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“What’s Wrong With America . . .?”

AFL-CIA ForumDuring last night’s AFL-CIO Presidential Forum, after the seven (no Gravel) Democratic candidates gave their usual responses to Keith Olbermann’s intelligent questions, the forum turned to questions for the audience. It was the most important moment in the debate, because we heard questions we rarely hear from the usual debate hosts. But these were the right questions.

One woman stood up and described how she lost her husband in the Sego Mine disaster and noted that six miners were now trapped in a mine in Utah. She wanted to know, “Why aren’t the mine and worker safety laws being enforced?” Good question.

Another woman, unemployed, described how she and others had lost their jobs because they tried to organize a union, and she wanted to know why America couldn’t enforce its own labor laws.

The next person, an older gentlemen, took a moment to rise because he was on crutches. After he rose and began to speak, the tears rolled down his face but he hung in there. He described how forced retirement had cost him his job, and after his company folded how he’d lost one third of his pension and his family’s health care. And he described what it was like sitting at the breakfast table every morning with his wife of 34 years, now ailing, knowing that he could not afford to pay for her health insurance. And he looked straight at the candidates and said,

“What’s wrong with America, and what would you do to fix it?”

And you knew he wasn’t asking some general question nor speaking only to the candidates. He was speaking to all of us, to all Americans and to its leaders, asking how could we let this happen? How could we have a country in which decent people could worked hard all their lives only to find they had no retirement security and couldn’t get health care? And why should ordinary Americans have to be concerned not only about their kids’ schooling now but their kid’s future when they starting looking for meaningful jobs?

As KO noted afterward, the country is waiting, longing for a leader to respond to these questions.

My view about these debates/forums is that whatever they do for the individual candidates — and they seem at least to be helping Hillary Clinton strengthen her status as front runner — they are great for the Democratic Party, because collectively they have good answers to most of these questions and more. And their answers are getting better as they debate each other.

I disagree with those who want the field to be winnowed, to have fewer on the stage so we can dig deeper into their views. We don’t need that now, and taking people off the stage would serve only to take good policy critiques and policy options like single-payer health care and campaign financing off the stage with them.

The debates they’re having now over foreign policy, or health care details and trade provisions are helping all of them refine the larger Democratic message. They are collectively writing the Democratic platform, instead of leaving that to the front runner a year before the conventions. They are all getting better, and Kucinich, who helps keep them all honest, reminds people that short men are not stupid or weak, and can rally the country. And it just makes me smile to wonder what Chris Matthews must think when his post-debate “experts” all agree that Kucinich did great.

The Party looks best when they’re all on that stage, jockeying with each other to be sure, but it’s a good debate, framing and clarifying the issues, and giving us one opportunity after another to show how George Bush and his Republican Party have trashed the country. The debates are showcasing to the American people that the Democrats are ready to take the Presidency and lead the country. When the American people watch this group have their crisp, rational debates, watch them discuss the details of health care proposals, and watch the Democrats show their passion for fixing the problems ordinary Americans really care about, and then compare that to the group of clowns on the Republican side as they debate their flip flops on abortion or gay marriage or pretend that terms like “socialism” have some relevance to the majority of Americans, I think we win. We win big.

And when Hillary told the audience near the end that in the next Democratic Administration there will be plenty of work to do and invited people who wanted to help to come to Washington, she got the message right: “Bring your brooms and bring your mops, because we have to clean house.”

More, please. (And thanks to Crooks and Liars for getting the videos up so quickly. More videos are available here.)

Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, MSNBC AFL-CIO Presidential Forum

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley