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Major issues in search of major-party attention

By W. James Antle
web posted September 13, 2004

This election, partisans of both sides repeatedly inform us in somber tones, is the most important of our lifetimes. It has been said every four years during every presidential campaign of my lifetime, and it is certain to be said a few hundred more times by November.

There is certainly more than a dime's worth of difference between John Kerry and George W. Bush, and some of these differences carry with them high stakes. But by and large this campaign, like too many before it, has been characterized by a bipartisan refusal to deal with some of the nation's most pressing problems.

The impending bankruptcy of our entitlement programs: Politically advantageous levels of retirement spending are on a collision course with demographic and arithmetic reality. Social Security and Medicare are not social insurance programs; their vaunted trust funds are polite fictions. They are welfare programs for heavily middle-class recipients funded by current taxpayers.

As America ages, the ratio of workers to retirees will continue to fall and the cost of funding these programs will rise. They already amount to some 40 percent of federal spending. As health care costs continue to climb and the number of retirees increases by a projected 80 percent over the next thirty years, Social Security and Medicare will either absorb the entire federal budget or force massive, economically destructive tax increases. Otherwise the budget deficits that result will make our current $422 billion deficit look like pocket change.

Kerry opposes Social Security privatization, benefit cuts, raising the retirement age or toughening eligibility requirements for certain programs on a means-tested basis. He wants to continue the illusion that the status quo is sustainable, but the end result of this approach is simply to delay the inevitable and pass the problem off to future generations. As Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, put it: “(Kerry's) policy amounts to a huge tax increase for tomorrow's workers, most of whom won't vote in November.”

At least Bush is on record supporting daring free-market reforms of both Social Security and Medicare, and in theory would make both a priority in his second term. In practice, however, his main contribution to this issue thus far has been to make the problem worse by adding a costly drug benefit to Medicare in exchange for some fairly minor reforms.

He has also done little to lay the groundwork for successful Social Security reform during his first term, aside from appointing a commission co-chaired by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Reforms of this magnitude tend to succeed only when an administration has spent several years lobbying, consulting and expending political capital to achieve the consensus required to ensure congressional action (Ronald Reagan's second-term tax reforms were already a couple years into the making by the time he was reelected). Nor has Bush satisfactorily addressed what are likely to be the transitional costs of any partial privatization program. For example, where will the administration get the money to replace the payroll taxes diverted into private accounts when it comes time to pay current benefits?

Borders and immigration: Sometimes a problem can grow so large even the mainstream media is compelled to pay attention. The cover story in the current issue of Time asks “Who Left the Door Open?” Our borders are no less porous than they were before 9/11. In fact, Time reporters estimate that some 3 million illegal aliens will stream across the border into the United States this year, three times the number of legal immigrants and the highest since 2001. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team Donald Bartlett and James Steele report that 190,000 illegals from countries other than Mexico, many of them with population segments hostile to America, have burrowed themselves deep within the U.S. population this year.

The most basic requirement of any meaningful homeland security entails effective border enforcement. Yet neither campaign appears to be making a priority of this issue and the Bush administration's record in this area clearly leaves much to be desired. Worse, neither Bush nor Kerry will address the incentives that exist within the country for further illegal immigration. Employer sanctions go largely unenforced, remittances are unimpeded.

In fact, both campaigns support de facto amnesty for large numbers of illegal immigrants. Bush has proposed a guest-workers program that will legalize undocumented Mexican workers in this country and ambitiously try to match willing employers with cheap foreign labor that hasn't even made it across the border yet. Steve Sailer has described this as the “Invade/Invite the World” policy. Kerry, for his part, promises to be even more generous in legalizing those already here illegally.

On top of all this, there is the question of whether our post-1965 policy of continuous mass legal immigration without assimilation is exacerbating all the above problems while contributing its own in the form of cultural balkanization. But don't look for either Kerry or Bush to debate whether our current immigration levels undermine or reinforce what Samuel Huntington describes as the American Creed.

Refocusing the federal government: The terrorist attacks against this country three years ago should have renewed the debate over the proper role of the federal government. With the physical survival of potentially vast numbers of Americans threatened, it should have been apparent that we can ill afford to have entitlements crowd national defense out of the federal budget, or to devote scare resources to endeavors that aren't central to the federal government's purpose while shirking constitutionally mandated duties like controlling our borders.

Instead, the acceptance of the current unwieldy role of the federal government, described by the late Murray Rothbard as that of welfare-warfare state, has been bipartisan and bi-ideological. David Brooks recently penned a long piece for the New York Times Magazine arguing that Republicans should give up on shrinking government and instead favor strong government. Whatever the merits of his case, it does not follow that government can do all things equally well. What about government that is effective in performing its proper functions?

Needless to say, both Kerry and Bush would sidestep any debate over what government should do or not do. They both promise to be unfailingly generous in redistributing income and unflinchingly tough in defending the homeland. The intricate details of how this will be achieved or how it can be paid for do not intrude into their talking points.

War and terrorism: There is one issue of serious consequence that both campaigns talk about a great deal and that is the war on terror. But it's not clear that either has yet arrived at a fully thought-out approach to this grave problem. Kerry's stance on the war in Iraq is famously muddled and his counterrorism strategy seems, despite his protestations to the contrary, largely reactive. Bush's views on Iraq are far clearer and more consistent, but what he is trying to accomplish there in relation to the rest of the war on terror has seemed more abstract than concrete ever since U.S. forces failed to locate significant weapons of mass destruction. The Bush case for Iraq, repeated by numerous speakers at the Republican National Convention, appears to boil down to a benign domino theory (to borrow a phrase from Time's Joel Klein) in a neoconservative Cold War against Middle Eastern tyrannies.

While Bush's approach to terror is far more proactive than Kerry's – a virtue in seeking to avert an attack similar to 9/11 – it is also less defined. The Bush administration seems to have difficulty distinguishing between threats (Iraq versus al-Qaeda, states versus loose-knit terrorist groups), ideologies (Baathists versus various strains of Islamist ideology) and enemies (Saddam Hussein versus Osama bin Laden) and consequently tends to lump them all together indiscriminately. And while the administration's insight that tyranny and misery in the Middle East create fertile conditions for terror, it does not necessarily follow that the solution is democratic nation-building by U.S. military force.

Neither candidate has presented a plausible Iraq exit strategy. Kerry offers vague promises that his multilateralism will allow us to reduce the U.S. presence in Baghdad, but does anyone believe that France will rush in to take our place? On this question, both candidates seem to be running as a variation of Richard Nixon on Vietnam, with Kerry implying a secret plan to end the war and Bush emphasizing “peace with honor.” Perhaps the press can find a way to work discussion of these issues into their coverage of what Bush and Kerry did as young men during the Vietnam era?

The outcome of this presidential election will surely impact jockeying over the direction of marginal tax rates, judicial nominations, key social issues and other areas of significance that should not be discounted. But it will probably bring us no closer to the resolution of brewing crises that ought to be recognizable regardless of ideology or party affiliation. Instead they are ignored by both parties' presidential nominees.

We'll continue to hear that this is the most important election of our lifetimes. And it could be. But that will depend on how the politicians – such as Bush and Kerry – elected this time out ultimately respond to the most important problems of our generation.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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