By Donella Meadows
–October 17, 1996–
Bill Clinton says the Republicans want to cut Medicare.
Bob Dole says stop scaring old folks, I just want to make Medicare grow more slowly.
There, in the so-called “debates,” the matter rests. No neutral party says clearly that under either Clinton’s or Dole’s budget total expenditures on Medicare would go up, so technically that’s not a cut. But retirees would pay higher rates for less health coverage, which is certainly a cut — and a bigger one under Dole than under Clinton.
No one asks, as the 60-second taunts fly past each other, why health care costs are rising so fast. Neither candidate promises to go after the estimated $100 billion a year in fraudulent Medicare claims. I haven’t heard any politician address the concern that so many Americans feel, that what used to be a health care system has turned into a money-making system where neither health nor care seem to be important. That subject doesn’t come up because the folks who make the health-care money are shelling some of it out to the politicians.
Meanwhile Bob Dole says Bill Clinton presided over the biggest tax hike in history.
Bill Clinton says Bob Dole’s tax cut would make the deficit soar.
They both step carefully around the question of whose taxes got hiked and whose would get cut. Bill Clinton could make populist hay with the fact that his tax hike (not the biggest in history) hit the rich almost exclusively, but he doesn’t want to remind his big contributors of that. Bob Dole knows his proposed cut is almost entirely for the rich and doesn’t want to remind the rest of us of that. No one else — no reporter, commentator, anchorman, or question-asker from the public — bears down on tax fairness. It’s not done.
Meanwhile Al Gore says the economy is in terrific shape.
Jack Kemp says maybe so in the aggregate, but look how many folks are being left behind.
They’re both right in a way, but neither ponders WHY the economy is so good to stockholders and so bad to workers. Why top executives walk away from failed companies with millions of dollars while workers lose both jobs and pensions. What is the motor that keeps widening the gulf between CEO compensation and employee wages. The folks who would raise those questions — maybe Nader, Perot, Buchanan — are marginalized by media and campaign contributors.
You can easily add to the list of big questions that are ignored while trivial questions are distorted by snappy soundbites from well-coached puppets who once were whole human beings. It’s frightening, what one will do to get power. And it’s frightening how the noble idea of democracy has been reduced to gladiator contests in stiff, artificial settings that reveal nothing of the vision or morality or deliberation or decisiveness that it takes to lead a nation.
No wonder the public is turned off. We’re not only bored, we’re insulted. It’s tempting to refuse to dignify the polluted game of modern politics with either our attention or our vote. “Don’t vote, it just encourages them,” some folks say, and more and more of us follow that advice.
But I can’t bring myself to do it. I rarely get to vote for someone I really admire or something I deeply believe in, but my vote and yours still does make a difference too important to walk away from, especially in the arenas they’re not talking about.
Dole and Clinton would appoint very different Supreme Court justices, for instance, and those justices will affect the nation long after the president who appointed them is gone. They will determine whether government should interfere in abortion decisions, whether it will enforce civil rights for everyone, whether free speech means anything, whether there’s a hope that some day elections could be driven by something other than money.
The environment has been visible only in the Clinton-Gore chant, “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” As far as I can tell, neither Clinton nor Dole cares much about the environment, but their parties are miles apart. The Republican-dominated Congress, with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole as its leaders, put extremists in charge of the resource and environment committees, people who believe that resources on public lands should be chopped down, mined, pumped, grazed, or sold off as quickly as possible. The resource grab was held off only, and not entirely, by Clinton vetoes. The environment shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but those Republicans made it so. Here your votes for both president and Congress make a huge difference.
Can industry be trusted to do the public good or must it be counterbalanced by government? Should bulky, ineffective government counterbalances be fixed up or tossed out altogether? Does twenty-first century international leadership require massive military spending or something else entirely? Big issues, big party differences, no meaningful discussion.
The biggest undiscussed issue is campaign reform — getting money out of politics. This is the ultimate character issue. Must we endure a political system that destroys character, repels people with character, tempts people at every turn to sell their character?
If you have the privilege of voting for one of the few candidates, at any level of government, with the guts to talk about campaign reform and mean it, please do use your vote. If you don’t have that privilege, ask your candidates the unasked question, the most important question — what are you going to do about campaign reform? Releasing democracy from the grip of money is the only way we can ever get the politicians to talk about, or do anything about, everything else that’s important.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996