I admit it. I was wrong. Last January, I predicted that the election would turn on the health care debate. Obamacare crystallizes the central questions between the two parties right now: Does government have a positive role in shaping society? Does the social safety net discourage individual responsibility? To what degree is this nation a shared enterprise? But not even Jim Lehrer could make a debate focused on drawing out contrasts very meaningful.
I walked away from last Wednesday’s Presidential debate very underwhelmed. But it wasn’t because of Lehrer’s hands-off approach, Obama’s baffling performance, or Romney’s firing of Big Bird. As they launched into their opposing positions, I realized that I am not really interested in them as party leaders. A completely dysfunctional Congress has demonstrated what happens when we focus exclusively on contrasts and party positions. I want someone willing to govern.
As hard as it is to believe that such a generation-defining issue as Obamacare is not at the center of the discussion, what blows my mind even more is that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are fighting over fewer than 10% of the electorate. Are 90% of the American people really so satisfied with one of them that they aren’t still waiting for something more?
I am one of those precious undecideds. Sure, we have been mocked by Bill Maher and SNL, but a lot of us aren’t really undecided. It’s not that we can’t choose between the two candidates, we’re just unsatisfied with the candidates we have to choose between.
It is easy to be ideological as a candidate, but you can’t govern from the extremes. Below I offer a glimpse into what I naively hope for: hearing each candidate talk about where they are willing to compromise. I can honestly imagine my positions coming out of either political party. Not the polemical, divisive, and demonizing versions of either party, but reasonable, nuanced versions of them that I am told might still exist.
We can imagine the scene. It’s the next Presidential debate – the famous town hall that often makes or breaks the election. In a moment of horror for his advisors but with refreshing honesty for the assembled crowd, he looks the audience in the eye and speaks from the heart.
“You have spent your lifetime being misled by politicians like me. We promise you things we know we can’t deliver, but we think enough people are foolish enough to believe them so they promise it anyway. And because it worked in the past we figure it will work again. Well, I am here to try a new approach. And I am going to trust that you are realistic enough to know it is the best we can do. Even though I am a politician right now, I am actually more interested in governing this country. I can’t wait to get off this campaign trail and get down to business.
The United States is at a very difficult moment. Solving our problems is not going to be easy or quick. And here’s the real kicker: It’s going to involve some sacrifices. I want to make sure you heard that word because we haven’t heard it for a long time – sacrifice. It’s a word that the great religious traditions of the world all use and yet today we somehow find it dirty. We think sacrificing for others makes you a sucker or a fool, and if it’s done without a purpose it does. I’m asking you to do it not only for your children and grandchildren but also for your neighbor’s children and grandchildren. That doesn’t make you a sucker. That makes you American. We have all been living beyond our means for too long, as individuals and as a country, and we can’t continue.
Our public safety nets are going to bust our budget unless we change them. This is going to mean things like raising the retirement age and cutting costs in Medicare. I know this won’t be easy. The elderly vote and my opponent will say they can’t trust me to care for them. Well, you can trust this – I want the programs to exist so badly that I am willing to take this political risk. They are not perfect, but we can’t demonize Social Security and Medicare. They are government programs and have historically been very efficient. More importantly, they meet a national moral obligation to care for those who have given their lives to their families and this country.
I know any talk of cutting the military budget is going to paint me as weak on defense, but that’s a risk I have to take. I want to make sure we have the resources necessary to protect our country, but it seems President Eisenhower’s warning has come true: budgetary decisions are made by the military-industrial complex. That’s not good for the budget and it’s certainly not good for our national defense. Let’s make sure that our expert military officers are the only ones telling us what they need to protect our country. It will make a stronger military and will save us money.
Decisions have to be made about immigration. Let’s be honest. Undocumented immigrants are most often here because they find work. Companies hire undocumented immigrants because they are hard workers who do work that others won’t. So we either need to find a way to let them stay and work or we need to be willing pay way more than 70¢ for a pound of chicken legs. Either way works for me, but we can’t keep reaping the benefits of their labor while decrying their presence. Even though we are a nation of laws, whatever we decide to do, we should not be a nation of laws that tear apart families.
And there’s no escaping the way both parties use social issues as wedges to divide us. I’m sorry about that. The truth is that our country won’t soon find consensus on whether abortion should be legal, whether gay couples should be able to marry, or whether the death penalty should be permitted. As we continue the discussion, let’s agree that we won’t demonize people that hold views different from our own. The vast majority of people honestly think they are doing the right thing for this country.
In the meantime, why not work together where we can agree? Whether you agree with Roe v. Wade or want it overturned, surely you think we should create an environment where a woman never feels like her only option is abortion. So why not build efforts to care for pregnant women and streamline adoption services? And whether you agree with the death penalty or not, hopefully you can agree that our country is better off if we have a system of incarceration that is not just punishment and retribution but includes rehabilitation and reintegration. So why not connect parolees with faith communities and have more robust education and job training programs in prisons? These efforts won’t solve deep-seated philosophical differences on social issues but at least they will get us working together again.
It might sound sappy, but I think all Americans believe that our nation should foster life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes that means government is active in our lives and sometimes that means government gets out of the way. It means that individuals need to take responsibility for their families and that when they are suffering we support them with an attitude of generosity. It also means we applaud success and hope that more people succeed, so we must make sure that hard work is fairly rewarded.
We need to be able to sacrifice in order to move through these difficult times. Part of that is sacrificing the need to always be right. I promise not to believe in my political positions as deeply as I believe in my religious convictions but I need you to do the same. Politics is the art of the possible. And what’s possible is often going to leave extreme positions unsatisfied.
I would love to talk about energy policy, unions, taxation, money’s influence in campaigns, gun control, foreign policy, education, and much more. There is genuine common ground on all of these issues if we are just willing to look for it. I am probably naïve to believe this style of governance can happen, but something has to change or America’s best days are behind us.
As the candidate concludes his remarks, the honesty, integrity, and directness of his remarks wash over the dumbfounded and somehow suddenly invigorated crowd. You can just picture each person in that audience lean over to his neighbor and whisper, “He’s got my vote.” Of course, I doubt any of this will happen. But who knows? I’ve been wrong before.