
McCain wants people to buy their own private health insurance. He is willing to give them a subsidy from the government, but the $5000 he offers is far less than the $12,500 it costs to insure a typical family. Even worse, he proposes to tax the health insurance benefits provided by employers, which are currently tax-free. This would be a hefty tax increase for tens of millions of working Americans. It also puts at risk the health insurance of many of the 160 million people who depend on employment-based insurance policies.
McCain has also been reluctant to support a fiscal stimulus that will be necessary to limit the size and duration of the current downturn. This could be a costly mistake. As consumers cut back on spending - which is already happening this quarter - the recession will deepen unless the government is willing to make up for it. Obama has proposed a stimulus package that is too small, but will almost certainly support larger plans that will come from the Democratic Congress.
McCain has proposed yet another cut in the capital gains tax - from 15 percent to 7.5 percent. This would go overwhelmingly to rich people, and would have little or no effect on economic growth. He also wants to make permanent President Bush's tax cuts for rich households. By contrast, Obama has proposed to cut taxes for everyone earning under $250,000 - about ninety-five percent of taxpayers - and pay for it with an increase on the five percent who make more than that.
With millions of Americans facing foreclosure notices on their homes, insufficient and collapsed retirement savings, rising unemployment, falling real wages, and what is likely the worst recession for at least three decades - it's getting tougher to distract voters from the most important economic issues that affect their lives. Hence, the Republicans' bad luck in the polls.
This op-ed was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on October 22, 2008, and published in The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers.