Thursday, February 21, 2008

Issues ... or not?

There has been much punditry about how we should be paying attention to issues in this primary season. Of course, there are many accusations that people who support candidates (other than the favorite of whatever pundit we are reading or listening to) are doing so mindlessly, without any understanding of the candidate’s political stands. I myself had advocated looking at issues in last year’s Mayoral election, and so far to me it looks like I might have had a point. But in the race for President, I am thinking that the candidate’s stands on issues might not be that important, unless the stand is for immediate invasion of Canada.

As I have mentioned before, I am fairly persuaded by the arguments of the author Drew Westen (The Political Brain), that people chose candidates to support based on emotions, first impressions, and their own party history; and then the people rationalize their choices later. Particularly in choosing legislators this would seem to be a bad practice, but not one we are likely to see curbed anytime soon (especially if pundits and bloggers just yell at people for making bad choices). But when you think about it, what does the President really do? What sorts of things go into making a good and successful President?

Well, the President does not make policy, at least not by himself. Mostly Congress makes laws that guide policy, like directing Medicare to start a system that offers prescription drugs to senior citizens or reduce the tax rate on long term capital gains to 15% (from 35%?). Both those laws were proposed by the President but enacted by Congress. The President does negotiate treaties like the Kyoto Accord, but the Senate has to ratify them (which it didn’t). What the President does have by him or herself is the power of the “bully pulpit”, a guarantee that unless (s)he is really boring and stupid, (s)he can have the lead spot on the national news with whatever information (s)he wants to get out. That is something few if any other politicians can count on. The President is our “Cheerleader in Chief”, someone who can help the economy, if (s)he is persuasive, by convincing us things are going well and we should get out and spend (which spending can, by itself, improve the economic picture). Kind of ironic, considering what the current President did at Yale.

I would argue that the candidate’s current positions, such as Obama’s health plan without mandates and McCain’s desire to make the Bush tax cuts permanent to avoid a de facto tax increase, are not that important right now. If the President could make tax cuts permanent, Bush would have already done so. Presumably McCain knows the limits of the presidency and is just pandering to conservatives. And if conservatives are the rational realists they claim to be, it won’t help McCain with them. Obama's health plan could emerge from Congress with mandates, and I susupect he would not veto it on that basis alone.

What we should really be asking ourselves is what we think about the character of
the two men who are now the presumptive nominees. They will appoint department heads, do we think they will do a good job? They will represent the United States during crisis, and try to persuade us that they are controlling the situation, which do we think will be more convincing and persuasive?

I think I will try to take a look at the specifics of each man in my next post, maybe on Sunday.


Schultz said...

I agree with you in regards to the President not setting policy, and that, at least the Democratic race, is not really about the issues. It is more about leadership and the ability to help us bring about big changes to our government and society. Think about the number of major domestic issues that need to be addressed by our next commander and chief - Global Warming, Energy Independence, Healthcare, Education, Social Security, and Globalization, to name just a few.

The President needs to set the course for the direction of our country for how we solve some of the most important problems of our time.

One thing we need that I think a President Obama would deliver, is a call for another Manhattan Project, but this time for energy independence. For less money than we are spending on the Iraq War, we could launch a major R&D and infrastructure development program for Solar, Wind, and Geothermal energy and also renwable fuels. Scientific America recently had a cover story titled "A Solar Grand Plan" where it outlined a $400 billion 40 year plan for Solar electricity in the US.

A grand plan like this needs to be spearheaded by the President - he/she does not have to worry about the details - but they need to be able to provide the vision and then rally the American public behind something this ambitious.

EdHeath said...

Well, I don’t want to delve into the merits or deficiencies of specific policies right now. I agree that energy policy ought to be high on the list of the next President’s to do list. I don’t think I will hold me breath, though. Truly efficient and useful energy policy would probably mean people would have to embrace technologies with which they are not familiar, and therefore would view with suspicion. Plus the President would have to risk having several special interest groups lose out, and they would likely not take that lying down. It is possible to see John McCain use patriotism as a lever to achieve goals like this, but he would need to be getting good advice to know what policy path to chart. Barack Obama has the natural speaking talent to whip up his audience, but his inexperience could lead him to trust people without making sure he has fall back positions.
Just thoughts off the top of my head, not saying life would be anything like that.

EdHeath said...

"hold me breath".

Sheesh, I've turned into a pirate. Arrr.

Schultz said...

haha. Here is a good take on the President and the Economy by one of my favorite econo-bloggers.