Last night, I promised a comprehensive defense of my votes for President, Senate and House. I wasn’t joking. This is comprehensive… and long.
I hope my more partisan friends will forgive—or perhaps even not take offense—at the idea that anyone voting a straight party ticket this Tuesday without considerable anguish is doing so from the gut, not from the brain. Before you say But rape or But civil liberties or But the deficit, let me lay the case before you as I see it.
ECONOMIC POLICY is a matter of some concern for everyone in the States right now, and for many of our friends across the Atlantic. The gap between between government revenues and spending is enormous, and it’s largely due to entitlement programs and the defense budget. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Department of Defense together consumed a massive 62% of federal spending in the 2011 fiscal year. The last eight to ten years have been marked with an escalation of crisis alerts, some real and some imagined, concerning our addiction to Brobdingnagian spending. We very simply cannot pay the bill for all this, and we can only rob Peter to pay Paul in the form of foreign lending so many times before there is an eventual collapse of American credit and loss of faith in the American dollar, with catastrophic consequences. These consequences would be dire not only for the country, but for an increasingly interdependent world economy that, despite rose-tinted predictions, continues to suffer body blows in the form of pandemic recessions that our more clear-eyed economists term corrections, that is, necessary dips to bring inflated valuations of prosperity into line with reality.
President Obama has not presented much of a plan. But the threat is obvious: control of the White House and Senate will give the Democrats unprecedented leverage to enforce the “fiscal cliff,” a deadly combination of sweeping cuts in spending and massive tax increases that, while settling the budget shortfalls handily, could easily destroy what little chance of a recovery we have. This weapon secured, they can force a Republican House of Representatives to make a Democratic deal, one that by the rhetoric will probably include additional taxes on the rich and middling cuts in spending, but very little action on reform of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. This is a disastrous plan! For many reasons, but not least because any plan not including a determination to touch the third rail and engage on real entitlement reform will only delay the day of reckoning. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. The Democratic Party would have you believe that with a few minor tax hikes, we can pay ludicrously large benefits to society on the backs of a working class with stagnating wages and increasing economic immobility.
Obama’s other economic policies have been less than fruitful. Massive loans to green-energy monoliths have produced few jobs and little alternative energy progress. The stimulus, while likely successful in averting economic cataclysm, was largely diverted into anemic markets and pork projects, not benefiting US core strengths, like tech and knowledge workers. The President does not seem to care about revitalizing manufacturing jobs whatsoever, and seems content that the US lose any interest it has remaining in commodities and raw materials. The Democratic establishment has shown time and again that it does not see the importance of providing employment to skilled workers: we have a succession of jobs proposals that either the very highly skilled or create temporary McJobs and solidify the precariat.
Lucklessly for us, Romney has shown himself worse in the economic arena than I dreamed possible. Let’s be fair: Romney has considerable economic expertise. But in a Republican Party that has been dominated within and without by fiscal hawks since the midterm elections of 2010, he’s been driven towards presenting a plan inspired by his running mate, Paul Ryan, whose folly knows no depths. Any reasonable economist will tell you that we have dipped down the left side of the Laffer curve, and that slashing taxes cannot possibly lead to higher revenues.
The worst part about this is that Romney and Ryan know that; neither man is so economically naive as to assume that our already historically low tax rates could stimulate the economy if cut further. Rather, this attitude is what their mentor, Grover Norquist, might call “starving the beast,” i.e., they are slashing taxes in order to create an even higher revenue deficit in order to justify unprecedented reversals of entitlements and the end of the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid establishment as we know it.
Only under specific, tightly controlled circumstances does a tax cut create jobs, and as many have reiterated, the critical drop in US revenues has come from a drop in employment and the disappearance of looked-for growth. Romney has told us over and over again, “I know what it takes to create jobs,” but ignored the historical evidence that you have to spend money to do it.
You can go back and forth on the facts all day, but the cruel truth is that both men are pushing an agenda that largely kowtows towards a supply-side, Keynesian understanding of our current crisis: apply or remove money through taxes and stimulus, and the private sector will magically rejuvenate. It’s largely facile and for show. The real issues haven’t been addressed. This leads into my next topic.
SOCIAL POLICY has been a great, hidden motivator for a great deal of this election cycle. The reason Romney had such difficulty in the primaries was not because of his economic chops (better than any other GOP candidate) or his foreign policy (they were all equally ignorant, more on that later) but because his social governing while governor in Massachusetts was far too liberal for certain tastes.
We all know the objection that’s coming next: “But the Tea Party is a fiscal movement, not a social one!” Au contraire. The Tea Party was the major force behind the midterms and the primaries, and their behavior belies their speech. The House sweep in 2010 consisted almost entirely of Tea Party-backed candidates, who are, yes, fiscal hawks, but also overwhelmingly socially conservative, and in some cases paleoconservative. Witness the GOP betrayal of Dick Lugar, a longtime Republican Senator whose only crime was bipartisanship; he lost the primary to the Tea Party and now that Senate seat is in desperate jeopardy, soon to be lost to a Democrat because the nominee for it, Richard Mourdock, brought a Jurassic-era attitude towards rape into a televised debate and is now paying the price. Romney nearly lost the primary a dozen times to the likes of Santorum, Perry, and even Gingrich—men who appeal to the Tea Party on a social level but who would have had no chance against Obama on the national stage.
As I put it to a close conservative friend at the time, “You are smoking crack if you think the American people will elect President Gingrich.” The man made his career trying to tar and feather Bill Clinton, one of the most beloved Presidents of our time, and was driven from his office in disgrace by his own party after his machinations failed. The rest of the candidates were no better: Perry struck the world outside of the Tea Party’s narrow auditorium as Dubya Two, another avuncular, gung-ho Texan, but this time without the appeal of “compassionate conservatism,” which in practice meant leaving social issues alone. Santorum’s sanctimonious tones on social policy drove independents diving for cover. Cain was a train wreck. We don’t even need to go there.
Romney himself, whether frightened by the close calls in the primaries or simply showing his true socially conservative streak, has kowtowed to Tea Party moralities throughout his campaign. He endorses Mourdock, who (in a tortuous inversion of Christian theology) thinks rape pregnancies are something “God intended to happen,” and selects as his running mate Paul Ryan, who voted against abortion-law exceptions for rape and incest. This man, who could govern Massachusetts on an even keel, now can’t step foot there safely.
But while Romney’s positions on social issues are deeply problematic, Obama has shown that they don’t mean much to him personally. Sure, his position on gay marriage has done a lot for perceptions, but that was only expected of a Democratic President who is elected while a majority of Americans support domestic partnership or other benefits for gays and lesbians. The repeal of DADT was a solid step, but again, not unexpected. He has done little on abortion, and his major contribution to women’s issues is Lilly Ledbetter, which if you read it (most haven’t, assuming “Fair Pay” means just that) is quite frankly a bad piece of legislation which opens companies to liability without doing anything to correct standing inequalities in male and female pay.
All this is exceptionally irritating considering that Obama has had a massively motivated liberal base and is largely on the right side of history. Social attitudes have become more and more liberal over the years. Only 15 years ago, the television show Ellen could not survive its main character coming out in primetime. Today, gay and lesbian characters are everywhere in media. A clear majority of the American population supports gay and lesbian issues, and that majority increases to astonishingly high levels when you exclude the oldest generations now living. Divorce has largely lost its stigma, abortion is talked about in public, and “no religion” is the fastest growing religion in the United States. In short, were Obama to throw his wholehearted support in that direction, he would be overwhelmed with affection from exactly the groups he needs to drive to the polls. Yet his support has always come with conditions, has often hedged, and even his most full-throated supporters seem a little wistful for the good times before the election, when it seemed possible that Obama had taken it in his hands to bring the country into the future, kicking and screaming if necessary… and it would not have been necessary. He is, it seems, a cautious man, and not particularly prone to the sort of sweeping change that was his greatest appeal.
Obama has one great advantage here, which, ironically, is hurting him in the election: the Affordable Care Act. I don’t claim to like the ACA, or even pretend that it’s a working system, but the opportunity to begin reforming our ugly mess of a health care system and extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans is a laudable feat. It’s a step closer. That’s all we really need.
FOREIGN POLICY is our last stop and perhaps the most damning. As exemplified in the final debate, Obama and Romney have very little daylight between them in the war on terror. The President has shown time and again that he will pay for safety in freedoms, whether it’s indefinite detention of Americans, assassination, the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo, or drone warfare. The President has waged war in Libya against the explicit will of Congress. The President has perpetuated a culture of fear, wherein Americans are expected to cower whenever an al-Qaeda affiliate rears its head, and we should meekly submit to any measures necessary to prevent even the slightest risk of attack. This is reprehensible, cowardly, and largely immoral, a continuation of the gung-ho, simplistic strategies of his predecessor, President Bush. So long as men like President Obama are in office, the war on terror will never end. So much for peace.
But Romney agrees with him totally.
Do they have differences? Maybe; towards Iran, the President is inclined to bomb if Iran begins building a nuclear bomb. A President Romney would bomb if Iran creates the capacity to do so, or if Israel snapped its fingers. Both policies are irresponsible and likely to involve us in a war that we can’t possible hope to win without another few decades of nation-building, and both are immoral by any stretch of just-war theory. We strike not because the other man can, but because he intends to. We don’t know that yet.
Romney would double down on drone warfare, would pursue terrorism more aggressively (can you imagine a more aggressive stance than bombing and assassinating them wherever we find them? I can—it doesn’t look good). He would label Russia and China as foes instead of partners, possibly engaging in a trade war with the latter which could only end in impoverishment for both sides.
That was social policy. That was economic policy. That was foreign policy. These two parties, neither wholly right, have monopolized debate around solutions that won’t work and issues that don’t matter.
So what we have is a NO-WIN SCENARIO.
So who did I vote for? I voted for the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.
This is not because I love Gary Johnson. I don’t. By God, I barely know the man: the media hasn’t exactly shown the spotlight on him. Frankly, if compared to my ideal, a lot of his policy stinks: it’s naive to believe we could disengage unilaterally on foreign policy; I hate the idea of turning health care into a free-market guinea pig when it’s worked nowhere else; his views on education are opaque and probably suspect.
But he’s not in the pocket of the Tea Party. He hasn’t compromised civil liberties in the Orwellian pursuit of terrorism wherever it lies. His economic policy is not geared towards what sounds good to the partisan base. A vote for him is a vote against Romney and against Obama, a vote for sanity instead of partisan bickering, a vote that does not lend my moral sanction to assassins and those who would be assassins.
Say what you will about the meaningfulness of a third-party vote. But when consciences come calling for the thousands killed in preemptive drone strikes, for the American citizens who were assassinated in them—fact! Not fiction! How can we be so foolish?—perhaps I will sleep soundly.
Then again, perhaps not. I don’t know who we’ll be by then.
All that being said, there is another question, and that’s who I’m hoping wins the election this Tuesday. It won’t be my guy, we know.
I’m hoping Obama. Not because I like him: how I wish I could, so many times over. But his emotional appeal, as a nice guy, who says the right things so many times, is belied by his apparent moral ambivalence. But what I hope comes of an Obama victory is a reality check for Republicans.
The GOP is not a wholly corrupt party. It has, for the last several years, been manipulated by the Tea Party, monopolized by radicals. But if they are, at last, defeated, after four years of obstructionism and spending every dollar and waking moment scheming the defeat of President Obama, it will be a very rude shock. It might just be enough of a shock to loosen the Tea Party’s grip; it might be enough for the old party hands to notice that mainline Tea Partiers, social conservatives, paleocons and evangelicals are dying out as a race, simply because young people and nonwhites have deserted those groups in droves or never joined to begin with. The Republican Party knows that sooner or later it is going to have to pivot to the new demographic realities of America, and if Obama wins, they just might.
What would that mean?
It is social conservatism that keeps most people away from the GOP. It’s not belief in lower taxes that draws ire, or laissez-faire capitalism, or even gun rights. It’s the far right of social conservatism that brings us the perceptions of racism, of misogyny, of homophobia, of a “Christian” mentality that enforces the mores of a majority upon a diverse set of minorities. A GOP that was less socially conservative and more fiscally conservative would appeal to many. A GOP that never talked about rape, that was content to let abortion laws lie; a GOP that spent more money on fighting our unwieldy, unfair tax code than protesting gay marriage.
Imagine a Republican that didn’t care about what you did in your home, so long as you paid your fair share in taxes. Imagine a GOP whose central plank wasn’t “keep American values strong,” but “keep America prosperous.” A blow to Romney and the Tea Party that has dictated GOP values and priorities is a blow to keep Republicans honest.
What we talk about, in America, when we talk about the President, is not the law, because the President does not make law; what we talk about is leadership, and the future of the country. I have little hope of that from either candidate. Maybe four years from now, if the Republicans come back around to core principles, we’ll see an honest debate, and they’ll keep Democrats honest as an Obama victory will keep them honest. Maybe next year it will be about fiscal responsibility and civil liberties and the future, and leave legislation of morality and philosophy at the door. Maybe.