Feet to the Fire

Presidential election years should offer the nation an opportunity to clarify issues, to force debate about the questions of the day.

But as we move through primary season (voters in nine states already will have weighed in with primaries or caucuses by Feb. 1, while voters in 19 others will make their choices Feb. 5), the debate is just as likely to be sidetracked by extraneous concerns – like the storm that surrounded John Edwards’ $400 haircut and whether it is appropriate for Hillary Clinton to show cleavage.

That’s unfortunately the way the mainstream media works these days, chasing the superficial at the expense of the stories that outline how each candidate plan to make the lives of average Americans better.

Given the disastrous impact that the 2000 presidential election has had on the nation – on the economy, on the US Constitution, on the nation’s standing – it is imperative that voters learn as much as they can about what the candidates believe and where they might take us. That will require voters – especially progressive voters – to hold candidates’ feet to the fire.

The issues that should take priority include:

The Iraq war: Thousands of American lives and tens – possibly hundreds – of thousands of Iraqi lives have been lost, Iraq remains in turmoil and the violence shows little evidence of subsiding. Iraq has become a magnet and training ground for terrorists and the violence threatens to spill over and engulf the region. We must get out as quickly as possible.

Foreign relations: Iraq is just one of many hot spots around the globe. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, Russia, China – all present challenges for the next presidential administration that could determine not only military matters, but how the world economy will function in the years ahead. Saber-rattling – the first argument of most of the candidates – is foolish and dangerous.

The Constitution: Guantanamo must be closed and the attacks on constitutional rights – in particular, those rights guaranteed under the Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments – must be repelled. The parsed language used by the Bush administration to allow the torture of detainees, electronic eavesdropping is an affront to 220 years of American history and, when combined with Iraq and our inconsistency on other international issues, contributes to our falling standing in the world.

Health care: There are 47 million Americans without health insurance and, according to some studies, another 60 million who are underinsured. Costs are rising and patients and doctors are increasingly being removed from the decision-making process on health matters in favor of bureaucrats from private health insurers. Health-related bankruptcies continue to rise and, even with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, too many seniors are being forced to choose between medications and other needs.

Most of the Democrats have plans to expand coverage, while Republicans offer only an increased reliance on the market. Only Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel are proposing single-payer.

Environment: There are a lot of environmental issues that should be on the table – climate change, deforestation, loss of farmland, shrinking access to clean water – but the environment doesn’t seem to be something on the minds of the candidates.

The economy: The mortgage crisis, still rising inequality, outsourcing of jobs — American workers are under siege and feeling edgy. The corporate approach to trade and laissez-faire attitude to regulation that has been in the ascendency since the mid-1970s must be reversed; workers rights — including the right to organize — must be strengthened, trade agreements must be amended and the tax code must be made more progressive once again, so that the gains of the economy can be distributed to everyone and the shredded social safety net can be repaired and expanded.

The courts: The Bush years have continued a long and dangerous movement away from the liberal courts of the Warren era, a trend that has aided conservatives in their attempts to consolidate executive power, to breech the wall between church and state, to enhance corporate power and eviscerate labor rights, to shift the balance back toward law enforcement — the list is endless. Presidential candidates must be made to talk about their vision for the judicial branch and about the kind of jurists they would appoint — and not only to the Supreme Court. The lower courts can be just as important, because they help structure the constitutional arguments that will become important and because the high court has taken on fewer cases in recent years, allowing lower court rulings to stand.

This is far from a complete list, of course. But given the level of discourse we have been forced to contend with in recent years and the serious problems we face as we move deeper into the 21st Century, we as voters would be remiss if we did not find a way to ensure that the folks seeking our permission to occupy the Oval Office speak to what is really important.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2008

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