I had written about the absurdity of our political dialgue back in September when South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists." An excellent piece written this weekend by David Broder brings up this the idea of the sorry state of our political dialogue once again, but he addresses it from a different angle. This column was about the missed opportunities from the Democratic debate last week. No, he's not talking about the opportunities Barack Obama missed to score political points on Hillary Clinton or how Chris Dodd could have broken out more. Instead, the loser of these missed opportunities, Broder argues, is the American people. And the media are complicit in this dereliction of civic responsibility.
Let me explain. In his column, Broder talked about the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question that has been the subject of much discussion among politicos since Hillary got bogged down by it two debates ago in Philadelphia. He talked about how Bill Richardson said he supported this idea and justified this seemingly unpopular position with facts. He cited public safety and rattled off statistics about how traffic fatalities and the percentage of uninsured drivers in his state went down because of extending driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
The moderator moved on, and that's where one of these missed opportunities took place. Broder asks, "what about public safety?" How would the other candidates have responded to that? Richardson brought up a valid argument. Shouldn't the electorate have the right to know how the other presidential candidates feel about sacrificing public safety so that illegal immigrants can't obtain driver's licenses?
To be fair, after Broder praised Richardson for backing up his arguments with pesky facts and statistics, he criticized Richardson for failing to do so regarding another major issue of the day:
"On driver's licenses, Richardson offered such proof, but in another case, he did not. His 'solution' to Iraq is to pull out all U.S. troops and contractors within a year and leave it to 'an all-Muslim, all-Arab peacekeeping force, with some European forces, headed by the U.N.'Broder is absolutely right. And that's what brings me to the main point of this post. Why don't voters demand more of their politicians in terms of their policy positions? Why are we so content with platitudes, slogans, generalities, and promises, but so turned off by statistics, logic, nuance, and details?
Well, it's a nice idea, but such a force exists only in Richardson's imagination--and none is likely to materialize. But he is not called upon to explain."
This is why our politicians are tasked with leading this nation. They are supposed to be smarter, more worldly, more prescient, and more pragmatic than we are. Any Average Joe can say "no new taxes" or "cut off the war funding now," but how many people can articulate why we can't invade North Korea or institute economic sanctions against China? Unfortunately, though, it seems that we are not demanding this from our politicians anymore. Instead, we are content with generalities like "we have to get tough on China" or "we cannot allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon." Whenever a politician does attempt to go into the gory details of the complex relationship between Russia and the United States, voters shut down. They like their politicians to be personable and engaging, not wonky and well-versed. And the media don't bother following up on these issues either. Why go into a dry discussion about fiscal responsibility and risk alienating voters when you can simply say "I will balance the budget" or "I will defend marriage"?
So here are a few of these other "missed opportunities" that I hope future debate moderators and regular voters find the courage to ask in a public forum:
Questions for Republicans:
1. When you say "we have to fight them over there so they don't follow us here" in regards to continuing the fight in Iraq, exactly how do you anticipate the terrorists "following us" here? If the terrorists are coming across the Mexican and Canadian borders, then shouldn't that mean we should place a higher priority on border security? Or are they going to sneak bombs onto ships? If so, doesn't that mean we should ramp up our port security? And if the terrorists are going to try and hijack another US-bound airplane, then shouldn't airport security procedures be enhanced? And if terrorists are already in the United States, wouldn't it be better to have more military forces stationed back home so that they can more easily apprehend or kill them? And what about terrorists from other countries? Do terrorists live in Syria and Egypt? If terrorists do live in those countries, why aren't we sending troops there? Or is it not a problem because only terrorists from Iraq are inclined to follow us here?
2. When you say "I won't raise your taxes," how do you plan to pay for the Iraq War and other government programs? We currently have a trade deficit and a budget deficit that is the largest in American history. You can't simply cut pork and eliminate waste to achieve fiscal solvency. You're going to have to either cut social programs or increase revenue somehow. Bush already passed tax cuts. The economy has grown, but the deficit has only gotten larger since then. So it would seem that another approach is needed. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes, but is it wise to never consider this as an option?
3. You commonly criticize Democrats for wanting to institute "socialized medicine," but what do you say about families who don't make enough money to afford private insurance? What do you say about families who are unable to afford their premiums when they have a serious or chronic illness? What do you say about people whose illnesses are not covered by private insurance? Do you think that it is a good idea for for-profit companies to be responsible for providing health insurance? After all, these companies don't want us to get sick because that means less profit for them. Is health care an issue that should have nothing to do with capitalism?
Questions for Democrats:
1. When you say "cut off the war funding immediately and don't give Bush another dime," exactly what will happen to the troops who are already stationed in Iraq? Yes, they will be forced to end their missions much more quickly than they would if Bush were in total control, but are you prepared to deal with the possibility that the troops might be made more vulnerable because of insufficient ammunition or a lack of fuel for their vehicles? How would the troop withdrawal take place? Who will protect the convoys, the bases, the embassy, and the airport? And what would happen after we left? Would leaving make Iraq safer for everyone than staying?
2. You say you don't want to use our taxpayer dollars to finance what you term an illegal and unconstitutional war in Iraq. But when you say you want to "protect a woman's right to choose," is it fair to use taxpayer dollars to finance the termination of human fetuses and embryos via abortion--a process that many people find equally repulsive? What makes one type of forced monetary support of killing okay and another one not okay?
3. You commonly talk about increasing fuel standards for vehicles and rail against SUVs because they use too much oil and pollute the environment. But if the issues of pollution and climate change are as critical as you say they are, why are you so averse to imposing a gas tax or higher taxes on vehicles that have poor fuel efficiency?
Questions for specific candidates:
Hillary Clinton: You said that your vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization was a vote for "aggressive diplomacy." In light of how George Bush used his war authority regarding Iraq, how can you credibly say that you think it's best to "ratchet down tensions" as you did in the last debate when all the evidence from the past suggests the exact opposite? Is identifying a foreign military "a terrorist organization" ever an effective way to prompt a nation to open diplomatic talks with you?
Rudy Giuliani: It is common for you to criticize the French or to compare Democrats with the French in a negative way. If France is so unhealthy for the United States, would you support a reduction in trade with France? Would you support imposing tighter visa restrictions on French nationals who wish to come to America? Is it a good use of our taxpayer dollars to support France? Why should we maintain such positive relationships with a country that is, according to your own insinuations, so dangerous for America? And if you become president, how would you reconcile your past negative insinuations about France when it comes time for you to work with the French president or seek France's cooperation in the pursuit of American objectives abroad? If such remarks are actually counterproductive to our national interests, then why do you continue to make them?
John McCain: You said that the only way out of Iraq is "victory." Exactly what is "victory" and how can it be achieved? "Not cutting and running" is not a strategy for "victory." And as a self-identified "fiscal conservative," how do you plan to pay for this war without plunging America deeper into debt? Would taxes have to be raised? If not, which government programs would you cut?
Barack Obama: You have talked about the importance of "talking with our friends, as well as our enemies." North Korea is one of our enemies. Are you prepared to go to North Korea personally to engage in talks with Kim Jong Il since he would never fly to Washington to meet you? And if so, would it be responsible for the American president to place himself in such danger?
Bill Richardson: You have talked about implementing an "all Muslim peacekeeping force" in Iraq. How do you deal with the fact that such a force would undoubtedly include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites? How would this peacekeeping force ameliorate the situation in Iraq while remaining cohesive? How would you ensure that these soldiers remain loyal to the peacekeeping force itself, rather than switching loyalties to their ethnic brethren?
Mitt Romney: You commonly talk about the importance of "small government" and "personal freedom." Would you consider the mandatory health insurance plan you instituted in Massachusetts an example of "small government?" If this policy goes against your philosophical views on the role of government, then why did you sign it into law? Or do you believe that sometimes "big government" has a role in people's lives? And if this health insurance policy is good enough for Massachusetts, is it not good enough for the nation in general? If it is good enough for the nation in general, then how is that different from "socialized medicine," which you routinely criticize?
I doubt any of these candidates or politicians in general will ever be tasked with these questions. But I think judging our leaders by their responses to these types of questions would be far more beneficial to our nation than one-liners, slogans, easy-to-digest generalities, winning the daily news cycle, and canned lines.
It might make for good television and nice storylines, but our nation is suffering for it.