At Tuesday night’s debate, the presidential candidates were asked a question that I believe deserves much more attention.
“BROKAW: Sen. McCain, for you, we have our first question from the Internet tonight. A child of the Depression, 78-year-old Fiora from Chicago.
Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices — sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we’re now in?”
In my 2006 essay The Progressive Trinity http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0606.colvin.html, I wrote:
“Because Public Service is fundamentally based upon unselfish efforts for the benefit of all of us, that quality must be embodied in the public leader. Especially so for political leaders because we have no choice but to be ruled by them until they leave office.
We have seen people become leaders because they are master manipulators, or sheer opportunists, or charismatic salesmen, or anointed by the oligarchy of wealth and influence that works behind the scenes. We try, as best we can, to project our desires for statesmanship and compassion and wisdom onto the presidents and governors we elect, but we are too often severely disappointed by their behavior.
The paramount criterion for candidates to the highest offices in Public Service should be: is this person able, by their own example, to inspire sacrifices for the common good? “
How did Senators McCain and Obama answer?
John McCain fumbled around with a riff on eliminating government programs, earmarks, an across-the-board freeze on spending except for defense, veterans, and “other vital programs.” He didn’t say exactly which programs would be cut, but I suppose bailing out Wall Street is a vital program now, and so is continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, because he didn’t offer to give them up.
Disappointing for a man who brought his acceptance speech to a climax by saying:
“My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our armed forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier. Because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.”
Barack Obama gave a better answer, but it seemed like he still does not recognize the tremendous potential that a fully honest and prophetic answer could have. He said:
“I think the American people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle these problems not just in government, but outside of government. … There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start thinking about how we use energy. … [E]ach and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save energy in our homes, in our buildings….
I think the young people of America are especially interested in how they can serve, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in doubling the Peace Corps, making sure that we are creating a volunteer corps all across this country that can be involved in their community, involved in military service, so that military families and our troops are not the only ones bearing the burden of renewing America.”
A truly great leader, with the leadership character of a Lincoln or a Kennedy, would have to look into the next decade and call out those challenges that can only be met by inspiring Americans to set aside their personal comforts and make deep sacrifices for the common good.
This is the essence of progressive political philosophy: We are all in this together. “Every man for himself” and “do what you can get away with” has led us into this mess. We can only pull together to solve the enormous problems that face our country if we can trust and respect each other. And we can only do that if we have an unselfish leader who deserves our trust and respect.
Is there any doubt that universal health care, for those who need it most, will need to be paid for by the young and healthy?
Is there any doubt that we will not stop the polar ice caps from melting and the oceans from rising unless we can stop burning fossil fuels at the rate we have been?
The 78-year-old caller from Chicago no doubt remembers, as fewer and fewer of us alive today do, that World War Two required incredible sacrifices. Detroit was ordered to stop making cars and build only tanks and airplanes. Gasoline was rationed. You couldn’t buy sliced bread because steel was needed for the war effort. Does any conscientious person truly doubt that the same level of sacrifice will be needed to stop global warming? Perhaps the Greatest Generation is yet to come.
So, let’s start a list of the sacrifices that the candidates should share with us:
1. Energy conservation. By every reasonable voluntary and mandatory means, we will need to curtail our wasteful use of fossil fuels and conserve our oil resources. Now. Not after we have converted to electric cars and hydrogen fuel cells and the other technological breakthroughs we hope for. We need to keep our remaining offshore oil and Alaskan oil in the ground if our grandchildren will be able to fly on airplanes and have an Air Force to protect them. Come to think of it, climate change also means conserving other resources, too, like water and fisheries.
2. Paying for the war in real time. We cannot keep fighting the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere without paying for it now. To pay for the war in Vietnam at the time it was happening, the rich in America paid an income tax surcharge and Lyndon Johnson sold off Fannie Mae. George Bush, incredibly, has reduced taxes for the wealthy and paid for the war with deficit spending.
3. The rich will be called upon to sacrifice. Obama should highlight that he is asking those who make over $250,000 a year to pay more in taxes. They can afford it, and should be contributing more to the common good, especially in hard times. If the tax burden paid by the wealthy during the Reagan years can be restored, that will go a long way toward paying for the war on terror, the Wall Street bailout, the cost of taking care of our veterans, health care and educational reform, and the cost of new green technology.
4. We all will need to keep supporting our government with our taxes. Bill Clinton, when he was running for president in 1992, promised middle-class tax relief. He couldn’t deliver, because economic realities required him to reduce the federal deficit. After Obama proposed a tax reduction for 95% of households, the government committed us to a $700 billion expenditure to rescue the financial system. Hello? It should surprise no one if Obama’s middle-class tax cut were to be reduced or delayed.
5. Delaying retirement. All signs point to the fact that my generation, born after 1945, will have to keep working longer and retire later, due to the drop in value of our 401(k) and other retirement plans. There are too many of us to stop being productive and live off of Social Security, diminishing home equity and investments. Things will get worse before they get better, and it may take another 10 years for the country to pull out of this financial crisis.
6. No more easy money. Wealth did not trickle down during the years of Republican administration, but lots of credit did—subprime mortgages, credit cards, companies issuing junk bonds, states and counties borrowing, bizarre unregulated derivatives and hedge funds. A house of cards, collapsing on us now. We will have to spend less and save more, and the financial self-discipline will be a painful adjustment.
7. Yes, there will be more government regulation. Isn’t that the lesson of the financial meltdown? There won’t be as many ways to get rich quick on Wall Street. If Obama is elected, unions may have more rights to organize, companies may be forced to pay women equally, fuel efficiency standards for automobiles may be raised. Maybe even price controls on prescription drugs. The business world will be called upon to sacrifice for the common good. About time.
8. Social Security and Medicare reforms. Of course, the rich should pay a greater share of the payroll taxes. As Obama has proposed, those making over $250,000, who don’t pay a dime more right now, can afford it. That’s progressive taxation, long overdue. If that were done as a first step, then it might be reasonable to ask others to sacrifice by making other small adjustments, to the eligible retirement age, for example.
9. Civil preparedness. After September 11th, the most visible change in our daily lives was the increase in airport security measures. In the seven years since then, many other steps that could protect us have been neglected. A suitcase nuclear device could be driven or walked into almost any office building in America. As a society, we don’t practice emergency procedures for earthquakes, floods, fires, or terrorist attacks. And at no level of government do we have well-organized, practical ways to enlist ordinary citizens in rescue, recovery, and cleanup operations. A flotilla of small boats could have saved many lives in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, but we just left those poor people on their rooftops.
10. The Ugly American, revisited. In 1960, John F. Kennedy inspired a new generation of Americans to care about our relationship with the rest of the world by joining the Peace Corps. He spoke German in Berlin and Jackie spoke French in Paris. Senator Obama wants to double the Peace Corps and has lamented Americans’ lack of fluency in foreign languages. Recently, a group of former Secretaries of State convened and agreed that our most serious international problem is the low level of respect for America in the rest of the world. We could set aside a bit of our arrogance about being “the best country in the world,” take the time and trouble to understand other people’s cultures, religions, and problem, and win back our allies and friends.
Our presidential candidates have sought to win this election by telling their personal stories, by trying to relate to the average person’s needs, by attacking the failures and lies of their adversaries, by mobilizing thousands of grassroots supporters, and by offering new policies and benefits. They have tried to outdo each other with the promise of better government service at no additional cost.
When JFK, in his inaugural speech, said “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he prepared an entire nation, the G.I. Generation and the Baby Boomers alike, to do amazing things for the benefit of all humanity, from sending a man to the moon to overcoming racial inequalities at home.
There is no other appeal to the voter that is more powerful, more courageous, more uplifting, than the bare-headed image of an American president who is able, by his or her own example, to inspire sacrifices for the common good.