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Off the stump: Yes, there are issues

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Note to registered Democrats on Primary Day: The eager beavers of TV journalism have nailed down the tough issues for you.

            Take what happened at a pro-Kerry news conference the other day. The local Democratic Party event was pretty canned, but some participants did mention foreign policy, war and occupation, jobs and trade. Then up piped TV 10 reporter Ray Levato. Is it true, he asked, that the candidate is now going by "JFK"? The answer: Well, some supporters were playing tricks with John Forbes Kerry's initials, but not the candidate himself.

            Days earlier, a Matt Drudge-inflated rumor about Kerry and an intern had evaporated. So it was probably inevitable that an even sillier non-issue would bubble up.

            You'd thing there was nothing better to talk about than rumors and trivia. Or whether a candidate is too volatile or haughty, or is hitched to a proper First Lady-in-waiting.

            But if you're a typical working person, you know the issues are out there. Let's review:

Jobs and justice

Last week there was a stir over White House adviser Gregory Mankiw's suggestion that "outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade." His comments came just as the White House was downsizing the number of jobs it believes will be created this year.

            Mankiw's apparent lack of sensitivity brought down torrents of criticism. Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and other US senators said the problem goes far beyond the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs: "Virtually every job category," they said, "is now at risk: software engineers, machinists, newspaper reporters, accountants and radiologists." (The media didn't seize on the bit about reporters, which stemmed from news that Reuters would move some US/UK financial reporting jobs to Bangalore, India.) But there's even more. The problem today is an administration that's especially hostile to unions and wants to roll back wages and benefits, retirement and health-care protections, and more.

            Things are so bad, even the business press is starting to sound radical. Recently Business Week reported on how Wal-Mart, a trendsetter by any standard, paid its sales clerks ("associates") an average of $13,861 in 2001. "At the time, the federal poverty line for a family of three was $14,630," said BW.

            "It's a ticking time bomb," one Wal-Mart supplier told the magazine. "At some point, do the people stand up and revolt?"

            Now there's a question to take into the voting booth, and further afield.

The federal budget

It's painfully obvious the Bush budget is out of whack. The FY 2004 deficit, driven by tax cuts for the wealthy and a policy-driven recession that persists in everything but name, will come in at around $520 billion. And unless policies change, 12-figure deficits will dog federal budgets for years to come.

            But there are other difficulties.

            For example, the Friends Committee on National Legislation just mapped how we're going backwards. Bush, says the Quaker group, has proposed to "dramatically increase military and homeland security spending while proposing the elimination of 65 non-military discretionary programs and substantial reductions in 52 other programs." The cuts, says FCNL, will damage low-income housing, environmental protection, juvenile crime prevention, child care, and the US contribution to the UN HIV/AIDS fund.

            Bush's FY 2005 request for the Pentagon tops $400 billion --- and that does not include any new request for military ops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The president's budget is out of balance with national needs, and permanent extension of the tax cuts is likely to bankrupt the federal government," says FCNL.

            So the question today should be, which candidate(s) will take this bull by the horns?

Peace and foreign policy

Money aside, is the US doing the right thing in today's world? Yes, unless you consider minor annoyances like international law and morality --- both of which the current administration ignores as consistently as it does the return of body bags from Iraq.

            Under George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-cons, the US has turned frankly imperialistic. Read all about it in Bush's official National Security Strategy. Moreover, Bush wants a new generation of nuclear weapons, a new Star Wars deployment, and other systems that could bring disaster.

            True, the US has been waging wars of domination since 1898, at least. And the Pentagon always must have the latest toy. But words and attitudes do matter. Just ask our allies.

            How bad are things? One indication: Critics from the right and left-of-center are joining forces to puncture the Bush national-security myths. Last November, for example, the moderate-liberal Center for Defense Information teamed up with the right-libertarian Cato Institute to present a talk by author John Newhouse on "Imperial America: the Bush Assault on the World Order." Newhouse has covered foreign policy for the liberal (even cosmopolitan, a word that in this neo-McCarthyite time raises the national eyebrows) New Yorker magazine.

            Pressure is building against the US occupation of Iraq. The administration's blatant lies have been exposed, and all sorts of people are admitting that the war was wrong, or at least a "mistake." Opposition to the war helped catapult former Dem hopeful Howard Dean to national prominence. Support for the war can do the reverse for a candidate.

            Dean also got cut down merely for endorsing "balance" in US policy toward Israel- Palestine. The best guess is, most candidates will dodge the question. But a just peace in Israel-Palestine should head the policy list.

            Start with the most salient issue: the construction of Ariel Sharon's "separation barrier," a.k.a. "apartheid wall," between Israel and occupied Palestine. Sharon claims the wall is necessary for stopping suicide attacks like the horrible bus bombing in Jerusalem February 22. Some peace groups say the wall is a land grab, yet another collective punishment sure to engender more suicide bombers. What does your favorite candidate say about this?

Civil liberties and rights

Through outrages like the USA Patriot Act, the Bush administration and a supine Congress have taken away liberties and threatened democracy itself. The issue, which has galvanized a broad left-right coalition, deserves special attention.

            So does the issue of gay rights, with gay marriage rights at the top. George Bush says he's "troubled" by San Francisco's issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples; and Laura Bush, another policy barometer, says many people are "shocked." The Bush campaign may play the issue the way a previous Bush played his "Willie Horton" card. So far, the Dems mostly have steered around the debate.

            Gay marriage already is an issue in Rochester and Upstate New York, which are thankfully squeezed between the province of Ontario, where gay marriage is legal, and Massachusetts, where good news may be on the way. "There is a tremendous interest in our community in being married in Massachusetts, returning to Rochester, and seeking equality," writes Gay Alliance of the GeneseeValley director Chuck Bowen.

            Other civil liberties issues? Both major parties may be at the center of a perfect storm, come summer.

            Last week the Boston Globe said Democratic Party convention organizers want to confine protesters to a "free speech zone" in a "cozy triangle of land" well removed from the Boston convention site. This foreshadows yet another public gathering where police and other authorities turn the public square into an effective "no speech zone."

            Will any of the candidates speak out against such infringements?

Environment

The Bush record on the environment is second to none --- rock bottom, with no competition in the modern era.

            The White House has been pushing a plan to allow large numbers of snowmobiles into YellowstoneNational Park every winter. This reverses a great deal of progress in restricting these self-propelled pollution factories, which dominate the landscape way beyond their numbers.

            But it's on the major issues that Bush does his worst.

            In its "Keeping Tabs on George W. Bush" feature, the national Sierra Club finds problem after problem. Bush, says the group, has sought to weaken Clean Air Act provisions regarding power plants. He's trying to axe "roadless rule" protections for the TongassNational Forest. He's soft on reducing mercury from plant emissions. He was "the only major head of state" to boycott a world summit on sustainable development. Etc., etc.

            The administration is notorious for kowtowing to Big Energy. But Bush's worst moves have been against international efforts to lessen global warming. This is the environmental issue of issues. A few months back, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told a UN gathering what lies ahead if we don't change our ways: accelerating threats to human health, especially in the tropics; decreasing agricultural yields; and decreasing availability of water, even as sea levels rise.

            Yet the ruling philosophy in Washington is to abandon the earth to market forces. Can this be changed?

Health care

A half-century after national health care appeared on the federal agenda, the US has fallen well below world standards for industrial nations: We've got relatively low life expectancy, tens of millions of uninsured, and gross inequalities in delivery of care.

            Yet health care costs us an arm and a leg.

            A new study from Physicians for a National Health Program says "health care bureaucracy last year cost the United States $399.4 billion." A national health-insurance program could save $286 billion on paperwork, says the study, "enough to cover all of the uninsured and to provide full prescription drug coverage for everyone in the United States."

            Many would like to believe that the new Medicare bill, which provides a costly prescription drug benefit and promotes some "reforms," will blaze a new path. The PNHP study says no. "The Medicare drug bill that Congress passed last month will only increase bureaucratic spending," says the study. "Medicare's overhead is less than 4 percent. But all of the new Medicare money... will flow through private insurance plans whose overhead averages 12 percent. So insurance companies will gain $36 billion from this bill."

            There you have it: The way the US is headed, health care will keep getting more expensive (though the rate of increase is leveling off lightly) and less efficient --- unless the US joins the world and institutes a national health plan.

            Everything else is a Band-Aid. So how does your candidate stand on this?

A little philosophy

Policies and data aside, a social struggle is brewing in this country.

            Some reduce it to a "red states vs. blue states" dichotomy, though every state is home to the full political spectrum. But it's clear the Bush administration --- though Bush himself is the scion of blueblood Yankees --- is the vanguard of a mostly Southern- and Western-based reactionary cultural wave.

            Social commentator Tom Frank put his finger on the phenomenon in a recent issue of Le monde diplomatique. (Mon dieu! Again the detested French!) The new rightwing populism, said Frank, is "a mélange of anti-intellectualism, promiscuous God-talk, and sentimental evocations of middle America in all its humble averageness." He traces this tendency from Richard Nixon through Ronald Reagan to the White House door today.

            So finally: Will your candidate risk taking on the new God Squad?

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