NYT opinion: our strength is regional

From the New York Times

A Regional Perspective
By Lawrence C. Levy
Lawrence C. Levy, a former political columnist and senior editorial writer for Newsday, is the executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in New York.

The final presidential debate tonight at New York’s Hofstra University — only miles from America’s largest city and one of its most famous suburbs (Levittown) — is the perfect place to discuss our country’s ever-growing metropolitan areas, those federally under-fueled economic engines that keep this nation going.

So far, unfortunately, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has recognized the need for a new way of thinking about and improving our cities and suburbs. Ignoring metropolitan areas is not only bad government and a danger to the nation’s prosperity, but, as I said in my previous post, it’s also bad politics: the suburbs are where the largest bloc of swing voters reside.

Mr. McCain had a slight lead over Mr. Obama among suburbanites in a national poll conducted by Hofstra University in mid-September. Indeed, participants said that Mr. McCain shared their values. But the data also argued that his chances of winning the presidency are low if he doesn’t chip away at least a little at his opponent’s big lead in the cities, especially in swing states like Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Mr. McCain might be able to do that tonight by talking knowledgeably and sympathetically about mass transit, housing and education — issues that appeal to voters in cities and their surrounding areas.

But whatever strength Mr. McCain may have in the suburbs, he can’t take it for granted. The economic collapse has hit the metropolitan areas hard. The majority of home foreclosures are in the suburbs, so Mr. McCain won’t increase his lead there unless he persuades suburbanites that he understands how much of their future is tied up in the falling values of their homes and their retirement accounts.

By contrast, Mr. Obama, with his huge lead in cities, needs to be careful tonight that he doesn’t scare off suburban voters who see him as a city person and still think that their tax dollars and the allocation of resources unfairly benefit cities at the expense of bedroom communities. What Mr. Obama should be talking about is a more inclusive and productive “metro policy,” one that recognizes the need for cities and suburbs to work together on regional problems, like transportation and pollution.

Mr. Obama has climbed to within striking distance of Mr. McCain in the suburbs by connecting with voters on the economy. He could overtake Mr. McCain among suburban swing voters — and end any chance the Republican has of staging a comeback in the final weeks — by talking authoritatively about the economic and social challenges of the changing suburbs.

For inspiration and ideas, the candidates should read the Brookings Institution’s “Blueprint for American Prosperity.” Brookings has found that the 100 largest metropolitan areas account for 65 percent of the total population of the United States, but generate 74 percent of the country’s college graduates, 76 percent of its relatively high-paying jobs, 78 percent of its patents, 79 percent of its air cargo and 94 percent of its venture capital financing.

For all the economic and intellectual ferment, however, these areas suffer a disproportionate share of social, education and other problems. They receive far less than a per capita share of money from Washington for a variety of services. This lack of federal support is inarguably a drag on their ability to tackle their own problems.

But money is only part of the failure. Urban and suburban officials are stymied by inefficient federal bureaucracies and by arbitrary political traditions — from the earmarking of pork to the failure to recognize regional cost differences.

If the candidates want to get suburban voters, they should support ways to rethink metropolitan areas into more efficient clusters supported by federal financing for projects like better roads and public transportation. They should also support legislation currently being prepared in Congress that calls for a review of federal regulations and revenue streams to see if the suburbs are getting their fair share.

Many suburban counties, like Nassau, where Hofstra is located, are experiencing dynamic demographic change that is leaving them older and poorer. Many of the “inner-ring” or “first” suburbs, like Levittown, are aging physically, with more and more deteriorating downtowns.

On Long Island, home to some of the nation’s wealthiest and highest-performing public school districts, minority children are stuck in highly segregated, failing schools. Nassau, which has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of medical specialists, has 33 “medically under-served” communities. Gangs and drug dealers are increasingly becoming a problem.

Tonight, at Hofstra University, where high-rise dorms have a view of Manhattan and Levittown, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama need to let voters in the cities and suburbs know that they understand their concerns and, if elected, would make them a high priority. Their bid for the White House depends on it.

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