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Ten things this election should have been about

ASK THIS | November 03, 2006

It turned into one heckuva horse race, but University of Pennsylvania political scientist Donad Kettl writes that few of the candidates in the 2006 mid-term elections have talked about the issues that really matter most.

By Donald F. Kettl

Q Do we know what the next phase of the war on terror will be?

Q Can we secure energy independence?

Q Is EPA obsolete?

Q Will entitlements bankrupt us?

Q Should we provide health insurance for everyone?

Q When the next disaster happens, will anyone be home to answer the phone?

Q Has FEMA learned Katrina’s lessons?

Q Is the big Mexican fence keeping problems out—or walling problems in?

Q Can we make our ports safe?

Q Can we really manage the risks of 21st century life?

The 2006 midterm congressional election has turned out to be one of the most exciting—and important—in years. This was to be the grand culmination of the Reagan revolution, the year when the Republicans converted their presidential and congressional successes into a new, permanent majority.

But it certainly hasn’t worked out that way. Nancy Pelosi has been measuring the drapes in the speaker’s office. Some Republicans, trying to put a brave face on the party’s troubles, have said that the best thing that could happen to them for 2008 would be to lose at least one house of Congress in 2008 and show voters what Democratic rule might look like. And throughout it all, President Bush has not dared appear in any but the safest Republican havens. Voter disapproval has snipped his coattails short.

With all the horserace excitement, however, it’s easy to miss what this race should have been about. It’s one of the most important elections in years because the stakes are so high, but few of the candidates have talked about the issues that really matter most. Consider this top-ten list.

1. Do we know what the next phase of the war on terror will be? Against the early advice of their strategists, some maverick Democratic congressional candidates decided to make the election a referendum on the war in Iraq. They picked up surprising traction, and that’s put Republicans on the run. President Bush has shot back that Iraq is the front line of the war on terror.

The first phase of the war on terror is over. What will the second phase be? One thing is for sure: it isn’t the war in Iraq. This promises to be the central issue of the 2008 presidential election.

2. Can we secure energy independence? Although no one likes to talk about it publicly, a main reason why we’re hip deep in Iraqi quicksand is our worry about securing a stable source of energy. The public part of the Bush grand plan was about bringing democracy to the Middle East; the quiet part was the assumption that a democratized Middle East would be a more stable energy partner for the future. Suspicion is so high about the energy undercurrent that a September Gallup Poll showed that 42 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that the Bush administration “deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall's elections.”

The energy independence part of the Iraqi war hasn’t worked out well.  Gasoline prices soared during the summer and Muslim fundamentalists are using the oil issue to foment anti-western sentiment. What if we switched gears and invested our creativity in finding other ways to solve our energy problem: to promote the development of hybrid cars, to encourage energy savings, and most important to unleash energy entrepreneurialism? It might take boosting taxes to ensure a floor on gas and oil prices—say, to $3.00 per gallon to fill our tanks. But if entrepreneurs can bank on not being undercut by the roller coaster of prices, they will have powerful incentives to develop new energy sources. And every drop of oil we don’t have to import from the Middle East will enhance our security and reduce destabilization in that troubled part of the world.

3. Is EPA obsolete?  The Bush administration has sliced away at EPA’s power, in part to help energy producers (just not the ones most likely to help us out of our energy problems). In the process, however, EPA might well be sliding into obsolescence. At the rate we’re going, most policies that matter about the environment will be out of federal hands a decade from now. State governments, especially California and New York, are developing their own emission reduction and energy conservation strategies. Meanwhile, efforts to reduce global warming have become a major international movement.

Big environmental policy changes are happening, largely despite EPA. The agency can continue what it’s doing, but EPA could soon find itself obsolete. That might be good if you like state-based and internationally driven policies. But it’s probably not good if the United States wants to be a player in shaping its own national environmental destiny.

4. Will entitlements bankrupt us? The scariest Halloween costume will soon be a Baby Boomer, knocking on a kindergarten door and demanding how the kids will pay for the boomers’ retirement. By 2016, we will have run up another $1.4 trillion in deficits. By 2050, at the rate we’re going, every tax dollar will be needed just to pay for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

It’s a huge burden. The “Greatest Generation” might be replaced by the “selfish generation,” the first in the nation’s history to leave the next generation worse off. The problems are eminently solvable—but only if we begin acting now. The longer we wait, the bigger the burden, and the poorer our grandchildren will be.

5. Should we provide health insurance for everyone? There has been a rising chorus for some kind of national health coverage. In fact, of course, we do have national health insurance—if you are poor or old. A Kaiser Foundation survey has estimated that about 45 million Americans have no health insurance. About 80 percent of the uninsured are adults. More than half are poor. Two-thirds of working-age adults without health insurance are working—but they don’t have adequate health benefits through their employers. They are divided 50-50 between whites and racial minorities. And they’re in worse health that those who have insurance.

Any fix would be expensive. Some states, like Massachusetts, have taken the jump themselves. But without some national remedy, we’re likely to continue to drift into a two-class America, with a large number of working age adults (increasingly responsible for funding the care of older Americans) whose health suffers for lack of health insurance.

6. When the next disaster happens, will anyone be home to answer the phone? One of FEMA’s hidden problems when Katrina struck is that it was so dependent on private contractors that it didn’t have the capacity at the top to spring into action (even if it had the instinct about how to do so—which it didn’t). Bit by bit, we’re carving out the government’s central nervous system by contracting out so much of government. Heaven knows, contracting out can produce efficiency gains in the delivery of many public services. Would we want to maintain a huge staff of government employees to build state and local roads and to manufacture weapons for the Pentagon?

We’ve contracted out so much of government, however, that we’ve lost the ability to manage the money they spend or the programs they deliver. The war in Iraq has been so privatized that the Defense Department, quite literally, does not know how many contractors it’s paying to support the troops. If we can’t even count the contractors, how can we ensure that they aren’t charging too much and delivering too little?

7. Has FEMA learned Katrina’s lessons? And, speaking of FEMA, has it really learned the lessons that Katrina so painfully taught? From the top down, federal officials are promising a radically different response when the next disaster strikes. To be sure, a lot of important changes have been made. But there’s still a big question about whether FEMA has changed fast enough.

Two things are certain. First, it isn’t a question of whether but when FEMA will next have to roll into a major campaign. Second, it can’t go it alone. FEMA still seems wired to act as commander of a hierarchy instead of conductor of an orchestra. Unless it learns—fast—how to be more nimble and effective, we’re in for a repeat of Katrina’s unforgivable debacle when disaster next strikes.

8. Is the big Mexican fence keeping problems out—or walling problems in? With great fanfare, President Bush signed into law a bill he hailed as authorizing a 700-mile border fence. It was a central part of the Republican midterm strategy, and it appeals powerfully to the Republican base.

However, the $1.2 billion provided by the law won’t actually build a fence. And even if it worked to keep illegal aliens out, what are we going to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States? The nasty secret about the high-profile fence campaign is that it doesn’t begin to address the real problem—the illegals now living in the country—and no one wants to talk about that.

9. Can we make our ports safe? With great fanfare, Congress passed a law to enhance port security, and congressional uproar sent Dubai Ports World packing after it announced plans to buy management operations at six America’s ports. Everyone felt good about shoring up security at one place experts have long identified as one of the nation’s biggest homeland security vulnerabilities.

Except, of course, that the ports battle made no sense. The one thing that Dubai Ports World would have gone to every length to prevent would be a terrorist attack on billions of dollars of its assets. Port security depends far more on who handles the cargo, not who writes the checks to stevedores. We’ve made a lot of noise, but we’ve made only slight progress in dealing with the real threats to homeland security at our ports.

10. Can we really manage the risks of 21st century life? In the face of scares over the last few years, cynics are asking whether we’re heading for a world where we have to fly naked and without luggage to prevent potential terrorist from smuggling weapons on board—but where we’re building high-rise oceanfront condos as hurricane bait. It’s a tough puzzle to find the delicate balance between maximizing security against terrorism and making it impossible to conduct our lives. But we’re spending a lot more time on that than we are on many other risks. And, when problems happen—from recovering from storms to protecting against dangerous drugs—we expect Uncle Sam to ride to the rescue.

There are a lot more of us living a lot closer together, both in this country and on this planet. The pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has taken on a whole new meaning in the 21st century.

Jefferson’s great turn of phrase in the Declaration of Independence needs a fresh look. That should have happened in the 2006 midterm congressional elections. Candidates might find a way to slither away from these issues in the 2008 presidential campaign. But there’s no way we’ll be able to escape them for much longer, and we’d all be better off if we talked just a little more about the things that, in the long run, will matter most.

Is the Worst Yet to Come?
An article abour preparedness by Kettle in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

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