Last week, in Cleveland, Barack Obama took inspiration from a former Republican president. "In the words of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln," Obama said, "I also believe that government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves."
The Republicans have travelled a long way since Lincoln's election. The Party of the Little Man still claims that title. But its policies belie that claim. For the last thirty years, Republicans have given their blessing to a growing income gap. And, today, as they stand four square with the wealthy, Obama is right when he says:
Make no mistake: [They] believe we should also give a permanent tax cut to the wealthiest two percent of Americans. With all the other budgetary pressures we have -- with all the Republicans' talk about wanting to shrink the deficit -- they would have us borrow $700 billion over the next ten years to give a tax cut of about $100,000 to folks who are already millionaires. These are among the only folks who saw their incomes rise when Republicans were in charge.
David Frum claims that Republicans have branded themselves the party of fear and anger. But they have no program. If, as some pundits expect, they take control of Congress in November, they
will arrive pre-exhausted, without ideas, ready to do business with K Street from Day 1. This is not good news. But it's also unfortunately not surprising news. For 24 months an emotionally intense opposition to the president has been unsupported by anything like a Republican policy agenda.
And it is that vacuum at the center of the Republican Party which is so deeply troubling. Up to this point they have, indeed, made something out of nothing. If the Democrats are to succeed in November, they will have to convince Americans that anger and fear are no substitutes for ideas. But that won't give them control of the agenda. For that to happen, Obama will have to convince a majority of voters that he understands their frustrations and that he is in it for them.
Bill Moyers likes to tell the story of the relationship which existed between his father -- a modestly educated man -- and Franklin Roosevelt. Apparently, the two never met. But, Moyers wrote, "When Roosevelt was president, [my father] knew he had a friend in the White House."
Obama's single greatest failure to date has been his inability to convince ordinary folks that they have a friend in the White House. The speech in Cleveland could be a turning point. But it's late in the game.
Now is the time for the president to return to the rhetoric which got him elected.
This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.