Even close friends have a hard time understanding that I don’t like to talk about federal politics in general and presidential politics in particular, because I don’t have the expertise I need to feel comfortable expressing more than the most general of opinions. So it was with some relief that, barely more than a month out from what partisans are ridiculously calling the most important presidential election in our lifetime, I made it through a week abroad with 11 rather partisanly conservative friends without getting dragged into such a conversation.
But jetlagged and anxious to get some sleep, I let my guard down on Wednesday afternoon, as we waited in the Atlanta airport for the final leg of our trip home and talk turned to that evening’s first presidential debate. My mistake: saying I hadn’t decided who to vote for.
“What’s there to decide?” one friend asked incredulously, before reeling off the favorite GOP charges about the unemployment rate and the number of people out of work, the size of the federal debt, burdensome regulations, an uncompromising president and the horrors of Obamacare.
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Well, nothing — if you’re someone who is certain that we need to shrink the government and shrink it still more until it is, in the words of the high priest of the Republican Party’s libertarian wing, small enough to drown in a bathtub. Or if you believe, as the extreme voices on the left do, that The Life of Julia leaves far too much to chance, and that the government should solve all of our problems. (And people who think Mitt Romney or Barack Obama believes either of those things have been paying even less attention than I have.)
Nor is there anything to decide if you’re one of those partisans who believe that our nation is composed of two teams, and you have to join one and stick with it.
And there’s certainly nothing to decide if you believe the GOP talking points. Just as there’s nothing to decide if you believe the Democratic talking points. Or rather, since I think the numbers are fairly accurate, if you believe that either set paints an honest picture of our country.
But for a significant minority of people — the coveted undecided voters — policy questions depend at least as much on facts as philosophy. It’s a matter of degree. And context is essential to determining which solution is in order.
Of course government shouldn’t be too big. But how big is ours compared to what it has been in the past? And just how big is too big?
Of course the wealthy should pay more in taxes than the poor. But how much more? And should they simply pay a larger number of dollars, or should they also — as our nation has agreed for a century — pay a larger percentage of their income and wealth? And if so, how much larger?
Of course the ballooning federal deficit and debt are a problem. But how big of a problem? And how quickly can they be brought under control without plunging us back into recession?
Of course too many people are out of work. But did the president fail to bring the numbers down as much as he should have? Or did he manage to stop the bleeding from Republican policies, and prevent even steeper job losses? Would we have sunk into another depression without the stimulus package? Could a smaller, or smarter, package have done more good?
Of course the partisanship in Washington has become intolerable. But who has been unwilling to compromise? The president, or the Republicans in Congress? Can we still blame a president for being unable to get his policies enacted even when the other party controls the Congress, or do we now call that the inevitable result of our hyperpartisanship that has infected the nation’s capital and much of the nation? Is there any reason to think things would improve if we elected a new president, since they’ve only gotten worse after we elected at least the last three presidents?
What makes this election more difficult than previous ones for the matter-of-degree voters is that we live in a world where everybody thinks they’re entitled to their own “facts,” so context is hard to come by. Afraid the new jobless numbers will help the other candidate? Refuse to believe them; claim they were fabricated. That’s your truth; who dares question it? It’s easy enough to find fellow travelers to vouch for your truth. Always on the internet. Frequently on FOX or MSNBC. Of course the “facts” are mutually exclusive. And frequently misleading.
I was doing a very bad job of explaining all this — and fending off assertions from some of my dearest friends that compromise, the foundational ingredient for representative democracy, is evil — when someone saw the group dynamic disintegrating. “Let’s talk about cats,” she said, employing an all-purpose conversation-changer that we adopted after the one liberal in our extended circle blurted it out at a dinner party when he realized that he was antagonizing too many people with his political pronouncements.
I was grateful to move on to another topic.
Unfortunately, as much as I would enjoy it, we can’t spend the next month talking about cats. We have a president to elect, and as always, the decision falls to those of us who are not wedded to one team or the other, to one philosophy or the other, who understand that our nation needs solutions that are tailored to the specific situation we find ourselves in, not cookie-cutter answers developed in hyperpartisan think tanks.
More unfortunate still, the candidates and their teammates have made it clear that they are not going to do a thing to make our job any easier.