Election din: What U.S. voters deserve to hear discussed

Commentary: Voters should examine whether candidates give them anything more than partisan talking points.
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Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

Commentary: Voters should examine whether candidates give them anything more than partisan talking points.

Neither our governorship nor our two U.S. Senate seats are at stake in the general election two weeks from now. We've thus been spared the torrent of candidate and interest-group advertising that has inundated states where those offices are contested. Be grateful.

Be especially grateful because much of the strident dialogue has been about issues that are not central to Americans' well-being. More on this below.

First, my own early estimate of the outcome at national level: Republicans will hold their U.S. House majority. Either party has the potential to establish a Senate majority, but not sufficient in either case to break a filibuster or force its policy will. That means divided governance and policy stalemate will continue for another two years, no matter which party controls the Senate.

This election bears resemblance to the 1994 midterm election in which Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. It followed the collapse of the Clinton administration's health-care reform proposal and threatened for a time to give the GOP a much larger House majority than it got. Over the last two weeks of that campaign, a number of House Democratic incumbents rallied from behind to hold their seats. It was a defeat for Democrats but not a debacle. We could see something like that this year with the majority Democrats in the Senate. 

President Clinton adjusted quickly in 1995 and governed thereafter on a bipartisan basis. The big difference this time is that, after losing 63 House Democratic seats in 2010 midterm elections (again, largely on the issue of a White House health-care initiative) and the establishment again of a GOP House majority,  President Obama did not shift to a bipartisan posture. Both parties have since drawn harsh partisan lines and public debate accordingly has been fierce and polarized.

What is most dismaying, overall, is that the candidates' and interest groups' campaign messages often do not relate to the gut issues that most affect everyone's lives and which traditionally have provided a basis for public judgment about candidates and political parties. Those are the Big Two issues: national security and financial/economic well-being.

Campaign assertions should be measured in particular against their relevance to these Big Two issues. For one thing, it helps us distinguish between candidates who take policy seriously and those who are simply reaching for poll-tested declarations that will inflame and energize constituencies on either side of emotional cultural and social issues. 

Beware, too, of candidates who repetitively affirm their allegiance to "the middle class." This is a cynical cover for candidates who know that the poor do not vote in large number and that middle- and higher-income voters are more likely to cast ballots and give political money. Hear anyone talk about "a war on poverty" recently? Far easier, on the Democratic side, to appeal to minority voters, in particular, by implying that Republicans are racist, supportive of police violence or trying to suppress their vote.  Easier for Republicans to brush off the poor as eating public resources, personally irresponsible and addicted to Democratic welfare-state support.   

Where does the country stand on the traditional Big Two issues?

This is a truly chancy time for the country's security interests.

The Islamic State (ISIS) poses a real threat to the stability of the entire Middle East. It is not an isolated, second-string terrorist movement but a radical, murderous attempt to establish a caliphate across a region that already is undergoing turmoil.

It vows to bring 9/11-type destruction to Western capitals as well. There is no deal to made with ISIS. The only option is its defeat and destruction. Relatedly, we are pledged to replacement of Syria's Assad government with a more democratic regime. How do we defeat both Assad and ISIS in Syria? 

Russia's Vladimir Putin is bent on re-establishing the regional domination of the former Soviet Union. He already has seized Crimea from Ukraine. Relatively unnoticed, he has used a so-called "truce" with Ukraine to seize more eastern Ukrainian territory and to bring fresh pressure on European countries badly needing Soviet energy during the upcoming winter. The famous U.S.-led "sanctions" against Russia are crumbling, country by country, in Europe. Not only Ukraine but Poland and the Baltic countries fear continuing Russian pressure. Nevertheless, we and our NATO partners have yet to send needed arms and advisors directly to Ukraine. Meantime, inside Russia, domestic dissenters, as in the Soviet era, are again being sent to prison. Media are censored. Uncooperative private businessmen are being jailed and their assets seized.

We have bitten off a huge task in trying to forestall Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. It is a given that any country with adequate technological capability can produce such weapons if it wishes. North Korea, Pakistan, India, Russia, China and Israel, some in Iran's immediate neighborhood, already possess them. To Iran, they are the ultimate security guarantee — just as they are to every other nuclear-armed nation. Are we willing to go to war to stop Iran's nuclear-weapons program? If not, the effort should move to lower and less-visible priority. It is, in truth, a red line that should never be drawn.

The African Ebola epidemic is a genuine threat to us, even though only a few of U.S. cases have thus far been diagnosed. We no longer live in a period where travel between and among nations can realisticaly be limited. People move by the thousands between continents on a daily basis, and not just on commercial airliners. Thousands have died in three African countries. Ebola has a 50 percent mortality rate. American media, at this point, are overstressing the immediate U.S. domestic threat. But until or unless Ebola can be contained and eradicated in Africa, no one globally will be safe. It is, in many ways, a medical ISIS.

What is the state of American financial and economic well-being?

The domestic U.S. economy has gradually moved into growth and the national unemployment rate is below 6 percent (which, to many economists, is the "new normal" during a period of global economic adjustment). Yet, as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen emphasized last week, our growth and prosperity are not being equitably shared. The rich-poor income gap is deeper than at any time in several decades. Moreover, the 6 percent unemployment rate would be several points higher if we counted those persons who are just plain out of the labor market — that is, they have given up looking for work.

The rich-poor gap, and the breach of the social contract it represents, will not be easily corrected. Wall Street and senior business executives are drawing annual pay and bonuses that give greed a bad name. Such greed cannot easily be regulated or taxed out of existence. Boards of directors, individual investors, hedge funds, pension funds, government regulators and others will need to intervene actively to turn the tide. Both political parties bear blame for what has happened. President Clinton, doing what he thought was the right thing, initiated financial deregulation, which broke previous institutional constraints and also reappointed Ayn Rand-admiring Alan Greenspan as Fed chair. The so-called Dodd-Frank reform legislation, during the Obama years, has made even more explicit the federal government's responsibility to bail out with public money the "too big to fail" institutions. Doctrinaire conservatives, for their part, decry any government "interference with financial markets" (as if deregulation per se did not represent interference). 

The federal balance sheet also needs to be put in order. President Obama refused to implement the recommendations of his Deficit Reduction Commission, which would have put in place a bipartisan grand bargain to put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on sound long-term footing; reform the tax code to make it fairer and to generate new growth and revenues; and reduce the flood of fresh federal debt looming in the coming decade. Instead, Democrats and Republicans have fallen back to reflexive partisan positions. Democrats are painted as hopeless big-government spenders who can be stopped only with arbitrary federal government shutdowns. Republicans are painted as heartless brutes who would punish the elderly and sick by revising entitlement programs. Democrats thus are depicted as the Taxing and Spending Party, Republicans the Cut Taxes, Cut Spending Party. If the screaming could stop for a moment, both parties could return to the sensible proposals of Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission. It's forgotten now, but as recently as the Clinton Administration there was a balanced federal budget. The budget, for now, is running a deficit below $1 trillion per year. But even that won't last long. Residual debt remains above $17 trillion. Our debt level encourages long-term inflation and diverts huge resources from public and private investment that could benefit the country.

While we have bounced back domestically, albeit modestly, the rest of the world economy is flat. The European Union could be headed toward outright recession. The big Chinese economy also is flat. The reduction of global demand will, quite soon, be felt by U.S. producers and exporters. In 2015 or 2016 we could be back in recession and in for another financial-market crisis.

It's hard to get more than polarizing, partisan news and commentary on the cable-news channels or in most print media. When it comes to financial/economic commentary, I've come to trust, in particular, Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times and Robert J. Samuelson of The Washington Post. Neither is partisan nor pursuing a personal ideological agenda. Both exercise their critical faculties and tell it like they see it. 

Our state and local elections this year are focusing more on state and local than national issues, which is as it should be. But it's still useful to test the candidates' and campaigns' platforms and statements. Do they deal realistically with big issues in our state and communities? Or are they partisan boilerplate designed to generate money and votes from true believers? You make the call.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.