Look to Michigan for how unemployment could affect 2008

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The anger in this metro area is palpable. The unemployment rate is at 6.9 percent, more than two percentage points higher than the national average. The threat of a strike looms over one major auto-parts supplier. And an iconic employer, General Motors, has essentially told its hourly workers they shouldn't count on any kind of future with the company.

The region has been kicked around, and if you ask a lot of workers what they think about their job prospects you will get a defiant string of expletives. But under that anger is fear.

For the past 20 years, the blue-collar workers here have been told their way of life - steady employment with a good wage - is ending. But this time around there's a feeling that it's different. The Big Three auto companies are in such dire straits, there's an understanding in 2006 that it isn't that management is out to get them, it's that the global economy is transforming. And many of them don't know what to do.

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The options open to former factory workers are limited. Most alternatives don't pay as well and, more important to some, don't offer anything near the benefits and healthcare packages that came with their previous jobs.

Ah yes, anger and fear, the ideal mood for an election. In this case, the 2006 Michigan gubernatorial race, a rancorous affair with few answers. Governor Jennifer Granholm (D), faced with a depleted treasury and a shrinking tax base, is forced to explain how she can fix the mess she largely inherited four years ago - talking, as every governor has for the past two decades, of diversifying the economy. Her opponent, Dick DeVos, who started Amway, hasn't revealed any plans for fixing the state, but says he knows how to create jobs.

It's early, but despite the state's troubles, Governor Granholm leads by about 10 percent according to the latest poll. Why? Well, voters in Michigan, who didn't go for President Bush in either 2000 or 2004, are more than happy to blame a lot of problems on the White House. Plus, Granholm is only in her first term and almost everyone who has read a newspaper since, oh, 1979, understands the state's problems are nothing new. Republicans are still hopeful, though, that the economy will provide enough of an opening for Mr. DeVos to slide past.

It's a race both parties are watching closely. But the real story in Michigan may not be the 2006 election, it may be the 2008 presidential race.

Granholm, a reconstructed liberal, and DeVos, a businessman Republican, are not only interesting proxies for the Democratic Party and GOP. The struggles of the state present what may be the big issue for the 2008 election - as the nation's manufacturing economy changes and jobs disappear, who can offer some kind of plan for the future of the middle class, beyond everyone working at Wal-Mart?

This has quietly been the issue behind nearly every election through the 1980s and '90s. The 2000 race was about "character" because times were good, or seemed good. And, yes, terrorism dominated the 2004 vote and will without question play a role in 2008. But as the threat of terrorism becomes just another awful, permanent fact of life, what's looming over a large chunk of the electorate is the job and economic changes that are displacing millions of workers in manufacturing and their families.

It's not just about wages or even healthcare, but pensions, retirement plans, and the ability of these families to send their children to college.

Both parties have had precious little to say on the topic. Republicans have trumpeted tax cuts aimed at the wealthy (a.k.a. those who provide jobs) and hit on social issues to win over socially conservative blue-collar voters. Democrats have talked of the need for things like "better access to healthcare" and then proposed plans that are either too timid to excite voters or too bold, with no plans for how to cover the costs.

There is some hope.

The GOP is likely to have a big internal debate leading up to 2008 about what the party is about. Even if the Republicans get serious about the nation's economic restructuring, though, the nation's growing deficit and the party's utter disdain for any kind of tax increase means coming up with a solution that will require true wizardry.

On the Democratic side, former North Carolina senator John Edwards is quietly going around the country and talking about the lower middle-class squeeze. He's listening to what people say and telling them he understands their problems. If he can ultimately craft a plan and message that resonates with these voters, he might have leg up on the issue for 2008.

Even if he doesn't, though, and even if the issue is again largely ignored by the parties, the problem isn't going to go away. The anger and fear here may be more tangible, but they are not limited to the geography of southeast Michigan.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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