The Debate Ahead

Bill Scher

The first speeches of the general election campaign were delivered last night. With the exception of the environment, where McCain is trying to develop a moderate-sounding message, the speeches preview a campaign with a real clash of progressive and conservative visions for America.

From Sen. Barack Obama:

Change is building an economy that rewards not just wealth, but the work and workers who created it. It’s understanding that the struggles facing working families can’t be solved by spending billions of dollars on more tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs, but by giving a the middle-class a tax break, and investing in our crumbling infrastructure, and transforming how we use energy, and improving our schools, and renewing our commitment to science and innovation. It’s understanding that fiscal responsibility and shared prosperity can go hand-in-hand, as they did when Bill Clinton was President.

John McCain has spent a lot of time talking about trips to Iraq in the last few weeks, but maybe if he spent some time taking trips to the cities and towns that have been hardest hit by this economy – cities in Michigan, and Ohio, and right here in Minnesota – he’d understand the kind of change that people are looking for.

Maybe if he went to Iowa and met the student who works the night shift after a full day of class and still can’t pay the medical bills for a sister who’s ill, he’d understand that she can’t afford four more years of a health care plan that only takes care of the healthy and wealthy. She needs us to pass health care plan that guarantees insurance to every American who wants it and brings down premiums for every family who needs it. That’s the change we need.

Maybe if he went to Pennsylvania and met the man who lost his job but can’t even afford the gas to drive around and look for a new one, he’d understand that we can’t afford four more years of our addiction to oil from dictators. That man needs us to pass an energy policy that works with automakers to raise fuel standards, and makes corporations pay for their pollution, and oil companies invest their record profits in a clean energy future – an energy policy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced. That’s the change we need.

And maybe if he spent some time in the schools of South Carolina or St. Paul or where he spoke tonight in New Orleans, he’d understand that we can’t afford to leave the money behind for No Child Left Behind; that we owe it to our children to invest in early childhood education; to recruit an army of new teachers and give them better pay and more support; to finally decide that in this global economy, the chance to get a college education should not be a privilege for the wealthy few, but the birthright of every American. That’s the change we need in America. That’s why I’m running for President.

From Sen. John McCain:

I take America’s economic security as seriously as I do her physical security. For eight years the federal government has been on a spending spree that added trillions to the national debt. It spends more and more of your money on programs that have failed again and again to keep up with the changes confronting American families.

Extravagant spending on things that are not the business of government indebts us to other nations; fuels inflation; raises interest rates; and encourages irresponsibility. I have opposed wasteful spending by both parties and the Bush administration. Senator Obama has supported it and proposed more of his own. I want to freeze discretionary spending until we have completed top to bottom reviews of all federal programs to weed out failing ones. Senator Obama opposes that reform. I opposed subsidies that favor big business over small farmers and tariffs on imported products that have greatly increased the cost of food. Senator Obama supports these billions of dollars in corporate subsidies and the tariffs that have led to rising grocery bills for American families. That’s not change we can believe in.

No problem is more urgent today than America’s dependence on foreign oil. It threatens our security, our economy and our environment. The next President must be willing to break completely with the energy policies not just of the Bush Administration, but the administrations that preceded his, and lead a great national campaign to put us on a course to energy independence. We must unleash the creativity and genius of Americans, and encourage industries to pursue alternative, non-polluting and renewable energy sources, where demand will never exceed supply.

Senator Obama voted for the same policies that created the problem. In fact, he voted for the energy bill promoted by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, which gave even more breaks to the oil industry. I opposed it because I know we won’t achieve energy independence by repeating the mistakes of the last half century. That’s not change we can believe in.

With forward thinking Democrats and Republicans, I proposed a climate change policy that would greatly reduce our dependence on oil. Our approach was opposed by President Bush, and by leading Democrats, and it was defeated by opposition from special interests that favor Republicans and those that favor Democrats. Senator Obama might criticize special interests that give more money to Republicans. But you won’t often see him take on those that favor him. If America is going to achieve energy independence, we need a President with a record of putting the nation’s interests before the special interests of either party. I have that record. Senator Obama does not.

Senator Obama proposes to keep spending money on programs that make our problems worse and create new ones that are modeled on big government programs that created much of the fiscal mess we are in. He plans to pay for these increases by raising taxes on seniors, parents, small business owners and every American with even a modest investment in the market. He doesn’t trust us to make decisions for ourselves and wants the government to make them for us. And that’s not change we can believe in.

Senator Obama thinks we can improve health care by driving Americans into a new system of government orders, regulations and mandates. I believe we can make health care more available, affordable and responsive to patients by breaking from inflationary practices, insurance regulations, and tax policies that were designed generations ago, and by giving families more choices over their care. His plan represents the old ways of government. Mine trusts in the common sense of the American people.

Senator Obama pretends we can address the loss of manufacturing jobs by repealing trade agreements and refusing to sign new ones; that we can build a stronger economy by limiting access to our markets and giving up access to foreign markets. The global economy exists and is not going away. We either compete in it or we lose more jobs, more businesses, more dreams. We lose the future. He’s an intelligent man, and he must know how foolish it is to think Americans can remain prosperous without opening new markets to our goods and services. But he feels he must defer to the special interests that support him. That’s not change we can believe in.

Lowering trade barriers to American goods and services creates more and better jobs; keeps inflation under control; keeps interest rates low; and makes more goods affordable to more Americans. We won’t compete successfully by using old technology to produce old goods. We’ll succeed by knowing what to produce and inventing new technologies to produce it.

We are not people who believe only in the survival of the fittest. Work in America is more than a paycheck; it a source of pride, self-reliance and identity. But making empty promises to bring back lost jobs gives nothing to the unemployed worker except false hope. That’s not change we can believe in. Reforming from top to bottom unemployment insurance and retraining programs that were designed for the 1950s, making use of our community colleges to train people for new opportunities will help workers who’ve lost a job that won’t come back, find a job that won’t go away.

Putting aside the opportunities to fact-check the above, the two addresses lay out the choice before the voters.

Obama sees areas where our foundation has been weakened by conservative neglect — infrastructure, education, clean energy, science and health care — and proposes new investments guided by new standards.

McCain primarily blames “extravagant spending” for our economic ails, while arguing for a continuation of current trade policies, and trying to swerve left on the environment.

What strikes me as McCain’s biggest challenge in this argument is that the biggest waste of spending of the past eight years is the occupation of Iraq, which McCain wholeheartedly supports. Most Americans don’t think the lack of strong infrastructure, clean energy, decent health coverage, and good education resulted from too much money being spent in those areas.

Whereas Obama’s challenge is building the trust that his vision of investment in these neglected areas will be, on his watch, “fiscally responsible” effective spending, not wasteful spending as McCain caricatures.

But what do you think? What do you see in these contrasting visions for America?

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