Thursday, October 11, 2007

The true meaning of sacrifice

With respect to the latest Republican presidential debate, which I mentioned here yesterday, it’s worth noting that the questioners missed a golden opportunity to quiz the GOP candidates on a critically important issue.

This exchange, midway through the debate, seemed like the ideal opening:

Maria Bartiromo of CNBC: “Senator McCain, last week on the campaign trail you were critical of President Bush for the lack of asking for sacrifice…from the American people after September 11th - adding that, "Just go shopping," wasn't enough. What would you have asked?

John McCain: “I would have asked Americans, when we were incredibly united…to serve a cause greater than themselves. I would have told them, first of all, consider the military, also the Peace Corps, also AmeriCorps, also neighborhood watches, also volunteer organizations that we would form up all over America -- that way we would all serve this nation.”

That was it. McCain got off easy. Bartimoro moved on – rather than ask the most logical follow-up question:

“But, in terms of asking for sacrifice, Senator McCain, since you were, and continue to be, a strong supporter of the Iraq war, and since you see that war as a vital front in the war on terror, wouldn’t it be prudent and fair to ask today's Americans to help finance that war through a tax increase – the standard American practice ever since the Civil War?”

Perhaps she should have asked all the hawks on stage the same question. No doubt they would have dodged and weaved, but it would have triggered a far more scintillating conversation than the standard GOP wares on display the other day (such as whether the line-item veto is constitutional, an issue that no doubt galvanized the viewing audience). Seriously, are these candidates so committed to the war in Iraq that they would be prepared to ask the current generation of Americans to pay for it?

Politicians in both parties have long required that kind of sacrifice. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, imposed an estate tax on the rich in order to pay for his Union army. Another Republican, William McKinley, did the same to help pay for the Spanish-American war. His Republican successor, Theodore Roosevelt, kept it on the books in case of wartime emergency, saying that “the man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantage from the mere existence of government. Democratic presidents raised taxes to pay for World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

George W. Bush has invoked FDR and World War II in order to inspire listeners about the stakes in Iraq, but he never quotes what FDR said five weeks after Pearl Harbor: “War costs money. So far, we have hardly begun to pay for it.” Nor does he quote what FDR said a year earlier, when he warned Americans that they would need to sacrifice in order to shore up the British in their fight against Hitler: “A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes.”

Instead, today’s Americans sacrifice by spending their Bush tax cuts at the mall. Basically – and this too might have been fertile turf at the Tuesday debate, which was supposed to be primarily about economics – the Bush team is paying for this war by putting the tab on the American credit card, by running up the national debt. And burgeoning nations such as China are gaining long-term economic leverage against us by buying up that debt.

It would have been instructive to see whether the GOP hawks were prepared to buttress their war support by asking for substantive economic sacrifice. That might have tested their true commitment to the war. At the least, the exchanges would have been far more valuable than hearing Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney squabble at length over who did what on taxes and revenue way back when.


Speaking of Iraq, we all remember how the Surge was supposed to inspire the warring sectarian Iraqi factions to move toward political reconcilation, and how that goal remains a pipe dream. The topic came up today at the White House press briefing, after press secretary Dana Perino happened to mention that President Bush had a teleconference conversation early this morning with Prime Minister Maliki.

Perino insisted, of course, that Maliki is "a good man" who is "trying as hard as he can." Then, referring to the Bush-Maliki chat, she added this:

"One of the things they talked about was the frustration that you can have when you're in the executive branch, in trying to push the legislative branch into acting on something that you want to see done."

Yep, just one leader of a democracy commiserating with another leader of a democracy, about how hard it is to deal with unruly legislators. The legislators in one democracy think they can just go ahead and enact health insurance for children, while the legislators in another democracy prefer to aid and abet sectarian strife and's all part of the challenging process of checks and balances, with those Iraqi lawmakers really acting just like those uppity American Democrats.

Or as Bush himself told CBNC today, "You're seeing a democracy emerge and it's exciting."