Saturday, January 21, 2012

Political Commentary on the Day of the South Carolina Primary

At the moment it seems as though my prediction of Huntsman coming from behind to win the nomination isn’t going to happen (though I am still hoping for a last minute re-entrance into the race to steal the momentum of two self-destructing front-runners after Newt blows the race wide-open in South Carolina tonight).  So as we await the results from South Carolina, here are some thoughts on the political challenges America faces and my take on the rest of the political field.
The number one problem with our political system as it exist right now, I believe, is the equation of money with power.  Dollars matter more than votes because ultimately dollars buy you votes in the current system.  The result of that is that politicians are controlled by special interest lobbies because they are going to need money the next time they run for office, and this then results in policy that is either full of loopholes and thus toothless or clearly biased in the direction of a particular industry or special interest.  I think this kind of corruption is extraordinarily dangerous- I would argue it is the ultimate reason behind the market crash of 2008 and that it has played significant roles in our defense and foreign policy (including possibly the lead-up to the War in Iraq), resulting in massive amounts of government waste and abuse.
The number two problem facing our political system right now is, I believe, the changing landscape of the global political system.  We are still in the mindset of being the “only global superpower” (which, I will grant, is still true in some sense) but we are facing a world that is increasingly hostile to our leadership and one in which long taken for granted constants are rapidly changing.  China is becoming the next economic superpower (whether we like it or not), the politics of the Middle-East has drastically changed, Europe is on the verge of either morphing into a strong economic/political union or completely collapsing (and two world wars have taught us that situations like this can get nasty fast on that continent), Brazil is entering the world stage as a major economic powerhouse, and Cuba, of all places, is opening up to capitalism.  Just to name a few things that are changing.  Our government is going to need to be able to navigate seriously uncharted waters in terms of foreign policy in the near future.
The number three problem facing our nation right now is, I believe, the lack of an economic structure which promotes sustainable growth.  Our economy has become increasingly dependent on the financial sector.  That has proven a little bit unstable with pretty nasty consequences.  An economy built on what is effectively gambling is just not going to have sustainable growth.  Nor can it afford for the corporations doing the gambling to be “too-big-to-fail.”  Economic policy needs to encourage the financial sector to be a bit more reigned in and other sectors of the economy to be much more productive if we expect to maintain economic growth in the long run.
In my opinion, Huntsman was the candidate who had the most sensical views on how to handle all of these issues.  As of me writing this he has unfortunately not responded to my (and others) pleas to restart his campaign, forcing me to examine the other candidates still in the race:  Mitt Romney is, in my opinion, the epitome of the first and most serious problem in our political system.  That alone makes me unwilling to vote for the guy, but based on many of his statements I also think he is dangerously short-sighted in his outlook on foreign policy (our second major challenge), wanting to do things like start a trade war with China or prepare for a full-scale war with Iran right off the bat.  Also, his record as a venture capitalist has only contributed to the third issue, lack of a path for sustainable economic growth.  He has no experience or credentials that make me believe he will in any way better our national situation.  
Rick Santorum’s Iowa story seems to place him on the opposite end of the spectrum from Romney in terms of the relationship of money to politics in our system (having virtually no funds, comes from behind to win the Iowa Caucus), but his consistent pandering to the standards of particular special interest groups (see his many comparisons of his “voting report cards” with those of other candidates, for instance) makes me weary of him on this front as well.  His foreign policy statements seem somewhat reactionary, making me uncertain he could lead the US through a changing geo-political landscape.  He does, however, have some ideas regarding how to promote sustainable economic growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector of the US economy.  So he gets ranked above Romney as a desirable candidate in my book.  
Gingrich has some ideas about how to solve the money in politics problem, wanting to promote modernization in the department of defense (a project which involves cutting the influence of many lobbyists and putting pressure on contractors rather than letting them control the agenda), for instance, and trimming down the federal government in general.  However, his “consulting” work and ethics violation act as strikes against him.  Gingrich has a slightly more nuanced foreign outlook than most of the other candidates, though I think he is still far too driven by a simplistic view of the Middle-East and a desire to forcibly maintain America’s status as the world’s only super-power.  Finally, while I think Gingrich’s economic proposals would promote growth, I’m not certain his plan ends up promoting sustainable growth (in fact, I think it likely leads back to a pre-2008 financial service driven economy).  
Finally, there is Ron Paul.  Ron Paul is the most radical of the candidates in terms of how he intends to change the nature of the game in Washington.  While Paul will most definitely have an impact on the influence of money in Washington (it will have no influence because the federal government will do virtually nothing during a Paul presidency) and will drastically change America’s foreign policy (we will basically step back and let the world do its own thing), I’m fairly certain Paul’s strategy will be economically contractionary, pushing the US back into recession in the short term.  After the initial shock wears off (which could be years given the fragile state of global economy right now), some states will experience an economic recovery that might indeed be sustainable.  I worry, though, that other states (I’m thinking primarily of the predominantly agricultural states of the West) will be deeply damaged by Paul’s fiscal plans and may never experience a full economic recovery.  I am also fairly certain that the effective halt of all activity in Washington that might be expected during a Paul administration would result in a radical reaction against him.  Paul, I am fairly certain, would only be a one-term president and then there would a rush to return the country to “normalcy” meaning no long-term solution would be put in place regarding any of the issues we face.  
Ultimately, I think the four remaining Republican candidates all end up, in some form or another, promoting the status quo in Washington, delaying a true solution to any of the three main problems facing America another four years.  While Santorum may push for incremental moves in solving the third issue and Gingrich may make incremental moves in solving the first, no serious changes will be had under an administration led by any of these candidates.  In fact, I think under a Romney or Paul administration things might actually get worse (with Romney because of direct reinforcement of the problematic status quo and with Paul because of the likely backlash of reaction against him in the next general election).  Without Huntsman in the Republican field, I think any platform the party might take will be incredibly docile and quite frankly boring.
Lacking a Huntsman re-entrance into the race, the candidate I find most palatable on the Republican side is Gingrich, even though his character is less than savory and his personal baggage looms large.  That said, I think the Republican with the best shot of actually winning the White House if chosen as the party’s nominee is actually Ron Paul (I think Gingrich and Romney will both self-destruct and Santorum would simply not be able to sustain the support of independents).  However, assuming Huntsman does no re-enter the race, I am much more inclined to support Obama.  Granted that Obama has done little to nothing to address the first problem (money in politics) outside of his recent announcement concerning plans to shrink and streamline the federal government (generally the sort of thing that monied lobbyists would be terrified of, we’ll see how that turns out, but I think its safe to say its largely a political gesture), I think he has done a good job handling the changing foreign climate and has at least made attempts to promote sustainable economic growth (possibly also as political gestures, but he at least gets to take credit for trying and can accuse the Republicans of blocking him).  If he is reelected and able to pass a legislative agenda, I think Obama could possibly do real good regarding the second (changing foreign landscape) and third (sustainable economic growth) issues.  And if Ron Paul is able to significantly influence the Republican party’s platform (which is ultimately what I think his goal to be), then the next time around the Republicans may go after the first problem in a more sustainable way and with a candidate who is actually electable.  (Huntsman 2016?)

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