Where are the great issues this presidential year? The great questions and the big ideas?
The debates are coming. Any chance the issues will be met there?
By great issues I mean things like war, civil rights, how health insurance is provided and financed, economic depression and recession, how to protect Social Security, how to deal with global warming and the ravaging of our oceans and seas, and how to deal with the Chinese and the Russians.
It’s not as if monumental issues are not before us in 2020. And it’s not as if both candidates have not taken stands on them. But these are not the matters Donald Trump and Joe Biden are discussing or debating virtually each day.
Instead, Trump focuses on what he sees as Biden’s lack of toughness, mental and physical, while Biden focuses on what he sees as Trump’s unworthiness.
In short, we are, so far, watching or participating in a campaign concerned with character and personalities, rather than issues.
Campaigns are always a mix of both, of course.
But they are usually predominantly one or the other.
And I don’t think it’s good for the country when what we get is primarily personality.
There are several reasons:
First, no one is so good that his or her character or personality alone qualifies him for high office.
This is the Kennedy and Obama delusion. You buy charisma and eloquence and, in the end, it will not be enough. A Kennedy needs an LBJ, with government know-how, to finish his dream. Maybe an Obama needs a Biden or a Trump needs a Pence.
Second, no one, save Hitler and Idi Amin, is that bad. If you focus on how bad your opponent is you ultimately fail because the opponent can show a good quality at any moment and undo you. Meanwhile, you have ceded the ability to make a substantive case.
Third, we don’t learn much in a campaign of personalities. New ideas are not tested and no new consensus on anything is formed. There can be no mandate for reform, change or experiment, and no force behind a positive program, because all people know is what they voted against.
Wouldn’t you like to vote for something?
Aren’t you tired of the president calling Biden sleepy, senile and socialist, and Biden calling the president unfit? How does any of this help us?
I would love to see both Trump and Biden put down the voodoo dolls and each tell us three things, times three: Three important things you believe, three big things you are for and three things you want to accomplish as president.
Think about the presidents since Hoover. The campaigns or presidencies based mostly on great issues and big ideas — FDR, Truman, Johnson and Reagan — changed the country. The Kennedy and Obama presidencies, not so much. Eisenhower was a different case. He was a true conservative who wanted to give the country a period of rest, consolidation and prosperity. And he did. So personality and character were a sound and sufficient basis for his presidency.
I recently read a review of a new biography of Henry Cabot Lodge II, an important senator and diplomat of the last century. Jack Kennedy took his Senate seat away from him and a little more than a decade later brought him into the government as ambassador to then-South Vietnam. There Lodge covered himself with guilt overseeing a coup, assassination and coverup that ultimately made things worse in Vietnam.
Lodge’s life was defined by his movement from his grandfather’s isolationism to his own brand of internationalism — a big idea, a big issue.
Two things make politics high drama and history worth knowing: big personalities and big issues. I miss the big personalities, like Kennedy and Lodge. But what gives them their substance is issues — the issues of their time. Lodge resigned from the Senate to serve in the armed forces during World War II.
War, peace (Trump’s initiative in the Middle East, for example), international alliances, the right or lack of right to assassinate an enemy — these are the matters we discuss in order to raise politics out of the petty jockeying for power to the fate of men and nations.
Next to how to save our planet, I suppose the greatest undebated issue in 2020 is trade and manufacturing. Is there any way to get Americans making things again — things like suits and shoes and glass and steel? Trump said it could be done four years ago. Did he do it? Did we progress? Is economic nationalism viable or just a slogan?
Ask the folks in Lordstown, Ohio.
And has Biden got a better way to apply economic nationalism? Does he have a single, deeply held idea for how to revive the heartland?
That would be a start.