If John Kerry and John Edwards want to come out of the Democratic convention not simply with a bump in the polls but with a plan to transform domestic debate, they should pick a clear fight with Republicans about how we define a minimally decent life in America.
My vote is for a Democratic rallying cry of, “Basic health coverage and 9 to 10 bucks an hour!” The debate such a goal would spawn would be morally and economically clarifying – and Democrats would prevail.
Here’s why. The conservative view of the decent minimum goes something like this: “You’re lucky to be in America; you’re lucky to have a job; you’re lucky to have the emergency room.”
The right isn’t all wrong here. Millions of people across the world would give anything to be our working poor, or to have “only” U.S. emergency rooms for their primary care.
But Kerry and Edwards can explain that this pinched vision isn’t good enough for a country that should be the standard-setter for the possibilities of capitalism – especially when we can achieve a more decent life in ways that are economically rational and don’t kill the “golden goose” of growth.
If we listened to conservatives, after all, we’d have never abolished child labor or sweatshops, established the weekend and the 40-hour week, or enacted food, drug and workplace safety laws. Kerry and Edwards can place the debate over a decent minimum in an easily understood historical trajectory – a history of progress that the overwhelming majority of Americans support.
Each generation, they can say, is called on to define and fight for its new version of this ‘decent minimum,’ and to show how it can be squared with capitalism. It’s in this context that they would lay down a marker of basic health coverage and a closer-to-living wage of $9 to $10 an hour, and challenge conservatives to explain which part of that vision they don’t like.
Just as important, Kerry and Edwards can teach the country that “defining decency up” along these lines isn’t some woolly-headed liberal extravaganza. In fact, it can be done in economically sound ways that don’t place the full burden of achieving America’s decent minimum on business, and at a cost of roughly a penny on the national dollar.
That amount – 1 percent of GDP, or roughly $110 billion a year – is enough to fund basic health coverage for the uninsured, as well as supplements to the wage subsidies for the working poor now conferred via the earned income tax credit. If the minimum wage were raised to $7 an hour (its level, in real terms, in the 1970s), and then indexed thereafter to inflation, such subsidies would assure a living wage of at least $9 an hour.
The beauty of such a simple proposal is that it takes us past isolated debates that obscure the bigger picture. Fights over narrow areas like welfare, Medicare or tax reform invariably proceed along stale ideological lines.
But if Kerry and Edwards invite all of us – from chardonnay-sipping lefties to duck-hunting CEOs – to embrace a new definition of American decency and to discuss how its burdens should be shared, the conversation will become more engaging and edifying overnight. Even the media will be able to follow it.
Who will say people can live in 2004 on less than $9 an hour? Who will defend the status quo of 44 million uninsured? And who will say that ending this poverty and indignity isn’t worth a penny on the national dollar – roughly a third of the tax cuts President Bush has tilted toward the best-off at a time of war?
Investing to strengthen America’s decent minimum isn’t ultimately a matter of altruism, Democrats can argue. It’s a prerequisite for maintaining a political consensus for the open markets and technological change that in the long run benefit us all, but which in the near term leave many Americans reeling.
Democrats need to expose the hoax of “compassionate conservativism,” and the surest way to do so is to contrast it with a concrete alternative. By defining decency up, Kerry and Edwards can make the convention more than a celebration of their personal leadership. They can make it a call to renew an ideal around which all Americans can rally.
Matthew Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.