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In this election year, as in many others before it, the level of political play is so highly charged that it is hard to keep up with. Indeed, during this political upheaval it takes discipline to keep one's attention on the serious business of state that must continue. The entertaining theatrics of presidential politics notwithstanding, however, the voters should realize that there is more at stake than a contest between two individuals, the fate of a whole nation is tied to the fate of the victor.
It was less than two years ago that the hottest think tanks, the most sought-after strategists and the most visible political organizations were those devoted to charting bold new directions for the "Republican revolution," and their Contract With America. They talked of "devolution" and "giving power back to the states." They talked about reducing government spending--"strategically," of course... No more. Most of the elements in the contract have now been halted in their tracks and there is even talk of disunity within the ranks.
The hot strategists in Washington today are those who are blowing with the wind. Nowadays, there is no serious talk of liberal values versus conservative values. Suddenly, there is a whole new breed of politician being born inside the beltway which is neither liberal nor conservative--it is the platypus-like centrist.
A platypus is an animal with some duck-like and some beaver-like properties, but it is neither. Similarly, if one plays close attention, in the past few months Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, have subtly shifted their positions and have begun to sound very much unlike their predecessors or even themselves just a few years ago. In the last few months, the two candidates have increasingly displayed their proclivity to say anything, do anything to please the voters. While such malleability is not necessarily a new phenomenon in the American elections, what sets this election apart is the fact that the volatile circumstances under which the election is being held are unique.
For one thing, at the national level the disparity between rich and poor is increasingly felt across the country, resulting from the unchecked avarice of the wealthy and their apparent lack of compassion for the poor who are reacting with disguntlement. The business sector is bigger, stronger and more intrusive in people's lives than at any time in America's history. Ethnic and racial tensions are also rising. Internationally, for the first time in this decade, the United States is confronted with the prospect of a possible menace from the East. In such an unpredictable world, an astute president with a keen sense of the urgency of the moment and with a steady hand is needed more than ever. By this, I mean a president who has clear and spelled-out convictions, one who has a sense of direction and purpose. We need a president with a mission, who is not afraid to disagree with those who are not serving the country's interests. The candidate must have a platform, a plan for the future of America, not just fancy words for TV sound bites; the candidate must deal in specifics. Instead, alas, what we are being presented with are the usual tailored-for-election candidates whose only immediate objectives are to emerge victorious on November 5.
The electorate is led to believe that there is a real contention between the two candidates; some even believe that the election is a contest between right and wrong where their votes would dispel the evil and restore the good. The voters are further assured that once they vote for one candidate, the other candidate's views, the much-reviled one, will not be represented. Unfortunately however, the reality on the ground suggests otherwise. The fact is that the two candidates are vying for the throne for the same reasons as any two different executives of a corporation compete for the top position. While their strategies may differ greatly from each other, the outcome of the election does not necessarily steer the government in a different direction. Indeed, it is helpful to realize that the two parties are simply branches of the same strand--they are not separate, opposite entities as the voters are led to believe. Indeed, no matter which man gets elected, especially in the short run, the public would hardly be able to distinguish between their actions.
The president is inevitably the nation's No. 1 political boss. Yet he is, at the same time, if not in the same breadth, the leader of public opinion. Those who administer our physical life, also administer our spiritual life. He is, in Woodrow Wilson's words, "the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country." He is thought of by people as a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen and father of the multitudes. The framers of the Constitution took a momentous step when they fused the dignity of a king and the power of a prime minister in one elective office--when they made the president a national leader in the mystical as well as the practical sense. With that in mind, Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency in 1992 as a "New Democrat," stressing responsibility as well as rights. What set him apart form Democrats such as Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter had less to do with his stand on particular issues than with his ability, at least at moments, to transcend the terms of the conventional politics. Dukakis learned what happens to a Democratic nominee who runs with a Liberal label. When he told the 1988 convention that the election would be about "competence," not "ideology," Republicans pounced. Clearly, Clinton, too, thought that his liberalism was a handicap and hence he tried to change the outcome by changing his approach. He talked about the breakdown of family and urged people to begin by changing "from inside out," changes that reach "the values, the spirit, the soul." In reality, however, Mr. Clinton was a charter New Democrat and has governed as one since the opening bell. His administration moved to the right on nearly every core economic issue since taking power. Think of it as "putting corporations first." He has preferred the financial markets over working people in his budget package although ostensibly he defends their rights. He has allowed insurance companies, not the consumers, to set the pace in the health care debate, and he has preferred multinational corporations over everyone in the trade agreements.
Although, to be fair, we should acknowledge that by catering to corporate America in this way, Mr. Clinton had hoped to gain running room for an activist agenda on health care, the environment, national service and the like, but unfortunately that strategy has been less than successful.
Lately the two men, Clinton and Dole, try to sound more and more like each other, and at times, each tries to outdo the other by being the first to embrace the radical ideas of the other party. For example, Bob Dole talks about allowing pro-choice activists to participate at the Republican Convention, while Bill Clinton, who championed the cause for gays in the military, suddenly voices his opposition to gay marriages, and embraces Republican ideas as they become prominent. The fact is that both sides are pandering to the voters, hoping that citizens will believe them long enough to vote for them in November.
Since each man is simply trying to outwit the other by appearing to be all things to all people, consequently, in this election, more than the previous ones, ideology has been supplanted by opportunism. Accordingly, the two candidates' ideologies, it seems, have become as malleable as clay in a the hands of a child who can shape it as he wishes. What is worse, however, is the fact that we are being presented with a superficial facade intended for the public's consumption--while underneath, the candidates' views have not essentially changed. They have simply become ambiguous.
Alexander Hamilton once wrote: "The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good adminstration." To this end, the presidential candidates should be seriously concerned with the core needs of the American government whose only objective must be to serve the interests of the nation. The next president should have the ability to reverse the tide of the last few decades where the political agenda has been mainly concerned with adjudicating the roles of market and government without addressing the loss of community and the erosion of civic life. The presidential candidates would be wise to pay attention to these needs regardless of their party inclination. They should heed the call of well-meaning individuals like former U.S. senator Bill Bradley, who called for a politics that focused more on the institution of civil society. Neither the market nor government is "equipped to solve America's central problems, which are the deterioration of our civil society and the need to reviatlize our democratic process," he writes. Politics should be concerned, he urges, with restoring "churches, schools, fraternities, community centers, labor unions, synagogues, mosques, PTAs, libraries and barbershops" as "civic spaces," sites of deliberation about the common good.
The Republican Contract With America offered a panacea for the country's ills; and President Clinton, with his vaunted political instincts, adopted the most salient elements of the panacea. Now the Democrats are trying to further counter the Republicans with their plan, which they call Families First. Moreover, by declaring wars on poverty, drugs, three strikes and you are out slogans etc., by putting 100,000 more police officers on the street, the president as well as his adversaries are hoping to address America's social ills. The problem is that in the long run, as we have thus far witnessed, any plan that does not engage the community is bound to fail. As Michael Sandel, a political thinker who teaches government here, contends, good government requires what he calls "successful republican (small r, to be sure!) soulcraft" and involves a gentler kind of tutelage. For example, the political economy of citizenship that informed 19th-century American life sought to cultivate not only commonality but also the independence and judgement to deliberate well about the common good. It worked not by coercion or deprivation as most of the present politicians advocate but by a complex mix of persuasion and habituation, what Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer called "the slow and quiet action of society upon itself."
We will be doing ourselves a great disservice if we choose our president simply based on what he preaches according to where he is standing and in relation to the timing of the election. When Bob Dole defends the tobacco industry while in tobacco country, but plays a different tune when addressing the rest of the country, the voters must take note of the disparity. When President Clinton makes campaign promises and compassionately talks about issues without making actual substantial efforts to adopt and implement his promises, we must take notice and call his bluff. If we entrust the executive branch to an individual simply because he belongs to our party and because we feel that he will be our friend, who knows how best to run the country, then, in these momentous times, I shall pray the old Spanish proverb, "God save me from my friends, and I'll take care of my enemies."
Ben Tahriri is in his second year as a Ph.D. candidate in government in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
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