Monday • November 3, 2008
THOMAS L FRIEDMAN
THE NEW YORK TIMES
HERE’S what strikes me this election eve: I can’t remember a presidential campaign that was so disconnected from the actual challenges of governing that will confront the winner the morning after.
When this election campaign began two years ago, the big issue was how and for how long do we continue nation-building in Iraq. As the campaign comes to a close, the big issue is how and at what sacrifice do we do nation-building in America.
Unfortunately, you’d barely know that from the presidential debates. Watching them in the context of the meltdown of the financial system was like watching a game show where the two contestants were kept off-stage in a soundproof booth and brought out to address the audience without knowing the context.
Since the last debate, John McCain and Barack Obama have unveiled broad ideas about how to restore the nation’s financial health. But they continue to suggest that this will be largely pain-free. McCain says giving everyone a tax cut will save the day; Obama tells us only the rich will have to pay to help us out of this hole. Neither is true.
We are all going to have to pay, because this meltdown comes in the context of what has been “perhaps the greatest wealth transfer since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917,” says Michael Mandelbaum, author of Democracy’s Good Name. “It is not a wealth transfer from rich to poor that the Bush administration will be remembered for. It is a wealth transfer from the future to the present.”
Never has one generation spent so much of its children’s wealth in such a short period of time with so little to show for it as in the Bush years. Under George W. Bush, America has foisted onto future generations a huge financial burden to finance our current tax cuts, wars and now bailouts. Just paying off those debts will require significant sacrifices. But when you add the destruction of wealth that has taken place in the last two months in the markets, and the need for more bailouts, you understand why this is not going to be a painless recovery.
The Bush team leaves us with another debt — one to Mother Nature. We have added tons more CO2 into the atmosphere these last eight years, without any mitigation effort. As a result, slowing down climate change in the next eight years is going to require even bigger changes and investments in how we use energy.
Given that New York Times columnists are not allowed to “formally” endorse candidates and given that the context of this election has changed so much from the policy positions the candidates started with, all I can suggest is that you vote for the candidate with these character traits:
First, we need a president who can speak English and deconstruct and navigate complex issues so Americans can make informed choices. We have paid an enormous price for having a president who could not explain and reassure us during this financial meltdown. We wasted a huge amount of time pretending that we could punish Wall Street without punishing Main Street — when, in fact, they are intricately intertwined.
A major money market fund — Reserve Primary — failed in September because the extra interest it offered customers derived, in part, from the US$785 million in high-yielding Lehman Brothers commercial paper and notes it was holding. Depositors who told their congressmen to just let that greedy Lehman Brothers fail were shocked to discover this meant their own money market would be frozen.
No, we don’t need a president defending greed on Wall Street, but we do need one who can explain that we are all in the same boat, that a leak at one end can sink everyone and that while we must regulate, we don’t want to kill risk-taking and the rewards that go with that — which are essential to growing our economy.
Second, we need a president who can energise, inspire and hold the country together during what will be a very stressful recovery. We have to climb out of this financial crisis at a time when the baby boomers are about to retire and going to need their Social Security and eventually Medicare. We are all going to be paying the government more and getting less until we grow out of this hole.
Third, we need a president who can rally the world to our side. We cannot get out of this crisis unless China starts consuming more and Europe keeps lowering interest rates. Everyone is interconnected, and everyone is still looking to America to lead.
So, bottom line: Please do not vote for the candidate you most want to have a beer with (unless it’s to get stone cold drunk so you don’t have to think about this mess we’re in).
Vote for the person you’d most like at your side when you ask your bank manager for an extension on your mortgage.
Vote for the candidate you think has the smarts, temperament and inspirational capacity to unify the country and steer our ship through what could be the rockiest shoals our generation has ever known.
Your kids will thank you.