February 19, 2008

What is at Stake in November?

After the American Century

The race between Clinton and Obama should not distract from the fundamental oppositions between McCain and the two Democratic candidates. Party divergences are so fundamental that this election seems to be a defining national moment. Count on the Republicans to try to find some symbolic controversy to distract the voters, such as respect for the flag, prayer in schools, gay marriage, and the like. One can only hope the American people will not be easily distracted. Here is what they should be thinking about.

One. The Bench. Will a conservative, strict-construction of the Constitution be cemented more firmly in place, with four more years of Republican judicial appointments? This concerns not only the Supreme Court but the many appointments to the other Federal courts as well. It is not just about whether abortion will continue to be legal, but whether the courts will agree to hear cases dealing with social inequality, racial discrimination, and free speech, broadly defined. In a worse-case scenario, conservative judges (whose terms to not expire until they decide to retire) could become the dominant force for a generation. A conservative bench is potentially dangerous after eight years of Bush's attacks on civil liberties, along with continual attempts to place both the President and the Vice-President above scrutiny and the rule of law.

Two. Will the destabilizing tax cuts that Bush enacted become permanent, or will more progressive taxation return? Under the Bush plan, the rich keep getting richer and the national debt grows, the middle class and the poor lose ground, and the next generation gets the bill. McCain has pledged to keep the Bush cuts, while the Democrats want to return to the system that served the nation so well in the 1990s. Recall that from 1992 until 2000 the economy grew, the middle class did not lose ground, and the national debt was rapidly paid off. The Republicans have evolved into a party of fiscal irresponsibility. Under both Reagan and the Bushes, they have run up huge deficits and given the wealthy tax breaks. In effect, they keep imposing a tax on the next generation. That was the central issue that got Ross Perot to run in the election of 1992, siphoning off enough Republican votes to get Clinton elected. However, the Republicans shamelessly keep calling the Democrats "tax and spend liberals". This rhetoric worked a generation ago, but since 1980 have become "tax and spend conservatives." The difference is that their spending is for the military rather than for social programs.

Three. Will the Iraq war continue without any end in sight (McCain) or will the US seek to negotiate its way out of the mess Bush created there (Clinton and Obama). Back in 1968 and again in 1972 the Republicans railed at any suggestion that Vietnam could not be won, and they stuck to their guns for six years after Nixon came in. The Republican "plan" for Iraq now seems like "deja vu all over again." Remember "Vietnamization?" The US is now spending billions on building up a new Iraq army and police force with the same idea in mind. The Democrats want to end the conflict and put the money saved into social programs, notably medical care. How much is Iraq costing? About $15 million an hour.

Four. Will the US fix its medical system? Costs are out of control, malpractice insurance drives some doctors out of business, patients in rural areas are underserved, employers have begun to eliminate health care from worker benefits - the list could go on, but this is a national emergency must be solved. It is a terrible problem at the personal level, but failing health care also makes the US less competitive in the world. The Detroit automobile companies spend as much money on health care for their workers than they do for steel. In many other nations health care is paid by the state, and corporations do not have that expense.

Five. Will corporations be regulated? The 9/11 attacks saved Bush from a major investigation of his close financial and political ties to ENRON. Its executives were frequent guests at the White House and advised Bush and Cheney on energy policy. Yet that corporation's rapacious and illegal activities cost California billions of dollars, and such predatory behavior emerged again in the behavior of the mortgage industry. Likewise, this government cut back funding for inspectors in many areas, making actual enforcement of the laws difficult. The Republicans are so in thrall to the special interests that they no longer protect the public. Only a few Enron executives were punished even lightly for their felonies. If the Republicans stay in the White House, they will continue to resist government oversight of corporations and environmental inspections will be under-funded.

Six. Energy policy. The Bush government has squandered eight years when the US could have moved toward sustainable energy use. With two former oil executives in the White House, the nation fell behind Europe and Japan in creating the next generation of energy systems, notably wind and solar power. For those curious about what is possible, see Scientific American's article on how solar power alone could supply most of the US electricity needs. ("A Solar Grand Plan," January 2008). Such creative thinking has been anathema in Washington. Republicans have resolutely hung on to a national energy model from c. 1950. For example, they have resisted for 25 years higher mpg requirements for cars, and Detroit makes gas-guzzling automobiles that are not competitive in the rest of the world. The Republicans should accept responsibility for those thousands of jobs lost in Michigan and Ohio. (There is a silver lining for some Republicans personally: Exxon-Mobile's profits for the last quarter topped §100 billion.) This election will determine whether the oil industry will continue to hold back economic development and have an undue influence on foreign policy, and whether the US will actually do anything about global warming.

Those are all vital issues for any candidate. After winning ten straight states, it does seem that Obama is the more likely candidate. At his Tuesday night rally in Houston, attended by 20,000 people, tickets were free but in such short supply that some were scalped for $100. I don't think anyone is paying that kind of money to see Hillary. Yet whether the Democrats ultimately choose Obama or Clinton, both oppose John McCain on all these issues. Either would be far, far better than McCain.

For more on "The Bush Economy" see this blog for Dec. 12.