Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Entitlement Entreaties

By Shawn Healy
This constitutes the ninth of ten installments of the Pass the Pundits series, a post dedicated to examining the solutions offered by Senators McCain and Obama to a looming entitlement program crisis in America. First, a bit of a backdrop on the current status of the federal programs under examination here, Social Security and Medicare, is warranted. I will address them separately, then dive into the policies offered by the two major party presidential candidates.

According to the non-partisan Concord Coalition, Social Security is on the cusp of financial crisis. Current revenues yield an annual surplus of $70 billion, but this will begin to decline as early as next year, and shift to a deficit by 2017. Initial deficits will be relatively minor (a projected $9 billion in 2017), but grow dramatically over the decade that follows. By 2030, the deficit is expected to reach $256 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, and consume a growing share of our Gross Domestic Product, from 4.3 today to 6.1 percent 22 years from now.

Social Security is currently financed by a tax rate of 6.2 percent on an employee's wage paid by both the employee and the employer (12.4 percent combined). The Concord Coalition estimates that if the system as it currently stands is to maintain existing benefits levels and obligations to retirees, the combined rate will need to rise to roughly 17 percent, a net increase of nearly 50 percent.

A tax hike is certainly among the reform options on the table. Senator Obama is on the record as a proponent of one, yet remains vague as to what level of income it will apply. Currently, those making more than $102,500 annually do not pay Social Security taxes on an income above that level. While on the surface this may seem unfair, the reality is that Social Security is nothing more than a forced savings program. Benefits paid in retirement are based on contributions throughout one's career, and there is a cap for higher income earners. Asking them to pay more in taxes than they will receive in terms of benefits will change the very nature of the program as it will assume a more redistributional mold. Obama does not seek to lift the current ceiling, but would create a proverbial "donut hole" of sorts, taxing income once more at either the $200,000 or $250,000 threshold (he is on record for both). McCain, by comparison, shuns such a tax increase.

Moving from the revenue side of the equation to the benefit provision side, it is reasonable to ponder reduced benefits with the looming fiscal crisis on the horizon. This could take the form of lower monthly payments, a higher retirement age, or even a means-tested cut-off for higher income earners. However, both candidates are on the record for supporting the maintenance of current benefit provision levels moving forward. To speak otherwise would be to commit political suicide.

A third alternative is partial privatization of Social Security, a proposal pushed unsuccessfully by President Bush in 2005. This would allow current workers to divert a small portion of their current contributions into private accounts, while leaving the bulk of their money in the public system. The latter option would pull the legs from the table of the pay-as-you-go system that operates currently. The private accounts would likely have a mix of low-risk securities from predefined plans, but the details at this juncture are murky beyond this. The proponents hope that the funds in these accounts will grow at a faster pace than the Social Security Trust Fund as a whole, thus supplementing anticipated shortfalls in the latter. Obama has stated his unequivocal opposition to any such measure, while McCain has embraced it wholeheartedly. If elected, the Arizona senator pledges to reach across the aisle to make private Social Security accounts a reality.

We turn next to Medicare. The program, launched in 1965, contains two basic components: a managed care plan through which members receive virtually all of their services, and a fee-for-service plan that covers hospitals, supplementary insurance, and most recently, prescription drugs. As of 2005, the hospital insurance portion of the plan was no longer fully funded by existing revenues, so funds are currently extracted from the overall federal budget, further increasing deficit spending. The twin forces of rising health care costs and our aging population, not to mention the largest expansion of the program since its inception (prescription drug benefit in 2003), are the primary threats to a program with even more daunting obstacles that Social Security.

The candidates once more offer only general prescriptions (pardon my pun) to the Medicare crisis. Much of McCain's plan is rooted in his more comprehensive health care reforms (see earlier post, Health Care Conundrum), but he does promise to hold down costs associated with Medicare, to help seniors hedge against rising premiums, and to maintain or even improve the quality of care provided. He voted against the prescription drug benefit in 2003, and would limit its subsidies to more affluent seniors as a means of controlling costs.

Obama also rests his solutions in his even more expansive health care agenda, but pledges to reduce waste in the Medicare program and eliminate subsidies to the private Medicare Advantage program. He also promises to fix the "donut hole" in the presciption drug plan even though he proposes to create one with Social Security. Currently, the first $2,250 of prescription dug costs are subsidized, as are those greater than $5,100. The estimated 4 million seniors who fall within this "donut hole" are required to assume the entire cost burden of their prescription drugs. Obama also pledges to provide greater guidance for seniors in terms of what prescription drug plan best fits their needs. He anticipates that costs will fall through competition for seniors' loyalties.

Together, the two candidates should be commended for placing forth general solutions to problems in an area of politics perennially referred to as the "third rail." True, contrasts emerge, particularly on Social Security, yet both are committed to preserving these two bedrock retirement programs. Their differences on Medicare are more tied to their overall health care proposals than the specifics about the program. Both are committed to necessary action, whatever the form, for there are chips in our foundation at a time of great financial anxiety. Might Senator McCain or Obama be the President who finally works with both parties in Congress to find a permanent panacea to one of the tests of our time?


Table of Nations: Spain/Pais Vasco

By kgpatia
On Wednesday, July 9, a sizable crowd gathered at Emilio’s Tapas Restaurant for a discussion on the Pais Vasco region of Spain. The event was the sixth event in the McCormick Freedom Museum’s Table of Nations series. In the tapas tradition, guests sampled a delectable range of traditional Spanish fare, ranging from Pincho de Solomillo (according to the menu, grilled beef brochette rolled in cracked pepper and served with caramelized onions and horseradish cream sauce) to grilled marinated chicken with a cumin garlic sauce (a personal favorite). Still nibbling on flan served with caramel sauce, the Table of Nations guests listened attentively to a discussion of the Pais Vasco region of Spain and an upcoming referendum (which has since been brought under review by Spain’s Constitutional Court) that may eventually lead to complete regional autonomy. The discussion featured Ambassador Javier Rupérez of the Consul General of Spain’s Office in Chicago and was moderated by Mark Hallett, senior program officer for the McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program.

In a move that sparked international discussion and internal controversy within Spain, members of the Basque regional parliament approved a referendum for the fall elections that would grant the region more autonomy from Spain. The referendum would be composed of two questions and would ask Basques to vote whether they would like to see the regional government seek peace talks with Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA), the militant faction in the drive for Basque independence, as well as whether there should be a political debate over the future autonomy of the Basque region. The Spanish government vowed to block these measures, and Ambassador Rupérez projected that the referendum will not take place because it is “clearly unconstitutional.” In fact, since the Table of Nations discussion with Ambassador Rupérez, Spain has indeed halted preparations for the referendum while the country’s Constitutional Court deliberates the legality of the vote.

For members of my generation (so-called ‘Generation Y’), it is easy to forget that Spain’s transition to democracy lies in the not-so-distant past. This transition is traditionally noted as beginning just after Franco’s death in 1975. After Franco’s death, Juan Carlos I became king. At this moment, Hallett noted, King Carlos had a decision to make about which direction to take the country forward. Ambassador Rupérez affirmed that this was a moment of uncertainty and great tension, for it was not necessarily clear that the King would lead the country towards democracy. Heightening the tension involved in this transition, Ambassador Rupérez noted that many drew a parallel to another great period of transition in Spain’s history: the Spanish Civil War. However, as Ambassador Rupérez observed, whatever anyone might have thought about the civil war, “one thing [was clear] in all of our minds: never, never again back to [what it was like during] the civil war.” Hallett reflects that “[the notion of] having a king, which seems so antiquated to Americans, has been a really critical element for Spain as it transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy.”

Spain eventually made —with some U.S. help, as the Ambassador noted—the transition to a democratic government. As for Pais Vasco, the region was granted considerable autonomy after the 1978 Spanish Constitution. However, many in the region were not satisfied with this partial operational autonomy and began to push for complete independence. It is important distinguish, as Hallett did at the beginning of the program, the separate movements for independence: the non-violent faction (which is pushing for the referendum) and the violent faction, ETA.

As an entity, ETA has sparked much controversy and heated debate over their violent tactics in pushing for independence. According to the BBC, ETA’s tactics have “led to more than 800 deaths over the last 30 years.” This passion was present in the discussion, as when one audience member thanked the Ambassador for referring to ETA as a terrorist organization, rather than a separatist movement. The Ambassador commented that this rhetorical distinction was a part of a “long fight I’ve had with the American press. No matter that [ETA] is considered [to be] terrorists by the U.S. government, the European Union, and the Spanish government.” (For the record, The New York Times has referred to ETA as both an “armed separatist group” as well as a “Basque militant group.”)

For the Spanish government, handling the Basque region and its complexities has been a challenge. Ambassador Rupérez described the region as quite unique, noting that it was very conservative and steeped in its Catholic faith. Although the analogy is not perfect, he noted that the Basques were very much like the Republican Party of the United States, to give a cultural and political comparison. The Ambassador acknowledged the persistent problems in the Basque region, explaining that, “In Basque country, [there is] no freedom of expression, teaching, thought…not even religion really. This is something to keep in mind…The realization that part of our country is not free worries us extremely.” However, in dealing with the region, there is no ignoring ETA’s significant presence and violent methods. Reflecting on this, the Ambassador noted that, “Terrorism terrorizes, but it corrupts as well. It tries to make you use methods it uses. You become a terrorist [yourself]…We learned not how to live without terrorism, but how to live without terrorism affecting our policies.”

Ambassador Rupérez has experienced the ramifications of such terrorism first hand. He was kidnapped by ETA in 1979 and held hostage for 31 days. The Ambassador said that he had the “rare privilege of being able to tell this story,” for many others who have been kidnapped were “killed or lost their minds as a result of the kidnapping.”

“It is an experience not to be repeated, I can tell you that,” the Ambassador remarked, noting that it was a purely political kidnapping with no ransom.

Thus, as Spain continues to encounter the growing pains of a democratic nation, it is important to consider the questions raised in these current debates. As Mark Hallett reflected after the discussion, the domestic terrorism in Spain “can not only leave hundreds dead, but can really stifle free speech.” Thus, at what price does an independence movement come? Furthermore, when are independence or separatist movements legitimate (if ever)? And subsequently, how do these movements rectify a constitution that may prevent independence movements and the obvious moral repugnancy of violent independence measures? These are important questions that not only apply to Spain, but hold resonance in countries worldwide.


The Minefield of Morals

By Shawn Healy
I return for my eighth installment of the Pass the Pundits series, examining the ever-ambiguous issue of moral values in the context of the 2008 presidential election. Some suggested that the issue was the determining factor in the 2004 election, as roughly 20 percent of voters listed this all-encompassing category as the most important influence upon their presidential vote. You already know this, but it happened the favor the incumbent in this case, President George W. Bush.

Looking back even further, the issue of morality is nothing new to presidential politics, surfacing as early as Thomas Jefferson's challenge to sitting President John Adams in 1800, where the author of the Declaration of Independence was accused of lacking religious faith entirely (not true, he was a Deist) and fathering a child outside of wedlock with one of his slaves (accurate by most accounts). Fast forward to 1968 when Republican candidate Richard Nixon rode his "Silent Majority" to two White House victories. Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter spoke openly about his born-again faith in 1976 and Ronald Reagan beat him to the punch four years later when he ousted the incumbent, building the since formidable Religious Right, a critical component of the Republican Party's national coalition.

This nearly three decades-old coalition is showing signs of wear. New issues like global warming have emerged that cross traditional partisan lines, while the evangelical Christian's candidate of choice, the aforementioned Bush, suffers from historically low approval ratings. Moreover, the group failed to coalesce behind a single candidate in the since-completed Republican presidential primary. True, former Gov. Mike Huckabee struck their fancy, but he was unable to find a locus of support outside of the Bible Belt and thus lost the nomination to Sen. John McCain.

The presumptive nominee has problems of his own with this vaunted group, calling their leaders "agents of intolerance" back in 2000 when his maverick campaign against establishment favorite Bush crashed and burned. He has since tried to make amends, visiting with select leaders and invoking language and promises that brought most of them back in the fold. However, some, most pointedly James Dobson, suggest they will never support John McCain, and others embrace him as only the lesser of two evils (Update: Dobson now is edging ever closer to endorsing McCain). It is clear that McCain cannot rely on their grass roots energy to win the general election this time around, that he needs to find a new base of support, perhaps among independent voters who are more receptive to his maverick tendencies.

Moreover, McCain's subtle measures to earn evangelical support arguably harmed him more than it helped. For example, controversial pastor John Hagee's endorsement was later lampooned as earlier condemnations of Catholics surfaced. McCain was forced to distance himself from these remarks, even relinquish the endorsement, and his measured approach to the Religious Right played into attacks that he represented a third Bush term by abandoning his secular ways.

The reality is that the Religious Right has stood as a vital component of the Republican coalition since Reagan, and that McCain cannot win the White House without, at a minimum, their votes, if not their enthusiasm. In short, he will never be "one of them," but he does find basic agreement on key issues like abortion and gay marriage, and promises to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Roberts and Alito, conservatives who are likely sympathetic to these views. His critics in this camp charge back that McCain supports embryonic stem cell research and is against constitutional amendments outlawing abortion and gay marriage. He sees the latter two issues as provinces of state power. However, all three positions add to suspicions on the right, thus the "lesser of two evils" connotation.

As the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama has traversed an ideological journey of his own as he navigates the ever-fluid electoral landscape with values voters in mind. His voting record as a Illinois state senator and in the US Senate, and his campaign rhetoric during the Democratic primary process, lurches decisively to the left, especially on so-called moral issues like abortion. Just last week, however, Obama voiced his support for President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, at least on principle, evidence that the junior senator is carefully drifting to the center. This came on the heels of his outspoken support of the Supreme Court's decision stamping out an individual's right to bear arms, and ardent criticism of the decision disallowing the use of capital punishment on child rapists.

Like McCain, Obama also had some pastor problems of his own, most notably his former pastor at his house of worship on the South Side of Chicago (Trinity United Church of Christ), the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The man who married him to his wife Michelle, baptized his two daughters, and served as his spiritual adviser, was distanced from the Obama campaign as early as his initial announcement speech. This spring, when clips of his controversial sermons surfaced on YouTube and then cable news, Obama first claimed this rhetoric was taken out of context while defending Wright, then ended their relationship altogether when Wright took to defending himself in remarks delivered at the National Press Club.

Pastor-gate didn't end here either. At the end of May, another Obama adviser and longtime confidant, Father Michael Pfleger, delivered a sermon at Trinity disparaging the campaign of rival Sen. Hillary Clinton. The gender and racial undertones unnerved the nation's pundits once more, forcing Obama to end his 20 year relationship with the church.

Obama has also been forced to defend himself on charges that he is a Muslim by birth given the fact that his father was a member of the faith. He claims that his mother was an atheist and he was raised the same, discovering Christianity in his adult years through Rev. Wright and Trinity. The candidate has gone so far as to create an online presence to fend off these false attacks, labeling them as nothing less than "smears."

Like many of his Democratic predecessors, Obama has been forced to play defense on the patriotic front, too. Criticized for not wearing the flag pin on his sport coats, a fashion statement that has become standard for politicians of all stripes, Obama first suggested that he refused to partake in false displays of patriotism, then quietly pushed the pin in his jacket as he pivoted toward the larger electorate (Note: John McCain does not regularly wear a flag pin himself).

Obama has also been attacked for not placing his hand over his heart when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (not true), and his wife Michelle was lampooned for claiming that she was proud of her country for the first time due to the success of her husband in the presidential race. The junior senator from Illinois felt vulnerable enough on this issue that he gave a major speech addressing the topic in advance of the Fourth of July, proving to his detractors that he would not be painted as an out-of-touch liberal (see Michael Dukakis riding a tank) on matters of patriotism.

This series is an attempt to get beyond the banter of the punditry, and much of this post thus far has failed on this front. I blame this on the nebulous nature of the issue of moral values themselves, but in staying true to my mission, I nonetheless surveyed the respective positions of the two candidates as posted on their web sites.

McCain titles his entry into this thicket as "Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Human Life." From the very outset he flaunts his pro life credentials, critiquing Roe v. Wade and suggesting that abortion is a matter for states to decide. McCain also mentions the fact that he and his wife Cindy adopted a daughter from Bangladesh, holding this up as a viable alternative to abortion, and pledging to break down the bureaucratic barriers to its realization. The senior senator from Arizona reiterates his belief in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, and also takes shots at Internet pornography and online predators. He ends with a statement of his own values that echoes throughout his writing and campaign speeches over the years: "To sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, and to sacrifice your life to the eminence of that cause, is the noblest activity of all."

Obama's counterpunch is much less specific and focuses solely on his faith. It is titled "Reconciling Faith and Politics," and references a 2006 speech that called for people of all faiths to transcend sect and find a common way of expressing their values in the political sphere. This theme meshes well with Obama's overall pledge to change the type of politics practiced in Washington. An attached position paper is laden with Obama quotes representing specific themes, among them a call for progressives to insert themselves in a positive way in our national conversation about religion, a abandonment of matters of faith as so-called "wedge" issues, and an affirmation of the constitutionally protected separation between church and state.

In order to provide a fair contrast between Obama and McCain, Obama's positions on the "wedge" issues must nonetheless be vetted. Obama supports Roe v. Wade and promises to appoint judges quite different from Roberts and Alito. Indeed, he voted against their confirmation in the Senate. His voting record on the issue of abortion has ignited some controversy, especially his opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act as a state senator. More recently, Obama opened to door for some restrictions on late-term abortions, suggesting that a women's mental state must be scrutinized before she receives the go-ahead to partake in the procedure. On the issue of gay marriage, Obama opposes it in name, and instead favors civil unions. On other cultural issues, Obama is a critic in his own right, scolding black fathers for their dereliction of duty and black culture in general for not embracing education and mimicking "hip hop" values.

In balance, this minefield of moral values is a murky one, especially when viewed in the context of two candidates who fail to fit the traditional mold for their respective parties. Both have arguably glaring vulnerabilities, and as a result, it doesn't seem clear that either will win or lose the election on this issue alone. Give credit to McCain for his delicate gestures to the Religious Right while remaining his own man, and to Obama for striking preemptively in an area that has long derailed his Democratic predecessors. You may remember that he announced himself to the nation with soaring rhetoric in this very realm of morals.

In my quest to provide equal time, I will end with a brief excerpt of Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in August that goes to the very heart of the rationale of his candidacy in 2008:

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”


Schoolhouse Squawk

By Shawn Healy
The seventh installment of the Pass the Pundits series centers on the two major presidential candidates' respective positions on education policy. Though the issue has failed to garner headlines on par with the Iraq War and high gas prices, education policy is a critical arena of political debate in an era of high stakes testing ushered in by a bipartisan coalition in 2001 under the auspices of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In trudging through the education policies proposed by Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, significant differences emerge, but they are muddied by the ambiguity laden within their sweeping promises. This issue hits particularly close to home for me given my experiences as a classroom teacher and my continued outreach through the Freedom Museum to educators and students, but I will attempt to cast my biases aside, yet offer nuance and skepticism where appropriate in reviewing the plans forwarded by the two candidates.

In diving into the details of the educational plans offered by Obama and McCain, the largest difference between the two is just that, details. Senator Obama offers specific recipes for our nation's students from pre-school to college, while Senator McCain speaks in generalities, offering broad brush strokes of his plans to lead in this capacity should he win in November. This difference established, I will offer contrasts when available, but issue a caveat that this piece will be more about Obama than McCain for this reason.

Senator Obama begins with a critique of NCLB. He claims that it is underfunded (a so-called unfunded mandate), poorly implemented (little detail about how), and flawed in its basic construction (few remedies offered here, either). Obama also laments about low literacy levels, deplorable math and science scores, and persistently high drop-out rates. Moreover, he points to the failure to provide high quality teachers for our students as promised by NCLB, plus the failure to retain those who are trained in the profession.

Obama's specific remedies for NCLB include fully funding the legislation, revising assessment vehicles (no specifics other than a shift away from students "filling out bubbles on standardized tests), and altering accountability mechanisms from punitive to constructive. He pledges to recruit teachers from the math and science professions and establish a national science curriculum. Obama tackles the drop-out crisis with a series of early interventions for struggling students while in middle school, but also hopes to ramp up existing after school programs.

McCain is more vague in his assessment of NCLB. He points to the data it has provided, most pointedly the dismally low test scores, thus my conclusion that he is a fan of its renewal. He is critical of those who accept high standards for some students and lower ones for others, opening the door for competition among schools for students, teachers, even funding. He is an unabashed advocate of school choice, pointing to the hypocrisy of those in Congress who oppose school vouchers but at the same time send their children to private schools due to the dismal state of their public counterparts.

McCain would make the availability of federal dollars dependent upon the ability of parents to remove their children from failing schools. Such choice would certainly involve both public and private schools, including charter schools and also religious ones. McCain even mentions the ever-growing phenomenon of home schooling, issuing a strong statement of support if they indeed embody "excellence" (no word from Obama on the latter).

Obama, by comparison, is a "skeptic" of school vouchers, as is the National Education Association (the nation's largest teacher's union) who endorsed him last week. However, in an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Obama said, "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn" should research prove their effectiveness. Milwaukee is home to the first and largest school voucher system in the country, and early research does show that students enrolled in the program have lower drop-out rates and higher standardized test scores.

An issue of agreement between the two candidates, and a position anathema to most teachers unions, is merit pay. Without using the term directly, Obama does promise financial incentives to those teachers who serve as mentors, work in underserved rural and inner city communities, and perhaps most controversially, excel in the classroom. McCain offers fewer details, but does advocate for the recruitment, hiring, and rewarding of "character-building" educators.

Obama offers a more comprehensive approach toward McCain's aforementioned goal. He would make available Teacher Service Scholarship for those who pledge to teach at least four years in a "high need area," paying four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate tuition. He addresses teacher quality by insuring that all preparatory schools are accredited, while also developing voluntary national standards. In addition to preparation and pay, Obama hopes to retain teachers through mentoring and the coordination of common planning time.

As mentioned at the outset, Obama's plan also touches upon early and post-secondary education. McCain, to date, has been silent on these issues. Obama's early childhood education plan is called Zero to Five, and is premised on reform and increased funding for Early Head Start and Head Start, two government programs that have been largely effective since their inception as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Obama doesn't address the specifics of these reforms, nor does he elaborate on his promise to provide affordable, high quality child care for pre-kindergarten students.

Obama is also concerned about rising college costs and the debt associated with them, not to mention the fact that an estimated 2 million qualified high school graduates shun college on account of the steep price tag attached. His American Opportunity Tax Credit would apply to the first $4,000 of college tuition, and he pledges to simplify the process by which students apply for federal loans, thereby making them more accessible.

These approaches viewed side-by-side, a voter cannot help but jump to the conclusion that Obama relies on the traditional cookbook of government solutions to the problems that plague our nation's educational system, while McCain hopes to work outside the system itself, using market mechanisms to improve the internal structure of the machinery. In order to offer an enlightened assessment, both candidates owe us more details. McCain hints at a major departure from the status quo, and we need to know exactly what this might entail. Obama pledges to mettle at strategic points from pre-K to college, and we should see the ingredients in his recipes, not to mention how he plans to pay for all of this ramped up federal involvement.

As a former teacher, I can speak to the frustration rampant throughout the K-12 community specific to NCLB. Its one-size-fits-all model fails to account for diversity amongst our student bodies. Its diagnoses most often tell us what we already know: students in underserved populations perform more poorly than their affluent peers. Its unfunded mandates place yet another burden on our cash-strapped schools that are already asked to save us from society's ills. Its complete abandonment of social studies and civics as a criteria for testing takes us away from the original purpose of public schools in this country: to prepare students for their role as citizens in this democracy.

Unfortunately, neither candidate speaks to these specific defects, although Obama at least acknowledges the overall imperfections of the law. McCain, to his credit, flashes his reform credentials by embracing school vouchers and merit pay. Though neither is a panacea for problems that are larger than the nation's education system itself, it is this "bold" and "persistent" experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt once embraced that may lead us on a path to salvation of our schools. Obama embraces merit pay himself as he walks a difficult line between a "new kind of politics" and his allegiance to his party's old guard, namely the teachers unions. Both candidates would seemingly shake up a system in great need of a makeover.


Greening the White House

By Shawn Healy
In delving into the sixth subject area of the Pass the Pundits series, Energy and the Environment, I found a surprising degree of consensus among the leading presidential contenders, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. True, disagreements do surface at the margins, but by and large an Obama or McCain Administration promises to stand as a departure from the Bush years, with dramatic shifts in our national energy policies and an acknowledgment and active pursuit of the menace that is global warming.

Moreover, American voters are united like never before behind the premise that a candidate's "green credentials" are critical to their ultimate ballot box decisions. Indeed, pollster John Zogby found an increase among voters from 11 percent in 2005 to more than 30 percent today who plan to evaluate the candidates on their energy and environmental policies. While admittedly less than a majority, in a close race, the margins matter, and McCain and Obama are both wise to embrace these issues as platform staples. In many ways, they indeed go hand in hand, particularly as American consumers sweat through record gas prices that may forever alter our consumption habits.

One of my lasting memories of covering the New Hampshire primary this past January was the prominence of global warming activists throughout the state's major cities. They even occupied a storefront in downtown Manchester, and built snowmen along the main thoroughfare (Elm Street), who despite record snow falls, were melting by the minute due to unseasonably balmy temperatures. One fleeting moment in front of the statehouse in Concord captured their influence as Sen. McCain delivered his closing remarks before voters who would ultimately catapult him to victory and the GOP nomination. Global warming activists mounted the snow banks that surrounded McCain's rostrum, and at the outset of the speech, he acknowledged the threat of climate change and vowed a dramatic departure from the past four years.

Not only does this example contextualize the passion of interested parties who surround this issue, but it also points to the sea change (no pun intended) promised by the Nov. 4 election, regardless of who is the victor. With this, I turn to my usual comparison and contrast of the energy policies of the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees, beginning with Obama.

Obama frames the problem in two contexts. One, he is concerned with the fact that Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil daily at a costs of $1.4 billion, equaling $500 billion in 2006 alone, a full $41 million per hour on foreign oil. Two, he warns us of the dangers of global climate change, including melting polar ice caps, early blooming trees, species migration, even distinction.

What follows is a comprehensive, if scattered, recipe intended to resolve these twin, related dangers. Obama tackles global warming in a fashion very similar to McCain. Indeed, the senior Arizona senator was an early pioneer of the cap-and-trade system embraced by Obama, co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation that was admittedly less ambitious as early as 2003. Obama hopes to attain an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases as they existed in 1990 by 2050. To accomplish this, he would institute a system of pollution credits, where individual businesses would essentially purchase the right to pollute via auction. He would use these revenues to foster clean energy development, assist with transitional costs, and subsidize the training of displaced workers.

McCain, by comparison, does not require an auction for pollution credits, but instead allots them equitably. Companies who do not use their entire allotment of pollution credits may sell them for a profit to those who are less efficient in this respect, essentially creating a market for pollution with the goal of incentivizing environmentally friendly business practices. McCain's targeted reductions in greenhouse gases are also less stringent, though he does pledge to reduce them by 2/3 of 1990 levels by 2050.

McCain's program applies to those industries responsible for 90 percent of all air pollution, including utilities, commercial and industrial business, and transportation fuels. Small businesses would be exempt. Those businesses who exceed prescribed limits would be forced to contribute to carbon offset programs, such as agricultural attempts at carbon sequestration.

An additional measure included in Obama's plan to stymie climate change is his pledge to halt deforestation and promote carbon sequestration through incentives to plant trees, restore grasslands and take other measures to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere.

From here, we shift from grandiose plans to piecemeal solutions as both candidates seek to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while at the same time tackling climate change from the angle of personal energy usage. Obama pledges a $150 billion investment in clean energy over the next decade, along with a 100 percent increase in funding for energy research and development. He embraces green technologies from the standpoint of workforce training and business practices. Obama would require that 25 percent of our electricity be generated by renewable sources come 2025, while investing in clean coal technology, cellulosic ethanol, and biofuel (see corn ethanol) refineries. He mandates that fuel itself emit 10 percent less carbon when burned by 2020, along with upping the standards for the amount of renewable fuels for sale n the overall market.

McCain echoes Obama's support for clean coal technology and cellulosic ethanol, but has been a long-time critic of corn ethanol subsidies, especially at a time when agricultural prices are at an all-time high and the use of corn from ethanol has adverse implications for food consumed at the kitchen table. The senior Arizona senator returns to his soap box about the adverse impact that protectionist tariffs, price supports, and mandates have on the energy market, calling for an end to these distortions. He seeks to standardize this confusing patchwork of incentives and diversions, while, like Obama, investing in research and development and renewable sources of energy.

A major point of departure between McCain and Obama exists on the supply side of the energy equation. McCain pushed for a summer federal gas tax holiday that Obama called a "gimic" that his chief Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, also embraced. The debate has since shifted to the imposition of a windfall profits tax which both Democratic presidential candidates embraced and McCain opposes. McCain is more concerned with speculation in futures markets driving up the price of oil, seeking greater regulation of commodity trading. Most recently, despite his previous opposition to the practice, McCain is pushing for offshore oil exploration on the Continental Shelf (Obama is against), but unlike most of his party (including President Bush), he maintains his strong stance against drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (Obama in agreement).

Shifting away from oil for a moment, a stark difference between the two candidates on energy issues is their position on nuclear energy. McCain seeks the construction of 45 new nuclear plants by 2030 with a goal of eventually opening 100 new plants. Over the past 30 years, not a single new plant opened in the US while India, China and Russia pledge to open 100 of their own. Obama makes no mention of nuclear energy in his plan, thus the assumption that he does not embrace it as a solution to our energy crisis.

An area of strong agreement between the two candidates is their approach to automobile construction. Both have supported CAFE standards on the Senate floor, and McCain pledges to enforce the existing protocols, while Obama would double these fuel efficiency standards over the next 18 years. Although he is less stringent in this capacity, McCain does offer a $5,000 tax credit for the purchase of zero carbon cars, hoping to incentivize their production by automakers. Additionally, he promises a $300 million prize to the creator of a plug-in hybrid car that utilizes battery power at 30 percent of current costs. Finally, he intends to encourage American automakers to speed up their conversion to flex fuel cars. The existing goal is 50 percent of all production by 2012, but McCain hopes to accelerate this further.

Both promise to make our nation's electricity grid more energy efficient, and also to improve building efficiency. McCain zeros in on the largest landlord in the country, the federal government, while Obama is more universal in his approach. The junior Illinois senator would push for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030, with a goal of improving existing building efficiency by 25 percent and new building efficiency by 50 percent over the next decade.

Finally, in a subtle jab at the Bush Administration, Obama pledges a restoration of American leadership on energy issues. He hopes to create an international forum on energy issues composed of the world's leading consumers, including members of the G-8, along with China, India, South Africa and Brazil. Additionally, he pledges with work with the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change. This body will be busy crafting international energy use policies for the next half century as the Kyoto Protocol is up for renegotiation next year. McCain, although silent on these issues, has spoken about reengaging with international institutions after eight years of unilateralism, so he too may embrace global exchanges and cooperation on energy use and climate change.

In the end, both candidates place forward ambitious plans to address the nation's dependence on foreign oil and the climate change associated with our energy consumption. Both seemingly start from a common point of departure and offer innovative solutions to the established problems. Their respective plans are scattered in parts, but represent a commitment to these interrelated issues. Disagreements center on the pace and vehicles of change. Obama is more ambitious with his quantitative goals and more willing to use the power of the federal government to attain them. McCain embraces market mechanisms instead, while also offering pragmatic solutions that are rooted in old energy solutions (oil exploration, nuclear energy) in order to provide temporary relief to consumers suffering from record-high fuel costs.

On January 20, 2009, the White House will have an occupant committed to going green like never before. Whether it is President McCain or Obama, the Oval Office occupant will make environmentally friendly energy policy a priority, moving beyond the Rose Garden to tackle perhaps the paramount challenge of our lifetime.


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