Shirts and skins

Who can forget that luminescent night almost three years ago when Barack Obama stood on the stage at Chicago's Grant Park and savored what was an unprecedented moment? It was electric. But that was then and this is now, and the promise and hope of 2008 have been tempered by a political landscape characterized by levels of conservative partisanship, and rancor and intransigence.

Suddenly an empowered conservative fringe has gone mainstream and now holds sway over what was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. It should now be clear that they have no intention of working with the Obama administration on jobs or anything else as we move into what will be a long season taking us to the presidential election.

President Obama will approach a defining moment in his presidency tonight when he addresses a joint session of Congress and presents his jobs plan for America.

Millions remain unemployed; many have given up looking. Unemployment insurance is a fragile thread. Countless mortgages are under water. Working people were leveled by the recession, lives shattered. Some may never work at their chosen occupations again.

There has been much debate about the speech and whether Obama should "go big." Or, in the alternative, find a middling ground in hopes of getting some Republicans on board.

Ask Democrats and most say go big. Offer up a courageous plan. And when the conservatives throw out the anchor and resurrect their tired mantra of austerity and trickle-down economics, step forward and fight for the plan. Take the case and make the case to the American people. And don't look back.

This is no longer about "Change we can believe in," or "Yes we can." We have taken the full measure of the tea party Republicans. Clearly whatever Obama proposes, no matter how diluted, no matter the compromise, they will reject. Their top priority, before country, is to make Obama a one-term president. A train wreck of an economy will help.

Recall the health care debate and their fraudulent death panels and looming big-government socialism. Grandma will be set out on the ice. Recall the blackmail and threats over the 2010 budget negotiations as they fought for a renewal of the tax breaks for the wealthy. And then the subsequent nihilistic brinksmanship and hostage-taking over deficit reduction and raising the debt ceiling.

Nothing has changed. Eric Cantor, House majority leader, in the wake of the devastation of Irene, proffered the idea that if hurricane victims wanted federal disaster relief, offsetting cuts would have to be found elsewhere. In other words, he and his conservative ilk were taking hostage those devastated by the storm and demanding deficit reductions.

Let's finally acknowledge that the Dems are the shirts and the tea partiers are the skins and the only alternative is to play flat-out, with a teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching determination. Draw a line. Fight back. Go big.

But going big regarding jobs also offers Obama an opportunity to clarify the Democrats' vision for America, one that stands in stark contrast to this new GOP.

Step forward, Mr. President, and say, "This is who we are. These are our core values."

Make clear that, yes, Democrats believe in a social safety net and caring about the least of us is fundamental to who we are as a nation and a party.

Argue that in this crisis, the government, not the timid private sector, is best suited to create massive, decade-long employment, akin to FDR's New Deal or the post-WWII Marshall Plan. Begin with our crumbling infrastructure — bridges and water treatment plants, roadways and our century-old grid (why are power lines not underground?). Let's go broadband. Build high-speed rail. Rebuild our schools. Retrain our work force. Develop green energy. Let sustainability be the embedded context.

Later, once the cycle of economic contraction is broken, roll out a well-crafted budget to include eliminating welfare to corporations (subsidies to oil companies), look hard at defense and abandon the folly called nation building — unless it's our own. It's time to bring our troops home. Note that over the past 10 years, as much as $60 billion of taxpayer money has vanished in Iraq and Afghanistan to waste, corruption and fraud. That's roughly the price tag for Irene. Rewrite the tax code. Close the loopholes. Level the playing field for all Americans, not just the wealthy. Shared sacrifice resonates. Final point: extend payroll tax relief. It's a stimulus plan.

Go big, Mr. President. If it comes to a fight, welcome it. The shirts will prevail. And if you receive a ransom note from the likes of Eric Cantor, publish it in The New York Times.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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