Campaign 2012: Living with disappointment

After watching the latest U.S. presidential debate, I still think that few minds were changed and that the race is too close to call. The 5% or so of the electorate that hasn’t made up its mind is less important than the Electoral College and whose partisans turn out to vote. I’ve made no secret of my political preferences here and on various social media. However, I keep hoping that both parties will do better.

Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama point fingers
Presidential candidates point fingers

Following the lead of Vice President Joe Biden in his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan, President Barack Obama was much more forceful in his arguments in the second debate. I still think that he could have defended the liberal and Democrat points of view even more strongly.

I would have liked Obama to clearly and unapologetically state the need for government leadership in protecting health care, the environment, and civil rights. Sure, both candidates paid lip service to the importance of education, veterans, and care for the elderly, but neither proposed significant reforms beyond alternative payment schemes. Neither candidate called for sacrifice, patience, or experimentation in dealing with a recession that’s beyond the president’s direct control.

Instead of bickering over dubious statistics, sticking to their campaign platforms rather than directly address questions, and wrestling over oratorical procedure, the candidates could have laid out their visions for the next four years — not the past four or more, nor some nebulous nirvana a decade from now, when neither would be in office.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also missed opportunities to lay out a compelling set of Republican alternatives. Fiscal conservatives want to cut taxes, government regulations, and federal and trade deficits — all worthy goals — but they haven’t really explained how they’d make up the revenue or continue to properly safeguard the public good. If liberals shouldn’t pick winners and losers in industry, neither should conservatives.

Social conservatives want to restrict abortion, promote individual initiative and responsibility, and eliminate programs they don’t like, but many Americans are more concerned with jobs and the social safety net. I’m in favor of renewing the assault weapons ban, continuing to reform health care, and allowing anyone to be married, regardless of race, creed, or sexual preference. The so-called culture wars have wasted as much energy as the well-intentioned but misguided and costly wars on poverty and drugs.

On foreign policy, where I can claim more expertise than in economics, the U.S. should devise a better strategy for the current and evolving state of global affairs. Both Democrats and Republicans have coddled dictators, misjudged security threats, and needlessly rattled sabers.

Why is it that the U.S., which spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined and is the No. 1 arms seller, has lost its credibility as a peacemaker? How can we help break the nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran without escalation? How can we encourage democracy without getting embroiled in civil wars in Libya and Syria, continue to engage European and Asian allies amid their own economic turmoil, and contain the threat posed by states such as North Korea?

There are no easy answers, but bad-mouthing our creditor, commercial supplier, and geopolitical rival China doesn’t strike me as particularly productive. We missed opportunities to encourage reform and stability in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, and I believe we’re missing our window of influence on the emerging Asian century.

Both Obama and Romney agree on the need to eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, despite the deplorable acts of the Taliban there and in Pakistan. I hope they’ll do more than mention human rights (if at all) in their final debate. Both men say they want the U.S. to become self-reliant for its energy needs, even if they differ on the means and on the need for global standards and environmental protection.

I hope my fellow citizens will try to be informed and get out and vote. Our neighbors, allies, and foes will all be watching. We may have stumbled, but the U.S. still has considerable natural and human resources, traditions of idealism and innovation, and the ability to serve as a positive example of representative democracy. I hope we choose wisely!

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Patriot’s Day politics

Tricorn hat
In colonial garb

With Barack Obama and Mitt Romney officially declaring their campaigns for the 2012 presidential election, we can expect U.S. politics to be even more polarized in the months ahead. I’ve made no secret of my liberal leanings, but I expect incumbent Democrats in the White House and the House of Representatives to provide more than progressive rhetoric.

I hope that Pres. Obama and congressional Democrats can show the public that our government can perform an important role in protecting the poor and the environment, reform itself for greater accountability, and promote national interests abroad without immediately resorting to military intervention.

By the same token, I expect Republicans and conservatives to push for deficit reduction, trimming of middle-class entitlements, and fair trade. Libertarians and so-called Tea Party activists should keep pushing for a smaller federal government, but they need to understand that certain things, like defense, taxes, and Social Security, are best established on a larger economy of scale.

I disagree with some Democrats’ alarmism and intractability, which have contributed to government shutdowns. I also take issue with some Republicans’ phobias against taxes, social policies, and cultural inclusiveness. Instead of arguing endlessly over Planned Parenthood (rather than agree to disagree over abortion) and privatizing Medicare and Medicaid (health care reform deserves careful analysis and swift action, not posturing), both parties should tackle the bigger problems of the federal budget and our trade and fiscal imbalances.

Many Democrats have looked the other way regarding corrupt labor unions, undermining their own support, while many Republicans have done the same regarding wasteful military spending or lax financial regulation. Even if we can’t agree about the causes or extent of global climate change, can’t we concur that pollution and dependence on increasingly expensive fuels are bad?

Is banning marijuana or smoking in bars (presumably all-adult, alcohol-serving establishments anyway) really as important as making sure that a generation of young Americans avoids obesity-related health care costs? Do Donald Trump’s rantings about Obama’s citizenship or concerns about entertainers’ “wardrobe malfunctions” deserve as much news media attention as the complex struggles for people around the world for civil and religious liberties?

Despite our diversity, Americans still have more in common than they believe. We all want secure jobs, affordable health care, safe food and transport, and the freedom to speak our minds. We want a world safe for democratic values to thrive, and I hope that each election cycle can help us sift through proposals to pursue all of these goals.

8 December 2009: Election Day — May the Force be with us!

May the Force be with us!

College chum Ron J.K. and other people have asked me about President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of his administration’s plans for Afghanistan. Some were no doubt trying to bait me, knowing my liberal and internationalist leanings.
Here’s how I have responded.

Unfortunately, Obama and the U.S. are in a no-win situation. If he had announced plans for an immediate withdrawal, conservative commentators would label him a coward, and if he had declined to set any plans for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats in Congress would rebel, and our costly and ill-defined wars would drag on without foreseeable end.

As he has proven with the delay in closing the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Obama can be pragmatic and flexible in trying to follow his principles. The latest surge of U.S. troops is focused on the short-to-midterm goal of properly securing Afghanistan beyond Kabul, and the announced withdrawal date isn’t written in stone and reflects longer-term political goals. I don’t think it would embolden our enemies, as some in the news media have claimed.

Obama’s strategy is far from perfect, but given the conflicting advice that both generals and diplomats have given him, it’s probably the best we can expect. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both candidates said the military shouldn’t be used for “nation-building,” but given the situation Obama has inherited, the effort to justify the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform is worth questioning.

Remember, Afghanistan’s insurgency humbled the Greek, British, and Soviet empires before us, and the mountainous country isn’t as easily partitioned as we managed after more decisive wars in Korea or Germany. Opium production has increased since the U.S. entered Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have merely moved to Pakistan since Pres. Bush declared war on Iraq, and the government in Kabul is corrupt and in power only because of U.S. support. We often bet on the wrong horse.

How do we end the threat of terrorism? By getting to its causes in Islamic fundamentalism, the arms trade, socioeconomic inequalities, and failed nation-states whose borders and oil-rich elites were created by the West. The oft-proposed solution of a permanent military presence in the area would only foster anti-U.S. sentiment, cost more lives and billions of dollars, and weaken domestic and international support.

If the entire region could be disarmed and made into a U.N. protectorate, that could work, but it would still take vision and generations of patience. Why not take a page from the Cold War (and even Ronald Reagan, whom many still admire) and contain our foes and their ideology rather than pursue numerous unwinnable brushfire wars?

I wish the president, our nation, and the world luck in finding ways to resolve such persistent conflicts and minimizing the loss of life. Democracy spread in the 1990s but has experienced setbacks in the past decade. The U.S. should be a leader in promoting freedom, justice, and prosperity for all, but we also have to recognize constraints on the ground and in dealing with rising powers with whom we don’t necessarily agree.

On a related note, as the U.S. begins to emerge from the current economic recession and Congress grapples with health care reform, some politicians and commentators still claim that reducing taxes and regulation is the best way to deal with it. However, “trickle-down” theory has been disproven even as federal and personal debts climb and access to health care is based on class.

You can’t have corporate bailouts, provide payments to states, continue Social Security and medical benefits, and support a large military while at the same time cutting taxes and expect to come out ahead. Worker protections gained by (admittedly often corrupt) unions have eroded as corporations grow ever larger and maximize their rights as legal “persons.” Insurance premiums have risen, workdays have lengthened, and the middle class continues to get squeezed.

Even those of us fortunate enough to have jobs will have to acknowledge that our standard of living is slipping, partly because economic well-being is measured by consumption rather than homegrown production or environmental conservation. The federal government provides an economy of scale in which the costs of unemployment and other benefits can be spread over the largest possible number of taxpayers, reducing the pain for the many to help out the 10% of our fellow Americans who are unemployed.

Sure, big government is vulnerable to corruption and waste. But as the financial crisis has proven, so is big business, which is even less accountable. When Republicans controlled the Congress and White House, they did little to stem the growth of government, let alone reduce the deficit, which is a burden on future generations. Contrarians seem to be rooting for Obama to fail, and while I believe that dissent with and within the White House can be useful to decision-making, for all our sakes, we’d better hope that it’s successful!