Thursday, September 6, 2012

Up for Grabs

Back in June I happened to catch an interview with Mitt Romney’s former foreign policy spokesman on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation.

Richard Grenell had recently resigned from his campaign job after pressure from some Republicans over the fact that he was gay. He had been quite qualified for the position, having spent eight years being an ambassadorial spokesman at the United Nations. I was expecting to hear some bashing of the Republican party for being homophobic, and I suspect maybe the show’s host, Neal Conan, was too. But he put the blame on both political parties, saying that “what became increasingly clear is just that the far right and the far left, which a lot of media are not focusing on the far left’s responsibility here, but the far right and the far left together really just wanted to talk about my personal life.”

It became clear that what Grenell really wanted to talk about was what he considered President Obama’s weak foreign policy. And that’s mostly what he talked about. At one point Conan pressed him about “how could someone who is openly gay, has a partner, supports gay marriage, in fact would like to be married, as I understand it,” support Romney. Grenell’s response: “Most of us realize that you have to prioritize issues. You have a bunch of complicated issues. When you go into the voting booth, you are making a decision on who best represents your worldview. And for me, that’s clearly Mitt Romney.”

And that’s the thing. When there are only two viable parties to vote for and realistically only two presidential candidates, it would be very unusual if you agreed with either one on every single issue. So the only way to make a choice is to decide which issue or combination of issues is the most important for the fundamental welfare of the country. For me, there is no question that the overriding issue is the economy. Not only does it directly affect everyone’s standard of living, from the poorest of the poor on up, but all other issues become exacerbated in a bad economy.

A very good friend wrote me recently, “I’m assuming you’re going to vote for Romney based on your views and beliefs surrounding the economy (my apologies if that assumption is inaccurate), but unless your social views also coincide with his, I don’t understand how you (or anyone) could possibly vote for the man. What about the setbacks his policies would create for gays/lesbians, women’s reproductive choices, undocumented immigrants, global warming and environmental issues of many a kind?”

Actually, despite all of my criticism of the president’s performance, I am keeping an open mind about the presidential election. If the president can make a convincing case that he has any kind of plan for averting the United States’s looming debt crisis and encouraging a return to prosperity across society that is at least as serious as what Romney and Ryan have put on the table, my vote is available to him. But I am not hopeful that I will see him make such a case before the time comes to drop my ballot in the letter box. He seems determined to speak in generalities and attack the specifics offered by others.

What I won’t do is decide how to vote based on hot button social issues that both sides use to gin up elements of their respective bases. History shows that politicians always end up following the people on those issues and not the other way around. If you cast your vote based on the expectation that the former governor of Massachusetts would take away your abortion rights, I think you are being manipulated.

Now maybe, if the president is reelected, he will turn around and make bold and forthright choices and exhibit strong leadership and take the country beyond the struggling recovery he has presided over. But I see no evidence of that happening. His pattern on the economy for four years has been to postpone hard choices ever further down the road and blame others who offer concrete proposals. He criticizes Paul Ryan for not signing up to the bi-partisan Bowles-Simpson plan, ignoring the fact that Ryan then offered his own alternative while the president did not lift a finger to either implement Bowles-Simpson or offer a realistic alternative. (For the record, the president did offer his own “deficit reduction” plan a year ago, and Congressman Chris Von Hollen could be seen waving it around yesterday at the Democratic convention. But even its supporters have to concede that it would not meaningfully reduce the deficit during the short period of time in encompasses.)

This might be good politics, and it might even get the president reelected. But if we get four more years of the same, it will be mainly the people that the president claims to care about most who will be the most hurt by a continuing bad economy. When Barack Obama was elected four years ago, it was a triumph for hope and change. Unless he demonstrates he has learned something from his first term, his reelection would mean a triumph of hope over experience.

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