In my view, the longest, most resounding applause at last night's presidential debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO came not when Sen. Obama delivered a clever remark about Washington insiders running amok or when Sen. Clinton accused the Bush administration of misleading the country into war or even when Rep. Dennis Kucinich promised to establish a "workers' White House."
It came when retired steelworker Steve Skvara of Indiana talked about his situation. "After 34 years with LTV Steel," he said, "I was forced to retire because of a disability. Two years later, LTV filed bankruptcy. I lost a third of my pension, and my family lost their health care. Everyday of my life, I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can't afford to pay for her health care. What's wrong with America, and what will you do to change it?"
In that question, in the tremble in Mr. Skvara's voice, one senses the frustrations of working men and women built up over the last few decades as we have seen our wages and benefits eroded, our rights to union protections, good jobs with decent pay, safety and health protections, our access to health care eroded, and our voices unheard. One felt Mr. Skvara's anger and anxiety erupt in the sustained applause of the thousands of workers who attended the event.
Mr. Skvara's is a question that puts to shame the carefully crafted and spun responses of the candidates, the squabbling over he said-she said, and the endless platitudes. It is a question whose answer is based in serious, fundamental policy changes. Do our candidates really care about working families?
I think this debate, the questions and demands of workers presented there, are a watershed moment in US politics. It is a turning point in the public debate about what should be on the agenda of the next president. Get ready for some big changes. Get ready to help make those changes happen.