DEMOCRATS, the long-time champions of the poor, have a new political cause. They want to rescue the embattled American middle class - and possibly win back the White House at the same time. While many Americans such as lawyers, computer programmers, and Wall Street brokers prospered handsomely during the go-go 1980s, millions of blue-collar Americans were financially clobbered. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 1978 to 1989 the real income of production workers in the US shrank from an average of $301 a week to $264 a week, when adjusted for inflation.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs to low-wage factories abroad. Workers who once earned top pay at steel mills and auto plants were required to take "hamburger-flipper" jobs at $4 an hour.
The spreading crisis hit families hard. It forced millions of women into the work place to pay family bills, pushed some people out of their homes, and drove many former workers and their children onto welfare.
Former Democratic chairman Robert Strauss says: "I think the middle class in this country is [in] far worse [shape] than most people really have any idea."
Paul Tully, political director for the Democratic National Committee, calls this middle-class crisis a strategic opportunity for his party.
The Bush White House has taken a hands-off attitude toward the slowdown. Mr. Tully says the Republican position is: "Don't worry. The recession is only going to last a half-hour. Everything is wonderful."
But Tully says the country knows better. "A lot of voters ... think there is something fundamentally off here," he says. "We may be on a long, slow slide into a second-rate economy."
The Democratic plan is clear: Target those working-class voters who were first attracted to the GOP by Richard Nixon, then by Ronald Reagan, and most recently by George Bush.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the GOP's winning margin in presidential elections was based on those middle-class voters. They included angry white Southerners (remember the crowds for George Wallace?) and ethnic, blue-collar Northerners (remember the hard hats?). In earlier times, both of those large groups had traditionally supported Democrats, such as John F. Kennedy.
Redrawing the map
Democrats argue that economic self-interest now could bring them back. And that could redraw the political map in 1992.
"I'm going to tell you, the middle-class in this country, that's where the ballgame is," says Mr. Strauss. "That's the big casino, and that's what's going to change the course of this country."
Democrats are appealing to these voters in disparate ways.
House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri has emphasized the trade issue. He has argued that Republicans' lackadaisical approach to imports from Japan, Korea, and other nations has cost Americans thousands of good-paying jobs in industries like autos and electronics. Now he is attacking the president's proposed trade treaty with Mexico on similar grounds.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York has taken another approach. He has tried to roll back social security taxes to give middle-class wage earners a break, but his efforts were soundly defeated last week in the Senate.
Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado offers yet another idea. He says that with the right policies which emphasize economic growth, Democrats can broaden their appeal not only to middle-class voters, but to corporate America as well.
Mr. Romer argues that the Democrats' top priority must be jobs. And that means emphasizing productivity and workers' skills. Only if America's productivity rises can this nation again offer middle-class workers the opportunities they need for prosperity, he observes.
"To be productive, [we must] develop our skills to a high level."
How can that be done?
First and foremost, he says, Democrats must emphasize education and skills training. Second, they must support an improved infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, airports, mass transit. Third, they must improve environmental quality. Fourth, they must support taxation and regulation that is "rational and balanced."
Back to the 'action agenda'
To achieve all this, he says, "we go back to the ... action agenda of the Democratic Party. We must remove the barriers of race or economic circumstance to be useful citizens. We need to bring [Americans to the workplace] with good health and with good minds. That is the agenda."
Romer says that businessmen are beginning to see the wisdom of Democratic policies that support expanded health care, education, and housing. Corporate America now says:
"We cannot have an engine that has eight cylinders and has two cylinders inoperative - that is, illiterate and not trained."
In Governor Romer's view, corporate America now is willing to join with Democrats in policies that "make the kind of investment that needs to be made to make us productive in a world marketplace." Without such policies, he says, the nation is "not going to make it."