Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog



By kgpatia
Gene Healy, a senior editor at the Cato Institute (a non-profit public policy research center whose political philosophy might be most adequately labeled as libertarian) and the editor of “Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything,” has recently come out with a new book, “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.” In the book, Healy argues that executive power has vastly expanded in the past few decades due in part to heightened expectations for the office of the presidency and the subsequent actions presidents have taken to meet these expectations. Gene Healy discussed his book at the McCormick Freedom Museum on June 19, 2008.

Healy’s first full length volume is a compelling account of how the powers of the presidency have grown beyond the powers outlined by the Framers of the Constitution—and why they should return to this state. According to Healy, these powers defined by the Framers include “defending the country when attacked, checking Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforcing the law, and little else.” However, as Healy details in his book, over the past several decades, the president has evolved to become “our World Leader, the Protector of the Peace, our Chief Legislator, our Manager of Prosperity, and the Voice of the People.” In the lead up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Healy notes—without a touch of hyperbole—that it seemed as if all of the candidates were “applying for the job of national savior,” citing Mike Huckabee’s pledge to see a “revival of our national soul” and Barack Obama’s “promise of redemption through presidential politics” as examples.

Whether one agrees with Healy’s conclusions about the proper role of presidential power or not, one need not look far in recent public culture to find evidence for his claims of bloated presidential power. Any number of recent acts made by the Bush Administration in the post-9/11 era might qualify as an increase in presidential power. After all, as Healy notes in his book, “Throughout American history, virtually every major advance in executive power has come during a war or warlike crisis.” To name a specific example, however, one might look to the Bush Administration’s decision to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and issue warrantless wiretaps in 2005.

On the Democratic side, it is easy to see—and Healy notes this example as well—the grandiose and all-inclusive nature of Barack Obama’s presidential bid as a boon for increased expectations of the presidency. After all, even if—to quote a popular Obama campaign slogan—“we are the change we have been waiting for,” there is no denying that Obama-supporters certainly have a lot of “hope” for what their candidate will accomplish in office. And according to Healy, Obama’s sparkling charisma and rhetorical flair are not helping restore the presidency to its proper role either. While discussing President Taft—a president best remembered for his portliness—with the audience at the McCormick Freedom Museum, Healy mused to laughter that “I think we would be in a better place if the president was this enormous, awkward figure…the less charisma the better.”

In his book, Healy argues that it is such “forgotten presidents” like Taft, Coolidge, Harding, Arthur, and Hayes that modern presidents should strive to emulate. These men, Healy notes, were content merely to preside, without chasing after what he considers undue power. However, for this restraint, history has granted them a poor reward, for as Healy observes, “Whether they’re conservative or liberal, America’s professors prefer presidents who dream big and attempt great things—even when they leave wreckage in their wake…Today’s president can no longer merely preside.”

Like much current political analysis, the discussion at the museum turned toward the 2008 presidential election. Healy joked that he should have called his book “The Futility of Hope,” referencing the title of Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.” However, throughout the discussion, Healy insisted that his no-holds-barred book is “Relentlessly cynical about both ends of the political spectrum.” He noted that a lot of the conservative critics who are skeptical about the so-called “cult of Obama” are the same people that made a “flight-suited hero” of Bush in the years after September 11.

Healy emphasized that the “imperial presidency” did not start with President George W. Bush (he details its long history in “The Cult of the Presidency”) and it will not necessarily end with his presidency either. “The problems of presidential power are not going to disappear when President Bush goes back to his ranch to cut brush or whatever he does there,” Healy said, lightening a serious point. Regarding the two presumed nominees of their respective parties, Barack Obama and John McCain, Healy remarked bluntly that he feared that “we are going to get more of the same no matter who becomes president.”

Part of the problem, Healy noted, is the process of becoming president. The arduous, ever-lengthening journey attracts a certain kind of persona—a type of personality, Healy suggests, which might not be best suited to “merely presiding.” Painting the horrors of the campaign trail for the museum audience, Healy wondered “What sort of person wants the job [of president] badly enough to do all that?” Furthermore, once a candidate makes it into office, the problems of an imperial presidency are complicated by what Healy described as an extreme difficulty to get accurate information. This, Healy asserted, is because, as president, people are oftentimes afraid to contradict you.

In terms of solutions to the myriad of problems Healy associates with the “Imperial Presidency,” he is self-admittedly demure. There is no single legislative cure-all, Healy insists. What he dubs as “the American public’s dysfunctional relationship with the presidency” will only change when the American public changes their expectations for the presidency. To start, as Healy notes in his book, those in power should work on eliminating the partisan phenomenon that is “situational constitutionalism,” or as Healy describes it, “the tendency to support enhanced executive power when one’s friends hold the executive branch.”

However, knowing that such changes will likely take years to take affect, Healy cautions in “The Cult of the Presidency” that, “Given the staggering powers and responsibilities that go with the 21st-century presidency, it’s more important then ever before that the person who holds the office is worthy of trust.” Thus, whether you support ‘big’ government or ‘small’ government, Healy’s book raises some important questions about the development of executive power and its ramifications. Like it or not, it seems that a powerful and active executive branch is a phenomenon that is not going away any time soon. Therefore, it would behoove us all to at least give a second thought to our own role in the development of presidential power.


Health Care Conundrum

By Shawn Healy
Part Five of my Pass the Pundits series examines the ever-pressing issue of health care reform, identified by nearly 40 percent of all voters in a February Gallup survey as a determining factor in their presidential selection process. There is apparent agreement that the 47 million Americans, including 9 million children, without health care should be covered, but common ground erodes from here.

On a global level, the philosophical differences between Sens. McCain and Obama shine through on this issue perhaps more than any other in the realm of domestic policy. McCain, as he is wont to do, favors free market solutions to the issue, with government more than anything else acting as the facilitator of reform. Obama, by comparison, relies mostly on the expansion of government programs and increased regulation of the private health care industry (It is also interesting to consider that Sen. Hillary Clinton's health care proposal was even more comprehensive than that of Obama, one of the only major policy differences that separated the two Democratic heavy weights.). A contrast of their policies follows, and it promises to get complicated, so please keep this basic framework in mind.

The debate begins with the 47 million Americans who are uninsured. Included in this number are the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants residing in this country, along with a number of single mothers who are eligible for Medicaid. If these numbers are subtracted, we are still situated someone in the vicinity of 30 million without coverage, or 1 in 10 Americans, a number that both McCain and Obama consider unacceptably high.

Let's begin by looking at the heart McCain's reform proposal. His plan starts with the premise that patients, not insurance companies, should have more control of their health dollars. He seeks to remove barriers to access, allowing portability across state lines, even different jobs. As of now, employer-provided health care plans are not subject to taxation on the employee's end. McCain would end this "subsidy," and offset it with tax credits of $2500 for individuals and $5000 for families in order to purchase their own insurance, regardless of whether their employer provides it or not. In the case where the entire credit is not exhausted by the costs of insurance, the balance would be deposited in health saving accounts first pioneered by current President Bush.

By comparison, Obama would offer the same health care plan available to federal employees to those individuals without health care. This falls short of the universal coverage advocated by Clinton, for it still allows individuals to remain without health care if they so choose. Access to the plan would be universal, benefits "comprehensive," and premiums, co-pays and deductibles "affordable." Those unable to meet these costs would be eligible for federal subsidies. Like McCain, Obama pledges that his plan will be portable across jobs. Unlike his Republican opponent, Obama requires employers who do not offer health care to contribute a percentage of payroll receipts to the national plan.

Obama does allow the private health care system utilized by most Americans to remain in place. He proposes to create the National Health Insurance Exchange, a regulatory body, to oversee private insurers. He pledges that it would keep costs at or below that of the federal program, require reporting of pricing for the sake of consumer comparison, and mandate accessibility to all comers.

McCain proposes a guaranteed access plan of his own, but its power would be state, not nationally-based. He pledges to work with governors to develop a best-practice model that may be replicated across the nation, holding up a nonprofit corporation who would work with private insurance companies to offer coverage to those with preexisting conditions, maintaining reasonable costs, and offering subsidies when necessary. McCain envisions economies of scale
as multiple states join together to pool risks.

The senior Arizona senator also addresses the cost side of the health care equation, recognizing that health care costs will represent 20 percent of our Gross Domestic Product within the next decade, not to mention the fact that Obama (and Clinton for that matter) exempt many small business from the mandates of their health care plans. McCain's cost controls center on cheaper prescription drugs via re-importation (Obama is in agreement here) and greater use of generic drugs; prevention and early intervention for chronic diseases that consume 75 percent of current health care costs (Obama echoes this); greater use of electronic records (Obama seconds this, too) to root out mismanagement and medical errors committed under the auspices of Medicare and Medicaid; and overall, greater transparency from the provision to health care to payment for its services (again, Obama and McCain are on the same page). McCain also adopts the age-old conservative banner of tort reform, pledging to end "frivolous" lawsuits.

Obama, by comparison, also pledges malpractice reform, but instead of limiting payouts for lawsuits, he would restrict premiums charged by malpractice providers. His proposed measures of cost control are many, including those areas above where he is in basic agreement with McCain. He also promises to reimburse employers for the incidence of costs for catastrophic care so long as the money is used to lower employee premiums. Like McCain, Obama takes on the pharmaceutical industry, but he also directs his attention toward private insurers, pledging that he will force them to devote a fixed portion of their premiums to patient care, not profits.

Additionally, Obama addresses the quality side of the equation through more intense government regulation of the health care sector. This includes reporting on preventable medical errors; incentives for quality care, not merely the volume of care provided; and the elimination of inequities that surface through health care provision.

Obama proceeds to blaze new paths in areas tangential to health care, including support for biomedical research, AIDS in Africa, individuals with disabilities (specifically those with mental illness), and autism. Interestingly enough, McCain also delves into the latter topic, citing his continued advocacy of the issue, including his co-sponsorship of the Combating Autism Act of 2006. He also trumpets his support of The Health Insurance Portability And Accountability Act of 1996, legislation that tackled, at least in part, discrimination for preexisting conditions. Like McCain, Obama boasts of his leadership on health care issues, including his support of expanded health care coverage for children and adults as an Illinois legislator, and his co-sponsorship of SCHIP's reauthorization in 2007 as a U.S. Senator.

In the end, the reality is that the aforementioned details probably do not matter, at least as this juncture. Rather, the broader policy commitments should demand our attention, for while presidents may lead on this issue, Congress will also have its hands in the mix from the get-go (see the failed 1993 battle for national health care). Moreover, Harry Truman was the first president to stand in favor of national health care. He was followed by Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. All failed, yet Johnson did create Medicare and Medicaid, and universal coverage remains a pipe dream.

Obama promises a lighter version of the plan forwarded by Clinton to Congress in 1993, and the political climate may be more favorable to passage than ever before. The reality, however, is that McCain's piecemeal approach is more typical of past reforms and perhaps more digestible for practitioners in the polarized capital. The winner of this year's White House sweepstakes will offer different medicines to cure our crippling health care crisis. In this case, the patients must chose the preferred path for recovery.


Coming to Terms With Terrorism

By Shawn Healy
Perhaps more than any other issue, terrorism determined the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. President Bush appealed to so-called "security moms" in the suburbs, suggesting that he alone understood the true threat that terrorism posed for Americans at home and abroad. Today we are nearly seven years removed from the devastating 9/11 attacks, and the issue has dropped to fourth in Gallup's rankings of what is most important in determining Americans' presidential vote. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack on the home front, or maybe it is merely trumped by an unpopular war, economic anxieties, and a broader search for competence and clean government.

Regardless, 40 percent of voters claim that a candidate's position on terrorism is still important, and in examining the respective positions on the issue in this fourth installment of the Pass the Pundits series, clear differences emerge aside a few striking similarities. Both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama begin with the premise that the federal government is not doing enough to strengthen the security of the homeland, but their means of arriving there are strikingly different. Indeed, they get to the fundamental difference between the two parties' approach to terrorism. It starts with terminology, and this in itself is revealing. Obama couches his plan as "homeland security," while McCain repeats the mantra of a "global war on terrorism."

It continues with the overarching basis of their approaches. Obama is apt to emphasize issues on the domestic front like the security of nuclear power plants, local water supplies, and emergency response plans. In effect, he takes a defensive stance on the issue. McCain, by contrast, speaks of a missile defense system, an expanded and modernized military, and an aggressive pursuit of terrorists throughout the world. In Mayor Rudy Giuliani's words, McCain prefers to play offense.

These general themes specified, let's dive into the specifics. McCain's policy proposals are certainly more general than his less-experienced, but more nuanced opponent, but a perusal of his position paper is particularly revealing, especially when placed beside that of Obama's. McCain centers his plan around a strong military, not surprising given his family background. He laments the overextended tours of duty borne by our troops and their families, arguing that they deter reenlistment, even recruitment. In response, he suggests that the size of our military must match our national threat, meaning that both the Army and the Marines should be expanded. Moreover, benefits should be increased for current and retired members of the Armed Forces. McCain is firm in his commitment to America's veterans.

McCain places military modernization beside expansion, urging our armed forces to adopt 21st Century technologies, training tactics, and intelligence gathering to meet contemporary threats quite different from those posed during the Cold War. Moreover, McCain, ever the deficit hawk, deplores pork barrel spending in all corners. In his words, "Too often, parochial interests - rather than the national interest - have guided our spending decisions." In an apparent jab at President Bush, McCain argues that military spending should be included in the regular budgeting process, not in emergency spending bills that open the gates for "pigs" to feed at the proverbial trough.

Obama, as highlighted earlier, is almost entirely homeland-focused. The largest similarity between the two candidates is their suggestion that homeland security dollars should be allocated on the premise of risk, not political expediency. Obama touts his record as an Illinois state senator in helping the state prepare an emergency response plan, including policies to protect individuals with disabilities during times of disaster and to help families locate loved ones in emergency zones (i.e., Katrina). He promises more money for first responders and strengthened communications systems.

Much of his position paper on the issue of terrorism is devoted to infrastructural protection for both man-made and natural disasters. This applies to chemical plants, nuclear waste, airline and port security, public transit, and local water supplies. In every case, he recommends stricter oversight and more monies directed toward these areas. Obama and McCain also dive into border security, but I will save this topic for my tenth and final post on immigration.

Finally, Obama enters the area of intelligence gathering, promising greater coordination of domestic operations, along with expanding analysis at the state and local level. The bulk of his attention is centered on reforming the USA PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the restoration of habeas corpus for enemy combatants. He calls for greater oversight of the PATRIOT Act and FISA (watch his vote on the latter in the coming days as Congress has crafted a bipartisan compromise), and praised the Supreme Court's decision last week striking down the Military Commissions Act for failure to offer enemy combatants held at Guantanamo the right to appeal. McCain, by contrast, called it one of the worst decisions in history. However, both condemn torture and promise to close down the notorious detention center in Cuba.

Overall, Obama has shown a willingness to reject Republican claims that he holds a Sept. 10 mind set, even though his policies mirror those of 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, who fell susceptible to these charges. The junior Illinois senator contends that the GOP has no credibility on the issue given that Osama bin Laden is still on the run and it was distracted from prosecuting our legitimate operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by invading Iraq under false premises.

Looking at the two candidates' records, Obama has proposed a variety of legislation in the realm of homeland security (chemical plant security, nuclear waste disposal, water supply protection), but has little to show for his initiatives in terms of substantive legislation. He has served on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and did realize some success in this realm as a state senator (see above). McCain, by comparison, pushed for the creation of the 9-11 Commission, the largest investigation of our government in history, the recommendations of which Obama embraces. The senior Arizona senator also sponsored the creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security, along with the U.S. Northern Command, responsible for domestic defense.

Experience aside, the two candidates take diametrically different positions on how to combat terrorism. Like the Iraq War and fiscal policy, Americans will face a stark choice when it comes to approaches to defeating terrorism come November. To invoke a couple of football analogies, Obama argues that the best form of offense is a good defense. McCain, on the other hand, wants to put early points on the board, demoralizing the enemy from the outset. Seven years into this post-9-11 world where Americans face the daily fear of terrorism, we are left to decide which coach will lead us to victory.


Paving the Potomac's Potholes

By Shawn Healy
My third installment of the "Pass the Pundits" series addresses the issue of government corruption, admittedly a more subjective topic, but particularly pertinent less than three years removed from the debacle in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, not to mention flawed execution of the Iraq War from the very beginning and the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal unfurled in 2006 that partially contributed to the GOP's mid-term defeat. Closer to home, Democratic fundraiser Tony Rezko was convicted of 16 counts of government corruption yesterday, emblematic of the bipartisan culture of corruption in Illinois. Americans, in many ways, are looking for competence from their elected officials, and Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama promise to change the tired ways of Washington rhetorically, if not in action.

On this issue, unlike the first two in this series, the two major party candidates mostly see eye-to-eye. Both lampoon lobbyists, seeking to restrict their influence even without each campaign organization. McCain, although advised by former lobbyists, recently adopted a tough ethics code that led to the departure of five close aides. Obama employs no current or former lobbyists, although several serve as unpaid advisers. He also claims to be the only candidate to refuse donations from lobbyists. This is probably true, though he did accept such contributions when he ran for the Illinois and U.S. Senate.

Both are sensitive to the issue of campaign finance reform, and have led separate efforts to alter the system over the past decade. McCain, you might remember, teamed with Democratic colleague Sen. Russell Feingold to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform in 2002, and made this the staple of his first run for president in 2000. Obama sought and delivered reforms at the state level, prohibiting personal use of campaign donations by state legislators and limiting gifts from lobbyists. He also passed a federal ethnics bill in partnership with Feingold to end corporate subsidization of congressional flights and trips, not to mention shedding light on lobbyists who bundle contributions to legislators. Obama reached across the aisle to work with Sen. Tom Cole to pass legislation mandating all federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans be placed in a searchable database for public scrutiny.

At the same time, the candidates' reform-related records may be partially driven by their associations with the proverbial dark side of politics. McCain was a member of the infamous Keating Five, a group of senators that met with Charles Keating, an operator of a scandalous savings and loan, under the presumption of proffering preferential treatment for their patron. That said, McCain was cleared of the more serious charges tied to his peers and has spent much of the balance of his time in Washington rebuilding his image and attempting to modify what he sees as a broken system of elite interests corrupting policy.

Obama is tied to the aforementioned Rezko, and on a larger level, the notorious Daley Machine in Chicago. Rezko was one of Obama's political patrons throughout the early part of his political career, even as recent as his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate. In 2005, they collaborated on a questionable real estate deal through the purchase of adjacent properties and a land swap at less than market value. To his credit, Obama has donated as much as $80,000 of the cash that Rezko bundled for his campaigns to charity, and spoken candidly about his "bone-headed" real estate deal with the soon-to-be-imprisoned character.

These skeletons revealed, what do McCain and Obama prescribe to bring about change to a system of which Americans are universally disgusted? McCain, as articulated in my previous post, is perhaps Washington's foremost critic of pork barrel spending. Indeed, he has never sponsored such a project in his entire career (By contrast, last year, Obama requested $91 million of such targeted appropriations). McCain associates earmarks with special interests, not to mention bestowing unethical advantages to incumbents. He pledges to use to veto pen as president vigorously to stymie a process that has grown exponentially.

Obama does not pursue an absolutist path on this issue like his fall opponent, but he is a firm proponent of greater transparency for sponsors of earmarks, but also federal contracts and even legislation awaiting executive approval. He will invite public commentary on pending legislation, and end the "abuse" of no-bid contracts made famous in Iraq.

Obama, like McCain, champions himself as a campaign finance reformer. He supports expanded public financing of campaigns, in addition to free radio and television time for candidates. One caveat, however: Obama made a promise last fall to accept public financing, $85 million in total, for the general election segment of his presidential campaign if his opponent agreed to the same terms. Lo and behold, McCain is attempting to hold him to his word, but Obama has since danced away from his earlier position, suggesting that the large number of small donors to his campaign represent the equivalent of public financing. Whether you agree with this explanation or not, Obama has proven the most prolific political fundraiser in history, and McCain admittedly lags in this area. Their respective decisions are more of a product of this reality than anything else.

Regardless of who replaces President Bush in the Oval Office come January, a man who stands for more sunlight in government will open the shades drawn over many reaches of government the past eight years. For example, Obama promises virtual "fireside chats," or regular town hall meetings conducted by each of his cabinet members. McCain, on the other hand, proposes weekly question and answer sessions with Congress a la the British model involving the prime minister. Both seek to change the tone of partisan rancor that has encompassed the capital in recent years, while at the same time rooting out the special interests that threaten the very meaning of "government by the people, for the people." Here's hoping that either man sticks to his guns and makes rhetoric reality.

Note: I will be attending the First Amendment Institute in Fort Worth, TX, all of next week, so the "Pass the Pundits" series will return on Monday June 16.


Priming the Pump

By Shawn Healy
I wrote last Thursday about the stark contrast in approaches toward ending the war in Iraq between the two parties' presumptive nominees, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. I concluded that while Obama's positions are closer with a majority of the American electorate, McCain is more trusted in the realm of foreign policy. Reputable pollster Andrew Kohut sheds additional light on this distinction in his summary of current polling data. He also points to the fact that CNN seemingly illustrates every hour: the economy is now issue #1. The rift between McCain and Obama is every bit is wide on solutions to rescuing the U.S. economy from the brink of recession as the gulf on Iraq, and this post will tackle the respective plans of the two candidates, addressing both budgetary and tax plans in the overall context of articulated economic policies.

Obama begins with the presumption that the problem is stagnant wages coupled with higher prices, a phenomenon that arose in the 1970's and was labeled "stagflation." His chief culprit is the Bush tax cuts that he claims unfairly benefits the rich, while ignoring issues critical to the middle class: housing, health care and education, among others. His solution begins with targeted tax cuts to the tune of a $1,000 per family credit for "working families" (not qualified), helping to offset burdensome payroll taxes. He also offers simplified forms, with pre-generated figures provided by banks and employers. On the flip side of the coin, the balance of the Bush tax cuts will expire, meaning a tax increase for those making more than $250,000 per year, along with those who pay capital gains.

McCain, an initial opponent of the Bush tax cuts due to their budgetary implications, now calls for their extension given the gloomy economic environment. He goes further, however, in asking for the repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) which he claims unduly burdens middle class families. McCain also calls for doubling the dependency deduction from $3,500 to $7,000 annually, and also calls for an extension of the floor on the estate tax incidence to $10 million while cutting the rate to 15 percent. Both Obama and McCain also suggest that research and development costs incurred by businesses to be expensed, but only McCain would maintain current rates on dividend income and capital gains. McCain claims that Obama stands for $100 billion in tax increases, costing each taxpayer $700 per year, and wants to make it more difficult for Congress to raise taxes, proposing a 3/5 threshold for tax increases to pass muster.

McCain's tax cuts continue for corporations, from 35 to 25 percent, while also making permanent a ban on Internet taxes, along with any new cell phone taxes. His tax plan concludes with an alternative system which is premised on flatter rates and simplicity. Taxpayers may use this form or travel the traditional route.

While McCain's plan to stimulate a stagnant economy is mostly tax cut-based, Obama relies instead on targeted spending to "prime the pump." This comes from investment in education, training and workforce development, along with refocusing manufacturers on "green technologies." Federal workforce programs will also incorporate the latter, and disadvantaged youth will play a part. The protection and expansion of Internet access is also a key component of Obama's plan, particularly in rural areas.

Obama also boasts a lengthy list of policies specific to labor in the U.S. This includes support of the Employee Free Choice Act favored by unions to expand organizational efforts, along with cracking down on efforts to stymie this process and protection for striking workers. Moreover, he embraces the long-held Democratic Party belief that the minimum wage should be increased.

McCain, by comparison, focuses on reform of the Unemployment Insurance program, creating private accounts that reward speedy transitions to new jobs, including retraining at local community colleges. For older employees (55 and older) who are more difficult to retrain, McCain would offer supplemental assistance for those who assume lower-paying jobs within a defined time period (26 weeks).

McCain addresses the spending side of the fiscal equation at length. Indeed, he has made it one of the hallmarks of his campaign and a defining issue during his storied congressional career. At the top of his list is earmark reform, otherwise known as pork barrel spending. The GOP standard bearer is wont to lament about Congress' reputation for spending like drunken sailors. He alleges receiving an email from a real drunken sailor who is offended by the comparison. McCain, in contrast to the current occupant in the White House, promises to veto all legislation laden with pork, pledging to make the authors of such earmarks "famous." The candidate pledges to impose a one-year hold on all spending not related to the military and our troops, to cut waste and efficiency in the process, and balance the budget before leaving office. To assist with this effort, he calls for the restoration of the line item veto deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

All told, neither candidate has identified a clear path toward balancing the budget, but independent analysts give McCain a better chance of achieving this outcome, mainly because Obama has identified $210 billion of new spending and promises to pay for this and the looming budget deficits through ending the Bush tax cuts and drawing down the war in Iraq. McCain, when placed on the spot, invoked the language of his supply side hero, Ronald Reagan, who claimed tax cuts lead to economic growth and higher tax revenues. While this held true during the 1980's, the budget deficit tripled at the same time as spending continued to rise.

Trade was a topic of passionate discourse this primary season, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle. Obama and Clinton sparred over NAFTA and other trade agreements, and the former has pledged to renegotiate the treaty with Canada and Mexico, while standing against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) for its alleged failure to open markets for American jobs while protecting the rights of workers and the environment. Obama also pledges to work through the World Trade Organization to clamp down on illegal subsidies and other nontariff barrier on U.S. exports. While Trade Adjustment Assistance already exists for workers unduly harmed by the forces of globalization, Obama would expand it to cover employees in the ever-growing service industry.

If Obama stands for "fair trade," McCain can be classified as a proponent of "free trade." He points to the fact that 95 percent of global customers live outside of the U.S., making multilateral, bilateral and regional pacts critical. He sees them as pivotal to knocking down trade barriers, leveling the playing field and enforcing sanctions against offending countries. McCain's support and Obama's opposition to a recent deal with Colombia is a recent example of their contrasting positions.

It is clear from this exercise that American voters face a stark choice between the economic policies of McCain and Obama as we select the 44th President of the United States. The complexities of their specific policies make a simplistic comparison like that illustrated above more than difficult, and I encourage you to visit the candidates' web sites, along with those of nonpartisan organizations who conduct independent analyses of these plans and others (U.S. Budget Watch is but one example).

In the end, at least in my mind, there is little new under the sun in these scenarios. McCain offers echoes of the current President Bush and his idol Ronald Reagan with his tax cutting tendencies. He is also a foremost critic of excessive spending. Indeed, he has never sponsored a pork barrel project in his 26-year congressional career. Both Bush and Reagan struggled to get a grasp on the spending side of the fiscal equation, leading to massive budget deficits, and McCain will be challenged to divert from this well-established blue print. Simply stated, a president has few means of controlling spending other than his/her veto pen as Congress passes budgetary allocations. Presidential leadership must occur not only on the front end, but throughout the process. Vetoes of omnibus legislation can threaten critical priorities, such as overseas military endeavors. If elected, McCain will undoubtedly face such difficult choices and his principles will be tested.

Obama, despite his soaring rhetoric of change, comes to us in the tax-and-spend mold of many of his Democratic precessors, Bill Clinton for one. Clinton was able to balance the budget on the backs of tax increases at the outset of his first term and achieved many of his spending priorities at the same time. Obama, however, is unlikely to enjoy the same luxuary, as Clinton benefited from the so-called "peace dividend," or reduced defense spending as the Cold War menace ended. He would enter office with US forces fighting separate wars, and even if both were ended in the foreseeable future, Obama has committed to increasing the size of the armed forces to address modern foreign policy challenges, international terrorism among them. "Guns" and "butter" are most often presented as a trade-off, and Obama would be forced to make a choice of his own, that or continue to perpetuate ever-growing budget deficits.

In the end, at least on this issue, we are left with a choice that leaves us with more questions than answers. Both candidates offer us detailed economic plans, but their prospects of success are dictated by unknown variables like economic growth and foreign engagements. They encompass issues like health care and entitlement reform that I will address later in this series, and our candidate selection should be made by the sum of these somewhat disparate parts. With this exercise in mind, I will return on Thursday with my third installment of "Pass the Pundits," this time addressing how the candidates plan to take on government corruption.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at