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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN

Illinois Senator Barack Obama, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president and media darling, is in Iowa this week touting his commitment to government reform. His accusations are broad, his solutions obscure and his appeal undoubtedly rooted more deeply in personality than political positions. But who can help but agree with what he says?

Obama's generalized speeches, many of which focus on his ability to unite opposing sides and to get things done in the corrupt cesspool that is Washington, D.C., have won over not only the soundbyte-obsessed media (which has repeatedly admitted that second-tier candidates are winning the Democratic debates on issues while still narrowing the options for victorious candidates to the two frontrunners), but also policy experts who have bought into his "uniter" rhetoric.

"What impressed me about him was his ability in working with people of the opposite party," Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, told the Washington Post after Obama's most recent appearance in Iowa in which he warned against a "second gilded age."

While Obama continues to dazzle the cameras with his charming style and win over voters with well-polished stump speeches, those who are paying attention to the inexperienced senator are consistently amazed that his sweeping generalities and values-based politicking are able to win over so much support in a time when so many issues demand specific and detailed attention. Case in point: Obama's call for reform in Iowa.

"If we are serious about having real change in this country then we have to start putting America's interests ahead of the special interests that are blocking our efforts to create universal health care, an energy policy that focuses on renewable fuels and rural investments," he said. "We have to break the stranglehold that the lobbyists and special interests have on our democracy."

Even though Obama did get into some specific ways he would enact ethics reform, none amounted to any more than lip service to his audience -- "I'll stand for this," and "I'll make it clear they can't do this," etc. Calls for lobbying and ethics reform are, of course, nothing new, and anything substantive would establish independent oversight of both Congress and the White House, a move that politicians rejected in 2006.

But beyond Barack's weak call for reform is a much larger trend: an unsettling inability to address the specifics of any major problem facing the country today. While Obama is probably genuinely intelligent enough to answer direct questions regarding issues, he prefers to spend much of his campaign focused on themes such as "getting things done in Washington," bipartisanship, changing the tone in American politics and representing values inherent to all Americans. And through all of this, the better-prepared and more experienced candidates are getting trounced in the polls

It all sounds strangely familiar: Obama is inexperienced politician who claims that his real work has been at the community level "bringing people together." He claims to have the cure for what ails the entire country, and without asking too many questions, most of the mainstream media has already promoted him to frontrunner status. If it wasn't for Hillary Clinton, he'd be the unchallenged leader in the Democratic primaries.

Around this time eight years ago, a relatively inexperienced Texas governor by the name of George W. Bush was riding a wave of popularity to the top of the GOP primary contest before it even got started. He claimed to be a "compassionate conservative," focusing on broad values (and a few tried-and-true Republican talking points) rather than specific issues. He claimed to be a "uniter, not a divider." He said he was going to change the tone in Washington; he was going to bring people together and end an era of bitter partisanship. He said his would be the most ethical administration in recent history. He said he would get things done and listen to the American people. Eight years later, we know the outcome; we've seen how partisanship has exploded out of control, how corruption has infiltrated every level of government and how a politician who toes the party line and speaks in generalizations as if the American public were children can destroy what remnants of faith we may have had in our government.

It would be unfair to compare Barack Obama to George Bush on specifics, but given that they both fancy sweeping generalizations, I'll give Obama the same courtesy. Simply put, this time around, we've got to have more than a figurehead. Warm, fuzzy speeches and a likable personality just won't do it anymore. We've got to have experience. We've got to have substance, not style. Obama, who has repeatedly pledged to bring a "new tone" to the political debate, has already begun viciously criticizing his top primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, calling her foreign policy stances into question. With another 15 months before the election, this sort of sniping is only the beginning. Mr. New Tone will be Mr. Business-As-Usual within a few months.

There are certainly those who claim that Obama is different ... his personality, his ideals, his desire ... different. Perhaps. But at one point we all thought that George Bush represented something different, as well. Have we learned nothing?

There is a slew of very experienced candidates vying to be president. The ones who will really bring something to the table are those who level with the American people. They won't comfort you by pledging to work hand-in-hand with bitter political enemies. They won't coddle you with speeches about how they share your values. What they will do is bring substance to the debate and real solutions for our many problems. The media and the American people need to be giving all of these so-called "second-tier" candidates a second look. Don't be fooled by style again. Let substance be your guide in 2008.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

POLITICAL VIEWS

I tried to use a Facebook application called "Take a Stand" that would have posted my thoughts on a wide variety of political issues. The application never worked, so I'm switching to Blogger so I can get these down somewhere.

Party: Unaffiliated (my political compass points toward "populist"); both major parties are corrupt organizations with agendas that consist of attaining/retaining power, giving hand-outs to loyalists and duping the public into believing that they truly care about us. Political issues are rarely black-and-white matters; unfortunately, the two major parties have reduced the American political culture to a pathetic sporting event.

Illegal Immigration:

Strong border security: fence off the entire southern border and bring troops home from Iraq for guard duty. Unless you're willing to have an open-door policy in your home and allow anyone who is in search of "a better life" (regardless of what that may be) to enter, do not advocate an open-border policy. I'm a pretty trusting person, but I like people to knock on my door, introduce themselves and state their business before coming into my house.

Quicker path to citizenship: No one should have to wait a decade to become a legal citizen. Make the application process less bureaucratic and more immigrant-friendly.

Mandatory English schooling: You're welcome to keep your native language; however, you can't deny the benefit of knowing English in the United States. Offer all immigrants applying for citizenship government-funded language courses (taught by the military) to instruct them in the basics of English.

Abortion: Against in nearly all cases, including rape and incest; however, I don't support overturning Roe v. Wade due to the complications such a ruling would present to doctors performing abortions that are necessary for medical reasons.

School Prayer: Against; a student should never be barred from privately or unobtrusively expressing his or her faith, but no mandatory public expression of religion should be allowed in public schools.

Welfare: Barring extraordinary circumstances, generally opposed to any long-term government support; welfare-to-work programs can be successful at giving individuals a helping hand as opposed to a crutch.

Many welfare recipients who are unable to return to work due to disability and/or lack of education that would keep them locked into the service industry would benefit if U.S. companies would rely more on insourcing as opposed to outsourcing, as in the case of call centers and customer support lines, both of which are low-wage jobs that can now be done from practically anywhere.

Healthcare: Support basic universal coverage; currently, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have a horrible monopoly over health care that excludes tens of millions from even the most basic of coverage and makes prescription drugs unaffordable for millions more. Coverage should be universal for U.S. citizens and the pharmaceutical industry should be regulated through price controls.

War in Iraq: Opposed; there was no 9/11 link to Iraq and no reason to invade in 2003. Now we are stuck in a no-win situation: if we stay, we're bound to continue losing troops and angering the Iraqi people, but a withdrawal would abandon our responsibility to a country we invaded, a people we upset and a government we put into place. There is no easy way out, although I support partitioning Iraq into three separate zones with one weak, overarching federal government and strong state governments for the Shi'ites, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Capital Punishment: Against; there are certainly crimes that, if committed against me or members of my family, would lead me to support the death penalty, but justice must be dispassionate. We as a society have the means to contain violent offenders. Laws should be strengthened and/or enforced in order to ensure maximum punishment, but no crime justifies taking a human life.

Gun Control: Support strict registration and detailed background checks, as well as requiring manufacturers to include trigger locks with all handgun purchases. Also support "conceal and carry" laws that allow responsible gun owners to protect themselves. Violent crime or attempted crime involving firearms should result in harsher penalties.

Gay Rights: Support full and equal rights for the GLBT community, including civil unions and all rights granted to heterosexual couples. Hate crimes legislation should be expanded to encompass crimes against sexual minorities (although I have issues with "hate crimes" legislation to begin with), and sexual minorities should be allowed to serve in the military without having to hide their sexual orientation.

Marijuana Legalization: Opposed to legalization.

Global Warming: Global warming exists and is being perpetuated by our production of CO2 emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. The U.S. government should join with other nations in pledging to lower emissions. Automakers should comply with higher fuel economy standards that greatly increase mpg and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil (and oil in general). The U.S. should begin large-scale development of nuclear energy facilities and fund extensive research of hydrogen fuel cells and comparable alternative energy forms. Weak, baby-step energy research such as wind or solar power should be scrapped in favor of existing technologies that have much greater potential.

Cuba: Normal relations should be pursued immediately; economic sanctions should be removed and normal trade relations should commence.

Stem Cell Research: Support; while the Bush administration got the ball rolling by approving federal funding for research on existing stem cell lines in 2001, the door needs to be opened for research to continue on additional lines. Being "pro-life" means choosing life in all instances, and we can use stem cell research to potentially save hundreds of thousands.

The embryos themselves, while the beginnings of life, typically face two fates: they will be used in research, or they will be thrown away. Given the choices, I would rather sacrifice a handful of cells for the greater good rather than waste them out of stubbornness and sacrifice human beings whose lives may depend on the knowledge gained from stem cell research.

Flag Burning: Flag burning, while despicable, is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Given the ambiguous definition of a flag, no constitutional amendment should ever be passed that restricts that expression. For more on my thoughts on flag burning, click here.

Censorship: Censorship of media and entertainment should be minimal, although ideally, self-censorship and regular discussions of what is publicly acceptable would be a part of any society void of censorship. Adults should be able to freely purchase pornography, and, given a sensible ratings system and considerable respect for societal norms, artists and entertainers should be free to express themselves in any manner that they see fit.

Right to Die: Do not support right to die laws; living wills should be strongly recommended (even required through potential universal health care) in order to clarify DNR wishes in case of severe injury or death, but no one individual or organization should be allowed to forcibly take another's life in non-life threatening situations regardless of consent.

Foreign Policy: Somewhat of an isolationist; global trade and interdependency is unavoidable, but U.S. corporations should attempt to keep jobs in-house. The United States needs to be a global leader on issues such as health, the environment and poverty rather than a military interventionist. The global war on terror should continue through a stronger push for human intelligence in U.S. intelligence agencies, and we should work more closely with our allies to ensure that they are carrying out effective anti-terror policies around the world without risking all of our own assets. Allies around the world must step up and do their parts to guarantee global security so that the United States can turn much of the energy and assets currently spent on foreign ventures toward a) domestic concerns and b) bridge-building foreign aid.

Media Bias: The so-called "liberal media bias" does not exist; many U.S. media sources may trend slightly to the left, but much of the reporting and non-editorial journalism is quite reasonable and fair. The most biased mainstream media forces are conservative pillars like FOX News, the Washington Times and talk radio. Though much of what is presented in and on these sources is opinion, they are so popular because they tell a certain segment of viewers exactly what they want to hear.

All U.S. citizens should challenge themselves to take in several different media sources that stretch across the entire spectrum of political thought. If you watch FOX News regularly, follow it up with a healthy dose of the New York Times' opinion page. The variety of points of view makes readers, viewers and listeners all the more informed and gives them true choices and information on which to base their opinions.

Social Security: Given the low return and slim changes that this so-called safety net will even be in existence when I'm in need of it, companies that meet certain size and revenue benchmarks should provide guaranteed retirement plans and employees should be able to opt in and opt out of Social Security.

Minimum Wage: There should be a minimum wage scale for different types of employees. Adults (especially parents -- couples or singles) trying to earn a living off of minimum wage should be in the highest possible tier, as well as students working in order to pay for school. The lowest tier would be dependents such as high school students who are working simply for extra money and not in order to pay for essential services. Both businesses and those who need a higher minimum wage would benefit from such a system.

Wiretapping: Intelligence agencies should obtain warrants prior to tapping any communications devices or conducting any other form of domestic surveillance.

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