ST. PAUL, Minn. — Maybe it's a good thing for Republicans that Hurricane Gustav has abbreviated their convention. On an issue of some concern to Americans — the economy — they seem to have nothing to say.
I have combed the schedule of events here without finding a single forum or workshop devoted to what John McCain and the Republican Party propose to do about America's short- and long-term economic challenges. I've found four panels on what to do about the Middle East, but not one on what to do about the Middle West.
Some events deal with aspects of economic policy, to be sure: The Consumer Electronics Association is sponsoring a salute to free trade. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hosting a Vote for Business Bandwagon. The American Petroleum Institute, in conjunction with the American Gas Association and the National Mining Association, is throwing a wingding for Republican governors. And I count two forums on tax issues.
But by the standard of Republican conventions past, this is a skimpy list. Time was you could count on conservative think tanks to host convention events on privatizing Social Security and deregulating this industry or that. But with our deregulated financial and housing sectors imploding, and with Social Security privatization dead for lack of a second, the Republicans this year are steering clear of such hardy perennials.
Then again, the Republicans here don't believe that the economy needs fixing. On Monday, a New York Times poll of Republican convention delegates showed that 57 percent believe the American economy is in very good or fairly good shape.
The only economic concern of ordinary Americans that finds expression inside this year's GOP convention is the price of gas, for which the chief solution, as you would expect at a convention where the American Petroleum Institute is hosting the party's governors, is offshore drilling.
Republican silence on economic matters stands in sharp contrast to the Democratic convention last week in Denver, where there were close to 20 forums on "green" jobs, reviving progressive taxation, balancing the budget, rebuilding infrastructure, the economy of alternative energy and the like. The Democrats have devised a macroeconomic strategy for a beleaguered economy. The party's commitment to alternative energy and green jobs opens the door for, among other things, a public-private jobs program, a WPA for the 21st century.
This policy does more than address America's energy needs. It also begins to grapple with American capital's systematic underinvestment in American jobs. Our banks and corporations, it's clear, have little interest in financing manufacturing here when they can get products built at a fraction of the cost abroad. With our private sector no longer creating the good jobs it did in decades past, it's the public sector, or the private sector with targeted tax dollars, that can create the construction, transportation and manufacturing jobs we need to build not just a more energy-efficient economy but also one that is more prosperous.
These are the kinds of programs that Republicans reflexively oppose, of course, but what is the current GOP strategy for job creation and restoring America's middle class? The number of manufacturing jobs has plummeted during the Bush presidency, and the GOP's commitment to free trade guarantees only further decline. Median family income has dropped over the past eight years, and the Republicans' war on unions means that Americans will have even less power to raise their wages should McCain win this fall. Health insurance grows more costly and more scattershot, and Republican resistance to providing more coverage to their compatriots means more families will be stretched to, and beyond, their limits.
For all these woes, McCain offers only a continuation of Bush's tax cuts for the rich and an ideological bias toward the very kind of deregulation that has wrecked the housing market. Small wonder people are fleeing the GOP in droves.
But the economy is not all; the GOP's last best hope remains identity politics. In a year when the Democrats have an African-American presidential nominee, the Republicans now more than ever are the white folks' party, the party that delays the advent of our multicultural future, the party of the American past. Republican conventions have long been bastions of de facto Caucasian exclusivity, but coming right after the diversity of Denver, this year's GOP convention is almost shockingly — un-Americanly — white. Long term, this whiteness is a huge problem. This year, however, whiteness is the only way Republicans cling to power. If the election is about the economy, they're cooked — and their silence this week on nearly all things economic means that they know it.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.