The Republican candidates for president have now completed their 10th debate (only eight more to go), and while they haven’t found the perfect format, the networks seem to be learning from their experiences and mistakes. Having eight candidates on a stage answering complex questions in one minute may not be the ideal forum for exploring each candidate’s policies; they are covering an enormous amount of ground on issues ranging from foreign policy (the latest CBS debate in South Carolina) to health care, immigration to education policy, in addition to our burgeoning budget deficit.
This is good news for the political process for a number of reasons. The debates help us see how the candidates handle the questions and how they interact with each other, and they show us how willing the candidates are to play the “blame game” (vis à vis the Obama Administration).
There are many who would like to make the 2012 election a clear thumbs up or thumbs down referendum on the president’s policies and the efficacy (or lack thereof) of those policies. While opponents of the current administration may wish that to happen, this coming election will be about much more than personalities. We have many serious challenges to debate:
- Will America, under new (or old) leadership, be able to regain its economic, military (read: security) and ideological preeminence on the world stage?
- Which American ideology (big, expanding government vs. leaner, contracting government) will triumph?
- Will we move toward a more isolationist, laissez faire foreign policy as opposed to being solidly engaged in either “nation-building” or, at the very least, “nation-triage” (in the Middle East, for example)?
- Will America roll back “Obamacare” and replace it? If so, with what?
- Will we re-dedicate ourselves to educating our youth or allow our test scores to plummet?
- Will there be a ceding of more power to the states (on issues like Medicaid or limited immigration enforcement)?
- Will organized labor become a more dominant force in America’s private and public sector workplaces, and will the NLRB be allowed to reject more Boeing-type plants in individual states?
- How will we encourage and reward corporate achievement?
- Will we re-shape our entitlements and change our entitlement mentality?
- Will we recognize that exports matter, and support efforts to increase them with meaningful changes to tax and incentive policy for America’s corporations?
- Do we have the stomach to tackle social issues like white-collar crime and the exploding incarceration of low-level felons?
- Will there be a national dialogue on stem-cell research and the role of genetic research?
- Will we give up space exploration in favor of re-building our crumbling infrastructure at home?
- How will we handle the growing discontent about income disparity and wealth “distribution?”
- How will we deal with the increasing threat of domestic terrorism without sacrificing more personal liberty?
- Will we accept the limitations on our growth due to dependency on foreign oil, or will we explore America’s energy reserves?
- Will we support new “green” technologies or wait until we have the money to do so?
- Will we have a national debate on immigration and immigration policy or stand idly by while millions more illegal immigrants pour into the United States?
- Will we re-regulate or deregulate our major industries so that they can be more globally competitive?
- Will we finally decide that pure political (as opposed to ideological) partisanship can no longer drive our congressional dysfunctionality, or will we demand that both parties reach across the aisle and talk to one another in a more respectful and cooperative manner?
Each of these 20 issues deserves a debate of its own, but time is not on our side. The political campaign year has already begun, and the campaigns are putting on their body armor and readying their attack ads and attack surrogates to go forth and sow confusion and discontent (if there weren’t enough of it already) among us.
The solution must be for all us to demand serious, continuing dialogue about these issues long after the klieg lights have been turned off in the debate halls. If we are to keep the American Dream alive, we mustn’t be afraid to debate it while we’re awake.
Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 24 countries over a 25-year period. He heads up his own export consultancy firm in Albuquerque and is the honorary consul for Germany in New Mexico. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.