The Things They Didn't Talk About
Idly, in an e-mail to a friend following Tuesday night's Bush-Gore debate, I started a list of topics the candidates were not asked about and did not discuss. I was surprised at how long the list very quickly became. Here it is, with several topics gathered together under larger headings for clarity, and phrased as questions to the candidates. No doubt you could add a few points of your own. I don't say that any of these topics is half as important as those momentous issues the candidates spent all their breath on Tuesday night — prescription charges for seniors, annual testing of schoolchildren, that splendid old evergreen "the middle-class tax cut," and so on. I do think they are all worth a mention, though.
The National Question. By this I mean issues of immigration, citizenship, language (including bilingual education), defense of our borders, status of Puerto Rico and the Pacific territories, etc. Americans talk about these things all the time. Their opinions are often at odds with those of the political and media elites: for example, 72 per cent of Americans, polled in September 1999, agreed with the statement that: "We should restrict and control people coming into the U.S. to live more than we do now." This is a huge majority in polling terms; neither man on the stage Tuesday night could dream of getting 72 per cent of the vote. Yet from the point of view of the two big parties, and of their co-conspirators in organizing these debates, that 72 per cent might as well not exist. The National Question can be posed in many other forms, but they all come down to one core issue: What will it mean, in the 21st century, to be an American? Will it, for example, mean that you conduct transactions with local, state and federal authorities in English? Will it mean that you or your parents must necessarily be either American-born, or else legal immigrants? Will it mean that if you are an illegal immigrant, you will be promptly deported? Will it mean that foreigners with criminal records will not be permitted to become citizens?
The Second Amendment. Do Americans have the right to bear arms, or do they not? To what degree is this the business of the federal government? In recent years, thirty-one states have passed or affirmed right-to-carry laws for handguns. Is this a development you approve of, or not?
Affirmative action. Do you support affirmative action — i.e. numerical quotas by race and sex (if you do not agree that this is the meaning of "affirmative action," tell us what you do think the phrase means) — in federal departments? In the admission and hiring practices of institutions receiving federal funds? In contractors bidding for federal projects?
Legal and constitutional normalization of homosexuality. In the case of voluntary behavioral minorities like homosexuals, whose private behavior is disapproved of by large numbers of Americans, do you believe that discrimination is ever justifiable? Do you believe that the legal interpretation of the words "marriage," "married," etc. in the laws of the various states, and in federal law, should be understood only to mean partnership between one man and one woman? If not, how do you think it should be understood?
Tort reform. Lawful private businesses in the U.S., as well as entire legal industries, can be beggared and bankrupted by aggressive tort lawyers who enrich themselves in the process. The U.S. is almost the only advanced country that permits this to happen. In most other developed nations, the loser in a civil action must pay costs. Is this quirk of the U.S. system something you personally treasure as a unique part of our heritage, to be preserved? Or is it a drag on our economy and a corrupting influence on our legal profession? Or is it something else?
China. The so-called "People's Republic of China" — it is actually the old Manchu empire, with some minor additions and subtractions — is belligerent and unstable. Its rulers are unelected and unaccountable to their citizens. It has no legal system independent of those rulers. A wealthy and sensationally corrupt elite of well-connected party bosses and urban technocrats is perfectly indifferent to the welfare of the majority population, for whom life is — even in these economic good times — a harsh struggle. The nation (or empire) is armed with nuclear ballistic missiles, and has openly threatened to use them against the U.S. Its armies sit in brutally repressive occupation on two million square miles of other people's land (Tibet, Eastern Turkestan, Inner Mongolia). There is at least one issue — Taiwan — that could easily become a casus belli with the U.S. State media and educational authorities have filled the heads of young Chinese with a fierce fascistic mix of xenophobia, historical grievance, anti-Americanism and racial-imperial arrogance. If economic good times continue, China will soon become a serious competitor for the world's natural resources, and a great military power. If they do not, it faces major systemic crisis. U.S. policy has consisted of putting all our eggs in one basket, the basket labelled "economism" — that is, the belief that economic progress will inevitably produce constitutional government. This may work; but if it does not, we have no contingency plan to deal with other outcomes. There is much that might be done to encourage the growth of rational politics in China (see my suggestions); we currently do none of it. Will you continue our current China policy, or change it? If you plan to change it, how?
Missile defense. Will you urge the funding of research into large-scale anti-missile systems as a national priority? Which of the following will your funding proposals cover: static land-based systems, mobile land-based systems, sea-based systems, air and space-based systems? What would you consider a minumum coverage, in terms of these various categories, to protect the inhabitants of the U.S. from missile attack? Would you share missile-defence technology with U.S. allies?
The drug war. Can anything more be done to interdict illegal drugs coming in to the U.S.? How?
Protection of classified research. Huge quantities of public money are spent by the federal government on research into developing and improving weapons systems for the national defense. Are you satisfied that this work is sufficiently protected against espionage? If not, how would you improve the protections? If a U.S. citizen is known to have personal connections with a major foreign power unfriendly to the U.S., would it, in your opinion, be unlawfully discriminatory to deny that person a job in highly-classified weapons research work? A person with family in Iraq, for example, or North Korea?
The I.R.S. The President is, among other things, the ultimate supervisor of the various departments of the federal government and their subsidiary divisions. Of these, perhaps the one that most directly and frequently impinges on the lives of ordinary citizens is the I.R.S. There is a widespread suspicion that the I.R.S. has become a political tool for the intimidation and harrassment of President Clinton's personal and political enemies. The I.R.S. has responded to these allegations only under extreme pressure, and then tardily and incompletely. Do you feel satisfied that the I.R.S. deals fairly with American citizens? If you do, can you explain its behavior in the partial and long-delayed response to questions about the origination of audits? If you do not, how would you restore taxpayers' confidence in the fairness of the I.R.S.?
Judicial powers. Many Americans believe that too much law is made in the courts, instead of in the legislatures. Do you agree? If you do, what program do you have to address those concerns? If you do not, to what do you attribute such a widespread belief?
That's 1,200 words, which is as much as — in fact a bit more than — the noble editor will allow me. And I have only been clearing my throat! Tenth Amendment! Cuba! Federal land purchases! $100m missing at the Department of Education! Hollywood! NEA funding! … But no doubt they will get round to all these in the next debates. We must be patient …