Friday, May 25, 2018
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David Shribman

Amid the political clutter, time to address big questions

HAMPTON, N.H. — The public is fed up with Congress. It’s not enamored of the President. This month’s fiscal follies soon will be followed by several sad reprises. The political class is in disrepute.

We know that President Obama eventually will disappear from the political scene. But many of the principals in the spending and debt crisis will be back — and will be here, in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, in 2016.

Mr. Obama’s eclipse and others’ ambitions should be prompting deep introspection about what America wants and needs in its next president.

The next election is 36 months away, but already the contours of the next campaign are evident. It is not uplifting or illuminating.

Is Hillary Clinton going to run? If so, does she clear the Democratic field of everybody except that reliable golden retriever, Vice President Joe Biden? Is Mr. Biden too old and too much of a retread?

Which of the Republican rebels — Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas — will run? Will a mainstream Republican get into the race?

What are Chris Christie’s intentions after next week’s election in New Jersey? Can a GOP insurgent emerge with enough support to win the presidential nomination and avoid an electoral disaster such as 1964 (Barry Goldwater on the right) or 1972 (George McGovern on the left)?

All of these questions are the wrong ones. The main question is this: What does the United States need in 2016 after two terms of George W. Bush and two terms of Barack Obama? They represent 16 years that, as Winston Churchill, borrowing from the Book of Joel, might have said, the locusts ate?

First, a look at what the locusts have consumed: the chance to adapt the United States to a global economy unlike the one that existed at the beginning of the period, which roughly coincided with the new millennium.

The chance to align the nation’s staggering entitlement obligations with the demographics of the new nation, which bears no relation to the world of 1935 (the birth of Social Security), or 1965 (the birth of Medicare), or 1983 (the adjustments made to Social Security by a bipartisan committee).

The chance to understand the new balance of power in the world, which bears no resemblance to the one that Mr. Bush struggled to understand in 2001.

The chance to understand how disruptive technology and new media have transformed how we communicate and — far more important — how we learn and how we think.

The chance to come to grips with the biggest but most ignored domestic crisis the nation faces: the failure of almost all but the 1 percent to save enough money for retirement.

The chance to fix the higher-education crisis in a meaningful way, not the anti-intellectual impulse Mr. Obama succumbed to when he sought to measure the value of education by measuring the salaries of 23-year-olds with college diplomas.

For all the talk in the capital about big issues — big expenditures, big entitlements, most of all big political stakes — there is depressingly little talk about the big questions.

Instead, the political class is preoccupied with particulars, most of which will be forgotten by the time the new president is inaugurated in January, 2017. The talk is of how radioactive Mr. Cruz is, or alternatively how attractive he is. Of whether and how Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana maneuvers himself back into the conversation after describing the Republicans as “the stupid party.” About how Hillary and Bill Clinton have established a powerhouse fund-raising machine.

None of that will rate even a sentence in any legitimate history of 2016. Then again, all the questions that haven’t been addressed all century will be omitted as well.

We worry in this country about sins of commission. It’s the sins of omission that are burying us.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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