Lead Story

Red sign: Changed Priorities Ahead

While PT's servers never approached meltdown, a number of our readers sent in their choices for our “Top 10” policy issues. We have our own ideas, but wanted to know yours. Throughout the comments – those posted on the site and received by e–mail – there was a similar undercurrent: that as a nation, we have been ill served by the lack of intelligent debate on issues that concern us most.

But, here you go—the sealed envelope, please. Let's start with the easy ones: (1) Education and (2) Healthcare. Writes Lisa Buhler, “I would like to see a discussion on the healthcare system – national healthcare has not worked for other countries – why would it work for ours? I would also like to see discussion on the “no child left behind” program – clearly it is not working like it was intended. It has forced our educators to teach to the "lowest common denominator" in the classroom – we are not challenging our young people!”

Common to both issues is “equality of opportunity,” though Dana Clouston is a little extreme when she says, “it is wrong that some people start off their lives with billions before they even lift a finger to create, earn, save or make any capital themselves, while others never receive any such gifted or inherited capital.”

Inequality at birth is neither right nor wrong—it's a fact of life. Society's challenge, though, to compensate by providing equal opportunity for those who want to improve their lives.

We agree with Sam Clovis that (3) Federalism belongs on the list: “Federalism is really the key concern, because governance of the country encompasses so many of the other issues identified. National government involvement in education, energy, civil rights, criminal justice, infrastructure, elections, and most perniciously, grant programs. To move ahead, perhaps we need to fix what was broken with federalism during the 60's and 70's when congress and the executive branch decided only they held the wisdom to solve the nation's challenges.”

And, we'll take three from Professor Edward Kokklenberg: (4) Energy, (5) Immigration, and (6) Infrastructure. And, while it's not yet on the list, we couldn't agree more with his other suggestion: “The method of selecting presidential contenders is poor; we spend a huge amount of time and money and in the end, we do no better and sometimes worse than other countries. Why? What can and should be done?”

The environment is certainly an important topic, but policy issues are ultimately framed in terms of infrastructure and energy: global warming and protecting our planet are directly linked to our energy policies and transportation infrastructure.

Finally, we pick up UK Parliamentary candidate Rene Kinzett's interest in (7) US Foreign Policy, “foreign policy matters rank very high for me. Many of us in the UK who support the US in so many ways are often left without any real answers for critics of the US in terms of its willingness to act in some areas of the globe (perhaps too quickly) and its lack of interest in other very real and awful examples of human rights abuses, genocide and despotism.”

And, we know that NCSL's Bill Pound would certainly warm to Ms. Kinzett's comment, “from the perspective of a British politician, I find the debate you are having on the ID cards proposal fascinating. We are also having this debate – a costly, unworkable, easily avoided/abused and highly intrusive system of state–organised snooping. It will be the innocent and law abiding who pay for it and it will do nothing to stop organised crime, terrorism or illegal immigration – ”

That, of course, leaves our list a little short—though not without enough to keep PT's editors and contributors busy—well into the next decade!

So, we'll start with Education: what, indeed, should be the objectives—the underlying principles—of US policy on education?

For some answers, read this issue's feature story, Education Policy: Q&A with CA Senator Jack Scott.

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The ideas sound wonderful, but without the political machinery to make them happen, are they any more than make-believe?

  Mitt Romney speakingBarack Obama speakingJohn McCain speakingHillary Clinton speaking


Americans like a good fight, and the presidential primaries have certainly provided that. By now, voters have narrowed the field to 3-4 likely choices for America’s 45th President:

US Presidential Seal The candidate of experience rests her case on eight years as the President’s wife. During that period, she squandered an historic opportunity to transform national health care while her husband fooled around in the hallway. By the way, he’ll be back.

US Presidential Seal The candidate of change remains charmingly ambiguous on most issues while lacking a track record to suggest what he really has in mind. That may also explain a reliance on 'national-government-fixes-all' solutions.  Would sparse private sector or local government experience be relevant?

US Presidential Seal The only veteran among the group favors extending what posterity may well deem America’s most disastrous and poorly-executed war but will have accomplished a remarkable feat: keeping the White House in the hands of the same party that created the mess.

US Presidential Seal The candidate of business has indeed made good money during a successful career. But is the Nation quite ready for another Harvard MBA in the Oval Office?

If all this sounds surrealistic, ask yourself: Is any of this campaign real? Is there any reason to believe that the many ‘positions on the issues,’ TV ads, town meetings, or choreographed debates are more than embroidered words for a nation starved for the real thing?

The ideas (or most of them) sound wonderful. But where is the driveshaft, the political apparatus to transform these giddy moments into practical reality? The country has long since morphed into a top heavy political system. We honor The Federalist, but it’s time to admit the obvious: their innovative theory has inverted. A system originally designed to spread political decision-making across “the extended republic of the United States” has instead concentrated it in the Capitol. And, Washington simply lacks the practical reach to make all things happen for all people. And, with little or no accountability to a gerrymandered constituency, the aftermath has been poorly conceived legislation and programs.

To ‘our ailing Federalism,’ add “the traditions” of the Senate and House: filibusters, ‘holds,’ and a sclerotic seniority system that have stymied meaningful debate on all but the most trivial issues. Then stir in doctrines of “Executive Privilege,” empowering the White House to start a war, ignore international treaties, and bring the nations’ airports to a standstill while the Chief has his hair cut. The combined outage has created a structural failure in the core institutions that enable Americans to govern themselves. Our inability to articulate thoughtful policy across broad areas such as energy, healthcare, education, agriculture, infrastructure—the gamut—is more than just ‘politics.’

There are certainly many well-meaning, able and honest people in government. The candidates may well be among them. But what we’ve been promised simply doesn’t stack up in light of current practice and past experience. It’s all make-believe. Pinch yourself and find out.

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Feature Story

Missing in Iowa: a dose of Midwestern common sense?


In Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway hit, The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill arrives in Iowa to sell the citizens of River City a boys’ band. Fifty years later, a handful of US Senators and other politicians descended on the state to sell them a Presidential election. Wilson’s story had a happy ending. Bags packed and skipping town, Hill falls in love with Marian Paroo, the town librarian, and sticks around to make good on his word. The politicos were out of Iowa faster than a marching band, stymied only by the country’s creaky air traffic control system which grounded them at Des Moines International for a few extra hours. (See, “Infrastructure Story,” following.) Moving on, they’ve since hit New Hampshire, Nevada, and soon several larger states.

“Presidential candidates”—but, nominated by whom? On the surface, at least, by themselves, fueled by their own ambition and fund raising machine. Nothing wrong with that, or is there? Something seems different in 2008. Stature is in such short supply, the pundits have tripped over themselves explaining why experience really isn’t that important. Slogans and personalities now hold center court where ending an intractable war, corralling a distracted Congress, and getting real about a government $9 trillion in debt should be. Iowans could have told the nation, “Enough. That’s not the way we do things here.”

Is this simply democracy at work? Or, like its famous Alaska namesake, did Iowans send the Nation off on the Presidential primaries to nowhere?

What do you think?


Where's Al Gore? Colin Powell?
written by Tex, January 25, 2008
Hey, may-be this is the best we can do. Where are the others--conspicuous by their silence?
written by roger ebert, January 30, 2008
who hyphenated "maybe"
Anything else you might want to add?
written by Tex, January 31, 2008
Good catch, Roge. But as the country descends into an electoral twilight zone, anything else you might want to add?
written by Clarissa, February 05, 2008
I don't understand this. More people are engaged in the political process at this juncture than at any equivalent time before in history. There are clear distinctions between the candidates, and each of them--yes, including Mr. Obama--bring a great level of experience and knowledge to the table, regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

"Nominated by whom"? What does that mean? Obama built a grassroots campaign to compete against one of the most formidable political machines in recent American history. Hundreds of thousands of people look to John McCain as an elder statesman with the credentials necessary to turn the country around. Clinton and Romney are there in large part due to their connections and personal wealth, respectively, but they both have significant popular fervor behind their campaigns. If you want to critique a front-loaded primary system or campaign finance, then fine, but this seems like a hollow diatribe.
The country's early leaders feared most
written by PT , February 06, 2008
Good comment. Many voters are justifiably disgusted with the status quo. But, that doesn’t mean what’s been presented to the voters comes anywhere near to fixing it. Aren’t you totally discounting what candidates Clinton and Obama DON’T bring to the table? Popular fervor and grassroots support are meaningless if none of the candidates are willing to go beyond popular sentiment and feel-good slogans to discuss a broader structural breakdown. Or to paraphrase a Kennedy of another era, aren't they very much 'part of the problem, not part of the solution'? McCain is indeed an honorable soldier and veteran politician, but he supports extending what history may well deem America's most poorly conceived overseas military campaign. No, this isn’t ‘hollow diatribe’: it’s the essence of the issue and what the country’s early leaders feared most.
written by jonathan, February 06, 2008
i've never seen "policy today" before, but this old political goat is a little confused. "discuss a broader structural breakdown"? I'm not sure that people are going to line up around the block to get behind the candidate talking about gerrymandering and public financing.

the article (is there more to it that i'm missing?) doesn't even make a logical argument. saying that "stature is in short supply" and a bizarre analogy involving marian paroo are hardly the "essence of the issue." there's no legitimate critique of the candidate's positions on anything, except for the fact that they apparently aren't legitimate candidates because they weren't nominated by some undescribed force that would somehow produce "worthy" candidates in policy today's estimation.

what i don't understand is this- are the viable candidates all supposed to spend 25 years in the congress dealing with a broken system "gaining the necessary experience", then come out and say, "lookee here! the system's broken and i know how to fix it!" and expect people to get behind them? it just doesn't make sense. that's why i find clinton's supporters so baffling. yes, our system of government is flawed, broken even, but that's not news to anyone. so where's the story here? why diminish and dismiss these candidates when more people - especially young people - are engaging in the political process than ever before?

i cast my first ballot for john f. kennedy in 1960 and i remember the people who called him 'inexperienced' and 'too idealistic'. the man's term and life were tragically cut short, but he made people believe in something bigger than themselves and he exercised the sound judgment during the cuban missile crisis. obama is no kennedy, but he doesn't have to be and he shouldn't try to be. he represents a break from the petty politics of the baby boomer generation and a candidate people can get excited about. say what you will about "structural breakdowns"- you're not going to fix them by serving up the same palaver that my generation's leaders - and those of my children - have been dishing out for decades.

for me, i'm pleased as punch to have an intelligent, subtle thinker with a unifying vision and sound judgment--minus the jaded insider attitude that comes with so much washington "experience". he's not a perfect candidate, but there's no such thing. i'm interested in what "policy today's" ideal candidate would be? 5 years of nonprofit work, 10 years as a successful businessperson, 15 years in the senate, a couple of years as an appointed ambassador and then when the masses from coast to coast are clamoring for you to run, then you're "legitimate"?
What makes a good Presidential candidate?
written by PT, February 06, 2008
Jonathon, good stuff. Let’s take care of the confusion first, and then move onto your substantive comments. If you voted for Kennedy in 1960, you’ll have seen The Music Man (1957/1962)—a classic. Basic plot: con artist comes to Iowa, sells the good people of River City musical instruments, promises a “boys band,” and then prepares to skip town. Except he falls for the town librarian (Paroo). Hopefully, the metaphor becomes a little clearer, even if you disagree with the analogy.

The gist of your argument seems to be, “what makes a good presidential nominee/candidate?” And, you’d like to believe Obama is that person.

For starters, the facts largely belie the image Obama has sought to create in the media. He is as you describe: charismatic and intelligent. But not quite the breadth of fresh air you suggest. What has he been doing in the Senate since he was elected in 2004? Not a lot, because that was never his goal. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) Anymore than being a state senator in Illinois. Speak with his former colleagues in Springfield and ask them, what did he do? Said one, “that’s pretty tough—he was rarely there.”

Kennedy may or may not be the person you remember. But, you’re looking for and seeing someone who’s been dead for 45 years. Don’t feel bad. Somewhat contrary to your assertion, Obama sure seems like he wants us to believe he’s JFK. Not sure where you live, but pre-primary, Californians were treated to commercials opening with a JFK montage, shading into Obama action shots, followed by warm and fuzzy pictures of Ted and Caroline.

Back to your central premise, who should we be voting for? Who would make the ideal candidate? And, that indeed is the $64 question. No need to go back to 1776. In the past century, we’ve seen a number—Franklin Roosevelt for starters. Historians are beginning to better appreciate the “hidden hand presidency” of Eisenhower. And, sadly, had Johnson not been so absorbed in his social programs, there’s an argument that he would have paid more attention to what his generals were doing in Vietnam. Eisenhower was a former commander in chief, who may well have directed one of the greatest (and most important) military victories in history. Johnson—read Caro’s book on your next 14 hour plane ride.

That’s our starting point—not an overly-ambitious former President’s wife (who squandered 4 years of the Nation’s time on a health care plan that never happened) nor a public official who was simply otherwise engaged.

Nor is saying, “well, we have to vote for who’s there,” the answer. Here’s a thought: sit down in the library with a cup of coffee, surrounded by biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt (both of them). Then tell us your thoughts on the attributes of a good President. That’s the place to start.

And, as to a legitimate critique of the candidates’ positions, may-be you’ve caught our drift. Most of what we’ve heard is all make believe. See PT’s February issue next week.

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