Sunday, January 22, 2012

How I'll Be Voting - An Update

In August of last year I sketched out some issues I thought key for this presidential election.  With South Carolina's Republicans voting yesterday, it seems like a good time to take stock.

For the sake of discussion, I'll assume a three way race between President Obama, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.  This ignores the other Republican challengers and third party candidates.  A third party vote can be a powerful message, and may even be necessary in the present climate, but we'll leave that topic for another day.

One more caveat: I've drawn heavily on candidate's own official policy statements.  A fuller consideration would include their campaign statements, policy history, and analysts' predictions of future actions.  One could write a dissertation on many of these questions.  I mean only to start a discussion, not give the final word.

So how do the candidates stack up?

Debt.  Will they balance the budget?  That may require raising taxes, cutting spending, or both.  That may mean reforming the procurement process or passing a balanced budget amendment.  The specifics can vary, but we need to see a plan.
  • Romney is calling for a program of "cut, cap, and balance."  He wants to reduce spending, capping government expenditures at 20% of GDP, and then pass a balanced budget amendment.  He acknowledges that entitlement reforms will have to be part of the picture.  He argues that "we have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in."  To do so is a cruel burden on our children and grandchildren.  If one wants to be cautious, however, we might note that Romney has criticized the president's stimulus spending as adding to the debt, but - from what I can gather - Romney is more concerned about the spending part of that equation than the debt.  His basic plan is to cut taxes to revitalize the economy, thereby raising revenue.  The Laffer Curve sometimes looks like that, and it might work, but it might not.  I worry that he may not be willing (1) to cut expenditures as deeply as he wants to cut taxes, and (2) to raise taxes to avoid Greek-style debt.
  • Gingrich states that balancing the budget is one of his goals and has put forward a white paper on entitlement reform.  The budget is, however, 7th of his 9 economic priorities.  Moreover, he proposes to balance it by "growing the economy" (through tax cuts and deregulation) and "controlling spending".  Newt's first economic priority is to "stop the 2013 tax increases."  While I'm no fan of taxes, this maniacal emphasis on cutting them seems unlikely to lead to a balanced budget.  Yes, economic growth is part of the long-term solution to the debt, and low taxes are part of that equation, but they are not the whole story.  Nevertheless, Newt gets points for his real work during the 1990s to balance the federal budget.  Past performance is no guarantee of the future - balancing the budget in the boom years of the '90s was certainly easier than in today's economic climate - but it counts for something.
  • Obama's position page on the economy does not mention the national debt, our credit rating, or the problem of the deficit.  Instead, he discusses jobs, the auto industry, Hispanic families and women.  I don't mean to be cynical, but this is a naked appeal to some pretty specific interest groups, without consideration of the big picture.  Given the way the national debt has ballooned under President Obama, he offers little on this issue.  The one thing that can be said for the president is this: much of the debt that has accumulated during his years in office came from two wars he inherited, one of which he has ended, the other of which he is drawing to a close.  This will lead to substantial savings, though it hardly amounts to a concerted deficit plan. 
  • Winner?  I think Romney edges Gingrich out on this one, but all three candidates could focus more clearly on the debt.
Tax Code.  Put simply, ours is too large and too complicated.  It's a drag on the economy, a distortion of market forces, an invitation to corruption, and a revenue sieve.
  • Romney advocates tinkering with the tax system, but hardly the overhaul it needs.  This may be politic, but it's not leadership.  His stated long-term goal is to "pursue a fairer, flatter, simpler tax structure," but his articulated policy details all pertain to modest tax cuts, not closing loopholes and shortening the tax code.
  • Gingrich advocates an "optional flat tax of 15% that would allow Americans the freedom to choose to file their taxes on a postcard."  This is good.  The problem is that it's optional.  Individuals and companies will still have an incentive to lobby for special exceptions.
  • Obama only appears interested in closing loopholes if they're advantageous to Wall Street.  His own campaign website promises special tax incentives for clean energy technologies and small businesses.  I'm not opposed to either, but the president is doing nothing to fundamentally reform the tax code.
  • Winner?  A Romney-Gingrich tie.  Both seem to have the right idea, but insufficient plans to execute at this time.
Immigration.  We need to secure our borders, reform the system for legal entry, and address the problem of the large illegal population currently living in the States.
  • Romney hardly has an immigration plan.  He vows to "explore with Mexico, in his first 100 days, the need for enhanced military-to-military training cooperation and intelligence sharing to combat drug cartels and criminal gangs. Mitt Romney will complete a border fence protecting our southern frontier from infiltration by illegal immigrants, trans-national criminal networks, and terrorists."  So he's serious about securing the border.  But we need more.  I see little interest in immigration reform, and on the touchy issue of the present illegal population, he has taken a hardline stance that either ignores the size of the problem or implies a police state. 
  • Gingrich hits the nail on the head, directly addressing the issue - unlike Romney's comments, buried in his foreign policy positions - and calling for all three elements of a solution.  He might not get his way, or particular elements of his policies might not work, but this is the best I've seen of the mainstream candidates.
  • Obama certainly styles himself a friend of the Hispanic community, but his website makes no mention of the immigration issue.  That may be because he's set the record for deportations.  This powerful stick has not been accompanied by the carrot of comprehensive immigration reform or a push therefore.
  • Winner?  Gingrich unambiguously comes out ahead.
Education.  We're looking for school choice, open enrollment, more charter schools and vouchers, and a willingness to fight the NEA.
  • Romney is a firm supporter of school choice.  Excellent.
  • Gingrich also supports school choice (though a few details differ).
  • Obama has made education a major element of his campaign.  However, his education policy page primarily trumpets the spending of money.  Considering the NEA's massive contributions to the Democratic Party, don't expect the president to rock the boat.
  • Winner?  Another Romney-Gingrich tie.  The biggest unknown here is how far either one could get on actual reform before Washington chokes it off.
Marriage.   Late, and somewhat reluctantly, I have found myself placing this issue in the top tier.  I tire of the culture wars, but I have become ever more convinced of the centrality and importance - not to mention sanctity - of the institution of marriage.  Attempts to foist so-called same-sex marriages on the nation are ultimately a violation of conscience for those who cannot support them.
  • Romney's tangled history of positions on abortion call into question his adherence to the moral positions of his Mormon faith.  Nevertheless, the fact that he comes from a church famed for its strong families, and the fact the he remains married to his first wife, are good signs.  However, Romney was once known as a supporter of same-sex marriage.  He now opposes it, and explains that he was "firmly in support" of protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons (GLBT) from discrimination, but he always opposed same-sex marriage.  If that's an accurate representation of his views and policies over the years then I think he's right on target.  But this may simply be waffling.
  • Gingrich has a tumultuous personal history of failed marriages.  That's troubling, though (1) I do believe in conversion and (2) nothing says a personally flawed leader cannot produce good policies for the nation, though I would be skeptical of such an outcome.  Nevertheless, he has come out strongly against same-sex marriages.  I do worry, however, that his position on this matter risks alienating moderate voters by sounding hateful; this is a difficult issue and any candidate should tread with care.
  • Obama has positioned himself as a champion of the GLBT community.  He has highlighted his opposition to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, though this is one of the least controversial issues in the field of GLBT rights.  The president has carefully avoided using the M word with regard to same-sex relationships, but he trumpets his support for "lesbian widow Edith Windsor in her suit
    against DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act]."
  • Winner?  Gingrich, by a nose.  His personal life notwithstanding, he's probably the most likely to sign pro-marriage legislation.
 A couple final notes on two important issues that didn't make the short list.  In the realm of foreign policy, I find President Obama to have been fairly impressive.  He brought the hunt for Osama bin Laden to a conclusion, brought the troops home from Iraq, and toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi without putting American boots on the ground and while making our European partners take the lead.  That's a fairly impressive record, one I would be surprised if either Republican could surpass.

As I've argued before, the right to life - particularly the life of the unborn - is terribly important in a general sense, but is largely out of the hands of the president.  The one exception is the appointment of Supreme Court justices.  President Obama's appointments have been in favor of abortion; given Romney's checkered history of positions, I worry he might appoint the next David Souter.  Gingrich is the only candidate of the three I feel confident would appoint an anti-abortion justice.

What do you think?  Please, share your thoughts in the comment field!

Today's image of the 2008 Democratic National Convention comes via Reuters.
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