25 February 2007

To Do, or Not To Do

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Observationally, it sometimes seems that the world of politics can be divided into two types of people: those who know what to do, and those who know what not to do. Just look at the debate over the war in Iraq.

There is a large group of “those who know what to do” (let’s call them “knowers” for short) lead by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and supported by the likes of Senator McCain. The “knowers” believe certain things firmly, e.g., that by adding a “surge” of troops to this war, the United States will be able to turn around fate of the collapsing Iraqi state. There is also a group of “knowers” (people like Representative John Murtha) who are equally certain that the war continues to be a mistake, and that the best solution is to withdraw American troops immediately.

Contrast this with “those who know what not to do” – the “what nots” for short – which may consist of the largest group of politicians at present, from Democrats like Senator Hillary Clinton and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to Republicans like Senator John Warner. Generally speaking, the “what nots” are clear on the things that won’t work: that a troop infusion won’t help; that a timetable for troop withdrawal is needed, but not too fast and not too slow; that the United States shouldn’t not engage with Iran and Syria, even if we shouldn’t engage with them either. You get the picture.

This split of the “knowers” versus the “what nots” on the Iraq war is just a microcosm of the issues in the 2008 presidential race. In some ways, it was President Bush who created this framework when he called himself the “decider” many months ago, stressing the importance of a strong executive. This malapropism was funny at the time, and of course denies much of the essence of how American federal governance is supposed to work (according to the terms of the Constitution, anyway), but it has also – at a time of war – established a baseline from which candidates will be judged.

The “knowers” will attack the “what nots” by declaring them unfit to lead at a time of national doubt. The “what nots” will return fire by declaring that the “knowers” have been all too wrong before, and all too inflexible in their decision making. One set of candidates, exemplified by Senator McCain, will attempt to show their preparedness for the president’s job by impressing upon the voters the strength of their commitment to a particular course of action. The other group, currently lead by Senator Clinton, will try to connect with voters by recognizing their insecurities and concerns, and stressing the things they won’t do as president.

Depending on one’s disposition, this framework presupposes either that a firm statement in favor of a specific course of action is better than a firm statement on the need for deliberation and consideration – or vice-versa. But beyond the Iraq war, the problems get worse (believe it or not). On Social Security, income taxes, immigration, and even environmental issues, Americans are presented with dire predictions and a bold (but poor) course of action (e.g., private investment accounts, tax cuts for the wealthy, a wall along the border with Mexico, loosened polluting restrictions which will benefit business) or dire predictions and a menu for inaction (e.g., “preserve” Social Security by preventing change, allow the tax cuts to expire, legalize the illegal immigrants, and let the Environmental Protection Agency). The impact on our civil liberties is equally bad, with the “knowers” proclaiming the need for more restrictions in order (somewhat ironically) to protect our freedom, while the “what nots” deride these restrictions without shaping a course of action on their own.

Voters should resist this dichotomy because it represents a set of false choices, too often presented in a coded fashion that allows both sides to elide important details. Americans have a right to expect more: more options and more ideas, even if these also reflect more difficult and challenging choices. For example, establishing private investment accounts for Social Security may have sounded like a simple idea, but it ignores critical parts of the rationale for Social Security in the first place. At the same time, pledging to preserve Social Security in its current form is as meaningless as trying to “guarantee permanent funding” for public broadcasting: it denies a very real need for periodic change as our nation evolves. The same is true for income and estate taxes, for our environmental policies and our immigration programs (where the Lou-Dobbs-ian choices are either build a wall and keep people out or let all the “illegals” in; there is a clearly a wider range of options than just those), for our basic civil liberties, and, yes, also for the war in Iraq.

If there is one pledge American voters should consider making as they evaluate candidates, it is to reject both the “knowers” and the “what nots” outright. Any candidate whose solutions to the complex challenges the U.S. faces are – simply and definitely – to do something or not to do something is simply and definitely ignoring something. We should demand better than that.


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