Sunday, August 21, 2011

How I'll Be Voting

A few years ago I wrote about a raft of policy positions; with another presidential race around the corner, it is time to think seriously about the criteria by which I will be judging candidates. Here are the issues I will be looking at. But first, the red herrings.

The Right to Life. I am firmly committed to the rights and dignity of every human being and I am profoundly opposed to the legalization of the murder of unborn children. With such strong convictions, you might expect this to be a major issue for me this election cycle; after all, for many people of similar convictions, this is the litmus test. But the problem I have come to see is that few pro-life candidates are in a position to do much. As things stand, the question of abortion is primarily a matter for the judiciary, not the legislature or the executive. Moreover, cynics would say that the Republican Party uses the pro-life issue to get votes, but drags its feet on actually ending abortion, lest it lose this powerful source of votes. I wouldn't go that far, but I certainly concede that merely saying one is pro-life, or even voting the right way on certain bills, will effect little change. If I see a true pro-life campaigner - and I haven't yet - I'll take note, but otherwise this issue is low on my radar.

Foreign Policy & Defense. A robust foreign policy is close to my heart for a variety of reasons, but it will not be a major issue for me this cycle. Why? Even in lean and unpopular years, the Department of Defense will likely remain well-funded. This does not mean that certain items which ought to be funded always will be, but at the general level - and when are elections really about specifics? - Congress and the American people will not stand for the total evisceration of the DoD. In some ways the more important questions involve funding of intelligence (especially counterintelligence), public diplomacy and other matters which are unlikely to make their way into the debate. But the other reason I'm not paying much attention to foreign policy positions is that they change. Presidential campaigns are run almost entirely on domestic issues; foreign policy positions are little more than fluff, and are usually overtaken by events. George W. Bush campaigned against Clinton-style nation-building projects. Then September 11th happened and the calculus changed. Barack Obama was perceived as the candidate to get us out of foreign wars; while there has been draw-down in Iraq, one is hard pressed to believe that a Republican would have wielded the military in a significantly different way. While his Cairo speech got him off to a good start engaging the Muslim world, that project was eventually swamped by unfolding events and long-standing realities on the ground.

So if those issues will receive only limited attention, where will I be looking?

Debt. This issue has been in the news of late; I think as a country we are finally beginning to understand the overwhelming size of our government's debt and the dangers it poses to our economic well-being. More than high or low taxes or spending, I want to see balanced budgets. A balanced budget amendment - as a serious measure, and not just a symbolic campaign - may be in order. Bringing the debt under control will ultimately require reform of entitlements and DoD's procurement process (which eats up massive portions of the defense budget with little gain), though for now I simply want to see a commitment to solvency.

Tax Code. America's tax code is mammoth. A last count it was roughly ten times the length of the Bible, and still growing. Aside from keeping accountants employed, this labyrinthine code does our country no good. It erodes transparency, wastes resources and imposes a daunting barrier to opening a new business. Reforming the tax code will be a huge undertaking, but it needs to be done. If cutting down the current version is too much, perhaps we could simply borrow Estonia's or Georgia's. Georgia has only half a dozen taxes, with a code shorter than an undergraduate paper. The result has been strong economic growth and a dramatic drop in corruption, often eclipsing developed countries of Western Europe on both counts. And this from a post-Soviet republic starting from a very poor position. Estonia's story is quite similar.

Immigration. I have written about immigration once or twice before. There are three basic issues here that must be addressed, more or less together: (1) Our borders must be secured and illegal immigration brought under control. Sovereign countries have a right to decide who does and does not enter, and to exercise that right for the good of their economy and security. (2) The immigration process must be reformed. High-tech companies are constantly having to lobby for more H-1B visas and less red tape, as they are having trouble bringing in skilled workers from overseas. Likewise, the difficulty of legally entering the US as an unskilled guest worker is a constant encouragement to illegal immigration. (3) There are millions of illegal aliens living in the US, somewhere on the order of 10 or 12 million. Their presence cannot be ignored in the process of comprehensive immigration reform.

Education. We have tried to make our schools accountable through No Child Left Behind and various state-wide testing and incentive programs. The effort has generally been judged a failure due to (a) bureaucratic bungling, (b) cheating and (c) an unwillingness to hold feet to the fire. But, frankly, the greatest obstacle to school reform have been the unions (as the recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, points out). There is little doubt that a confrontation with the NEA and other major unions will have to be fought before we have real school reform. Any candidate who vows to smash the NEA certainly has my attention. Less dramatically, I'll be looking for candidates who advocate school choice, with open enrollment, more charter schools and vouchers.

Marriage. I find may aspects of the culture wars off-putting. However, recent events have begun to convince me that so-called gay marriage may be the key moral question of our day. I am not opposed to equal taxes or hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners - be they sexual partners, of the sort who get all the media attention, or simply life-long bachelor roommates. What I find disconcerting, rather, is the attempt to use the government to re-define marriage, apart from any benefits it might carry. Some argue that the distinction between state-sanctioned marriage and church-sanctioned marriage will always exist, and churches are welcome to define marriage however they like. In the first place, I do not trust that churches will be allowed to define marriage for themselves. We have already seen in the Diocese of Washington attempts by the civil government to impose its definition. Moreover, I pose the following scenario to you: what if Congress passed laws for the "ordaining" of certain "ministers" to "consecrate the Eucharist". Clearly, a violation of the prerogatives of churches and an affront to most Christians. Some might argue that it is primarily the buzz words here that make this proposition outrageous. But I would argue that this is because words carry meaning. Ministers are different from officials or counselors; that's why we have different terms for them. I can accept same-sex unions, but not same-sex "marriages". This is not, as some have argued, a matter of natural rights, since (a) no one has a right to a vocation (cf. CCC 1578) and (b) same-sex attraction is contrary to nature. Within the American context, same-sex unions may be a civil right, an outgrowth of our social contract, but as such they are subject to debate and should be recognized as conferred by the will of the polity, and not by right. I'll be looking for a candidate who can articulate some of that.
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