May 25, 2008

The Forgotten Issues

After the American Century

The endless Obama-Clinton duel has now devolved into a contest of errors. Hillary made a huge one recently, by talking about the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 as an example of how campaigns may be decided in June. Was she saying, stay in the race, because your opponent might get whacked? Surely not, everyone agreed, after she apologized, saying she "misspoke." Perhaps the worst part of such episodes is that they take attention away from the issues. Why talk about the people dying in Iraq or the soaring price of gasoline or the thousands of foreclosures, when you can discuss pratfalls and stupid remarks?

There are real issues in this campaign, however, even if the media often reduce it to a popularity contest that focuses on who is the best bowler or who said something idiotic last week.

Will the US stay in Iraq until at least 2013 (McCain's plan) or for as short a time as possible (Obama's plan)?

Will the Bush tax cuts for the rich become permanent (McCain's plan), or will the US return to something like the tax arrangements of the 1990s? To put this another way, will the US again start to pay off its national debt, or will it assume it can keep borrowing money from foreign creditors forever? Also indirectly involved in this issue is whether the dollar will be backed by a government that lives within its means and that can protect the dollar from falling further?

Huge balance of payment problems are not a good long-term economic policy, either. Will the US continue its massive oil imports, or will government force automakers to produce more fuel efficient cars? Students have built experimental cars that can run an astonishing 300 kilometers to a single liter, roughly 600 miles to a gallon! But neither the American SUV mad consumer nor Detroit is going to get there without some leadership. The Republicans have had eight years to provide it and failed.

Will the next appointments to the Supreme Court further tip the balance in a conservative direction? McCain is now on record as being a firm opponent of all forms of abortion, and if elected would likely be able to tip the balance on this issue.

Will the US really embrace efforts to curb global warming? McCain is better on this issue that Bush, rhetorically, but the Republican Party is not. The only real chance for the US to take a responsible role on this issue is if there is a Democratic Congress and President.

Will the next president be beholden to lobbyists who have donated to his campaign (McCain) or will he only have received support from ordinary voters (Obama)? This has implications on a host of issues.

Will the next president try to solve world problems by using the military (McCain) or by "soft-power" and diplomacy (Obama)? McCain evidently agrees with Bush that negotiating with an enemy is a bad thing, a sign of weakness. Obama does not want to be another cowboy president.

Finally, McCain now backs the use of some forms of torture, which is quite astonishing in his case, because he was tortured himself while held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Obama unequivocably rejects the use of torture. This is a serious issue, because recent news reports indicate that the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture have been more widespread that previously disclosed. The American military appears to be infected with this undemocratic practice, which is appropriate for sixtenth century witchhunts but not for any civilized nation today. McCain's treason to his own earlier convictions on this issue makes him a deeply problematic candidate. If he can reverse himself on torture, one can only ask, does he believe in anything?

Of course, none of this is as much fun as hearing about a tactical mistake or silly remark made by a candidate. But these and other issues are what the campaign should be about. Looking at these contrasts between McCain and Obama, I find no reason to support the Senator from Arizona. I am not aware of a single issue where his positions appear to be the wise choice. On the contrary, McCain's election could easily be a disaster even greater than the Bush Presidency. It may be hard to believe that something worse is possible. But it is.