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Undercurrent of economic distress

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- So far, Iraq has dominated the preliminary campaigning for the 2008 presidential election. On the Democratic side, rabid critics of the war have failed to force an apology out of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for her 2002 vote authorizing military force. On the Republican side, candidates try to find phrasing that distances them from the quagmire without expressly criticizing President Bush.

But the war won't be the only thing on voters' minds when they head to the polls a year and a half from now. Iraq and terrorism will be important, of course - magnified if jihadists manage another successful attack on American soil. Still, there is an undercurrent of economic distress among working-class and middle-class voters that presidential candidates cannot afford to ignore. It has shown itself in the hysteria over illegal immigration, in the clamor for affordable health care, in the growing distrust of globalization.

According to a Gallup poll conducted last month, 43 percent of Americans rate the economy as good to excellent, while 57 percent view economic conditions as fair to poor. No serious candidate for the presidency can afford to ignore the economic unease expressed by that clear majority.

So far, though, few public figures have found a smart and appealing way to discuss this new economy. We don't have a language for it. Still mired in the rhetoric of the 1960s, we discuss the poles of poverty and affluence. Traditional conservatives still point to family dysfunction as a major cause of generational poverty, and traditional liberals still decry corporate greed and institutional neglect. There is some truth in both views about the underclass.

But what about a different group of Americans, hardworking and law-abiding but still kicked around by an economy that doesn't reward their efforts? What about those who lost jobs because a factory closed and are struggling to find work that pays as well? What about those whose employer does not provide health insurance? What of those parents who joined the military just so their children could get dental care? What about middle-age office workers laid off in a corporate downsizing and undesirable to other employers because of their age?

The very nature of this economy has made many of those Americans invisible. We still focus on broad statistics such as the national unemployment rate, which hovers at a respectable 4.3 percent. And, despite a recent stock market slide, many Americans are enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

It's helpful to think of economic conditions in terms of the cleavage expressed in the Gallup poll - 43 percent of Americans think the economy is doing just fine, while 57 percent don't share that rosy view.

Here's the rub: Both groups are right. On the lucky side of the divide are well-educated professionals, perhaps with a creative bent, who navigate the information economy with ease and live well in big cities that also thrive. On the unlucky side are employees of Ford or GM, housepainters struggling against immigrant competitors, or former textile workers in rural towns with no prospects. The latter are battling against a wave of change likely to leave them shipwrecked on the shores of unemployment and debt.

While many workers and their advocates are ready to dump globalization and support proposals that would prohibit U.S. corporations from outsourcing jobs, that desperate idea just won't work. Think about it. Many companies would simply pull up and move to China or Mexico. Others would incorporate offshore, U.S. companies no longer. There is simply no practical way to prevent capitalists from spending as little as possible on labor.

Instead, the nation needs to find ways to support workers in transition. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is among the very few who have offered detailed proposals, including a plan for universal health care and a program to make college more affordable.

Those are the sorts of ideas that help hardworking Americans who, as Bill Clinton used to say, "play by the rules." They deserve the attention of every candidate running for president.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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