Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Last Hurrah

So, the moment has passed. The debates are over. Shall we discuss?

Before we get to anything about the content, I want to describe something that happened the first time the two candidates engaged in serious, face-to-face debate. I felt a Great Disturbance in the Force - as though thousands of Tom Brokaws and Gwen Ifills cried out, and were suddenly silenced.

Could Bob Schieffer have shamed his predecessors any more?

I think we were given more serious discussion of the issues during those 90 minutes than during the entire campaign to date. God knows the candidates - both candidates - had to be horse-whipped into providing that substance, but Bob Schieffer was both willing and able to carry that whip. I think he emerges as the winner of the debate - in fact, with his help, the true winner was the viewer. We were able to hold the candidates' feet to the fire and get some serious answers.

Well, okay, maybe I'm exaggerating. It was pretty great, though.

I was particularly pleased that domestic and social issues - which have received such short shrift over the course of this election - finally managed to get a modicum of attention. To my knowledge, for example, abortion has failed to receive even a single mention during any of the previous debates - much to my chagrin, given its central importance to my political philosophy. In fact, I'm not sure I've gotten much out of the debates in general; because...well, because...

I, um...*cough*

I don't actually care that much about the economy.

Now, again, I've exaggerated for effect. Of course I care; I hope to eventually buy a house, or have a job, or even provide my family with multiple meals in the course of a single day. I'm certainly concerned, therefore, that all these goals have been seriously jeopardized by the current financial crisis, and would love to see us elect a President who can mitigate or remedy this catastrophe.

But I don't really know anything about the economy. None of us do; we've all deluded ourselves into thinking we're junior economists, but we're not. I'd be willing to wager not on in 10 Americans can actually explain what really happened here; you'd hear a lot of "subprime mortgages" and "risky lending" and "defaulted on their loans," but you wouldn't hear these ideas strung together in any kind of a coherent sentence. We're not totally sure who Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are, we don't know what AIG is, we don't know whether the bailout will work or not, and if it does work we won't know why it did. We know what CNN told us, but we don't know who they asked, or if they're right, or why they're right. We don't know a damned thing.

Yes, we! You too! Don't lie to me, or yourself. You're not an economist. You didn't even do an economics minor during undergrad. You don't know what's going on.

More importantly (or perhaps more disturbingly), neither do either of our candidates. Now, of course, they know more than we do. They may even be able to define all the terms I listed above, even if they can't say how they all work together. And God only knows they have pet economists waiting in the wings to supply them with quotes about stimulus package this and regulation that. The fact remains, though, that they're not economics professionals; both of them have extensive training in completely unrelated areas. Whichever one of them is elected President is not going to be responsible for creating an economic plan personally; their job will be to hire the right advisors, show good judgment in evaluating advice, and be as educated as possible about the various duties of the Executive Branch. They're candidates for the Presidency, not an endowed chair in Economics.

That's why I get a sense, when watching these debates, that both candidates are simply slapping a Band-Aid on a wound neither one can really mend. They're competing to see who's the better speaker, whose plan is more palatable, which one can make their idea seem to have the right moral foundation (as though that increases an economic plan's chance of success). They're not actually trying to give us the right answer; they don't know it, and we wouldn't know it if we heard it.

That's why I wanted to hear more, this campaign, about abortion rights, and gay marriage, and perhaps about the ethics of war. The economic crisis is our greatest concern, but it will be solved by men whose training exceeds our own by an order of magnitude; when it's finally fixed, we won't even know what's been done (or done right). But when that day comes we will still need a leader with the right priorities, the right set of values, the right amount of dedication to our freedoms. We will still need the right to vote, and the right to freely associate, and the right to freely print whatever views we have. We will still need the right to privacy, and to a fair trial in the event that wrongdoing has occurred.

We can recognize the right man for that job. The other one is more or less a crap shoot.

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