Sunday, September 28, 2008

Country first?

As the presidential debates get underway, it is worth looking beyond the headlines and scorecards to what was actually said. The first debate with Jim Lehrer as moderator was deemed a "tie" by the media, though anyone actually watching would have seen the distinct advantage Obama had in strategic vision, presence, knowledge, and compassion.

One passage was emblematic for me, and that was a response McCain gave to Lehrer's question about what of his spending plans the candidate would give up in light of the current debt market bailout plans, which are going to put a crimp in the next president's budget. McCain said "How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs?". On a practical level, as Obama pointed out, spending freezes are a blunt instrument, used when the "decider" has lost the will or capacity to make difficult decisions. Freezing our priorities in the past is no way to run a government, especially one that espouses "change".

But this proposal was far more telling than its surface impracticability. It evidently came right off the top of Mc Cain's head, with little prior thought. Note how it was phrased as a question- a plea tossed out to a hectoring questioner.. how about this? would that be OK? It almost reminded me of Bob Dole, and his famous use of "whatever" as his final policy refuge. McCain was not on solid ground, and he knew it. He may know about waste in the Pentagon, and that big government is "bad", but getting his head around the big picture of overall government spending and budgeting seems to be more of a challenge.

Secondly, the exceptions McCain provided are even more telling. Where does McCain get his income from? Social Security and the military as a veteran, as well as his senate salary. So the impulse to protect the programs he knows and loves come right out of his gut, and all his talk of new energy programs, more education funding, national service, etc. seems to be window-dressing. His strong bias here and in his convention speech has been on the care and feeding of the military, as if that equates with the country. Country first, indeed!

Better and more effective support for veterans gets support from across the political spectrum- they have been treated shabbily both in Iraq and when they get home. But exempting the military in general from a freeze when we spend more than the rest of the world combined? That is open to debate, to say the least. If our military is overstretched due to an unnecessary war and because we have been asking soldiers to perform nation-building that they are ill-suited for, the answer is not to "expand the military", but to practice a little abstinence. We need to be using military forces more appropriately, dividing forces into specialized segments like classic-military, special forces, and nation-building, and beefing up other entities that need to be more central to the fight, like the state department and aid agencies.

At any rate, this response showed one more time how John McCain shoots from the gut- (and a rather parochial one it is)- a quality that entertains the press corps and is relatively harmless in the Senate, but is not what we need in a president, especially after eight long and disastrous years of being governed from the gut of another Republican.

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