Hard Choices

Author’s note: This article was written entirely from my impressions and memories, not from notes or transcripts. I think I have it right, but slight inaccuracies are possible.

I recently moved to Miami and I was lucky enough to meet someone down here who is very active with the Democratic Party. I’ve wanted to get more active in politics anyway and meeting him has moved me closer to actually acting on that vague “I should…” feeling. One night, I went with him and three of his activist friends to a debate between the Democratic candidates that want to run for Bob Graham’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat. During this debate, I was hit with surprising force by the reasons I’ve been so ambivalent about politics in the past (and have even voted Republican in ways I don’t want to talk about).

I did like one of the candidates from the beginning, but not the one my new friends are working for. More about that later.

I think the biggest problem I’ve always had with the Democratic Party is that it appeals to anger/emotion to the point of holding two positions that are in opposition to each other. One example of this is universal healthcare versus the unlimited right to sue.

To me, the ideal of giving everyone access to the medical care that they need is not possible if you don’t control the cost of that care. I’ve heard the argument that changes to healthcare are not necessary, because all people really do have access – because they can’t be denied care in an emergency. Yes, a lot of emergencies are written off by the hospitals, but it’s cheaper and better for all involved if a known problem can be corrected before it reaches an emergency state. Also, the costs of treating the uninsured are passed on to people who pay their bills (and the insurance companies), resulting in insanely exorbitant prices.

Of course, treating the uninsured is not the only reason for those prices. In my opinion, malpractice awards (and the cost of malpractice insurance) are also to blame. During the debates about the Patient’s Bill of Rights, angry people were brought out to demand their right to punish honest mistakes. No one at an HMO intentionally makes decisions that cause someone to die. Back to malpractice, doctors don’t intentionally botch surgeries or harm patients. I think lack of sleep for doctors and lack of knowledge for insurance bureaucrats are problems that should be solvable without excessive lawsuits. And I even agree that in many of these cases damages should be paid, possibly even damages that are solely punitive, but why would a monetary limit be so horrible?

Why don’t people understand that these two issues are related?

During the debate, the problem of the uninsured came up. Of course, all of the candidates railed against the number of uninsured in this country – especially children – and all were for some form of universal healthcare.

A bit later, the candidates were asked about malpractice lawsuits. One candidate (unfortunately, the one my friends support) said only that trial lawyers are traditional Democratic supporters and this was just an example of Republicans attacking for the sake of weakening Democratic supporters. He had the strong, preacher voice going on too – and it completely turned me off. I don’t remember what the other one said (many of her answers had no substance), but I think she started with the phrase, “I agree with both of you”.

The candidate I actually like was honest enough to start with the phrase, “I want universal healthcare so…” Of course, he is a politician and his overall answer could have been stronger, but I was still impressed that he tried to explain the connection.

In a similar example of emotional tirade versus thoughtful consideration of realities, the candidates were asked what they would do about prescription drugs. The candidate my friends like turned to his opponents and dramatically stated his vow that he would not take any money from prescription drug companies and he challenged the others to do the same. He then went on about the corrupting power of money and the lack of objectivity that results when you receive it (again, sounding like a preacher to me), but of course, he never actually said what he would do about the prices.

The candidate I like started with, “There are good pharmaceutical companies and there are bad ones…” and he proceeded to talk about the advances that drug company research has made in the quality and length of our lives. I can’t remember what he actually recommended for making it more affordable, but whatever it was, I preferred it to the attack.

The third candidate, again, started with “I agree with both of you”, but this time, she did mention an alternative – the VA system, which according to her is affordable due to competition and also has money to spend on research – but as I know nothing about the VA system, I’ll have to look into it before I decide if she has a good idea or not (and for the record, she also will not accept any money from the pharmaceutical companies).

This particular debate didn’t exemplify this next contradiction, but I have to mention it, because it really bothers me. Right now, many Democrats oppose the Patriot Act and Iraq, but at the same time, they actively participate in “you should have…” blaming for 9/11. I support some provisions of the Patriot Act, like making it possible to share information across agencies, but essentially I value privacy rights and I want us to remain an open and free country. I also feel that if any other country was holding “detainees” without trial for as long as we have, we would be up on our moral high-horse condemning them. As for Iraq, I feel our preemptive strike was not the right choice. Saddam simply was not involved in 9/11 and even back then, despite our efforts, we couldn’t make any connection.

But, if you’re against preemptive strikes based on unsure information and you want to limit the monitoring of people without just cause, you can’t expect perfection from law enforcement. Yes, we can and should be more effective with the information we collect, but our privacy makes omniscience impossible. And, in a parallel universe where the assumptions were right – if we had done nothing and Iraq did attack us with a nuclear bomb – these same blaming Democrats would be pointing at Bush saying, “Why didn’t you do something?” Hindsight is 20/20 and this sifting through information looking for some way to blame Bush for 9/11 reminds me of the predictions of Nostradamus or the Bible Code. I was especially annoyed when reporters repeatedly asked Bush to take personal blame for 9/11 during his recent prime-time press conference. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. Our problems with the utilization of information started way before January 2001 and I think we need to focus on that, not play the blame game.

I also think raising the minimum wage opposes job creation unless the prices go up to maintain the existing number of jobs. The issue here is that we need more “good” jobs, but not everyone needs to support a family and minimum wage jobs will never fall into the “good” job category. In my own experience, the minimum wage has been increased several times since I was a teenager, but prices just go right up with it. I don’t know. I feel strongly that raising the minimum wage is just not a solution, but I don’t have one to offer.

This lack of solution extends to some other issues, like Social Security and education. All of the candidates can easily point out what’s wrong, but no one says what should be done – except pour in more money. That could be ok, but no one will say where it should come from. Actually, that’s not true. In this particular debate, it would come from repealing Bush’s tax cut for people who make over $200,000, and I have no problem with that. But, can that really be the answer for everything they want to pay for?

In all fairness, this vagueness is an age-old problem that both parties are guilty of, but I wish it was different.

This debate focused on international affairs and the economy – not the issues where any Democrat would clearly be preferable to Bush (like the environment). Here I’ve outlined some of my problems with Democratic positions, but for the most part, I’m just choosing one Democratic position over another. Of course, that troubles my analytical mind, but what can you do?

I think the reason this debate inspired me was because I fully realized the power of the human factor, even with someone as analytical and geeky as I am.

Something about my candidate bothered me. He did a weird smirk-like thing with his lips, especially when he was listening to the other candidates. It made him seem, I don’t know, arrogant or shifty or something. Also, his lips sometimes combined with his eyebrows into a kind of unflattering look that just bothered me. But, when he was actually talking, he looked normal. And I really liked almost all of his answers, and his straightforward manner appealed to me. The other two candidates seemed over-emotional to me and I thought many of their answers lacked substance. I perceived a lack of experience in the one candidate and I thought her “angry voice” was a show. I thought my friends’ candidate got dramatic too often and relied on stories about his background and examples of people in the audience instead of real answers (although, I have a bit of bias – the story thing has always annoyed me).

These are all just perceptions, and all were slightly negative but not overwhelming. I was curious about my feeling of unease toward my candidate, but completely willing to ignore it because I liked his answers.

Then, at the very end, my candidate blew it.

He completely attacked my friends’ candidate to the point of saying that the fact that Bush is in the White House now “rests squarely on your shoulders”. He was vigorously booed and many in the audience seemed kind of shocked at the strength of his attack. I was. The moderator gave my friends’ candidate rebuttal time. At the end of that, my candidate asked for more rebuttal time. The moderator strongly denied his request and I thought it was over. When the next question was asked, my candidate decided to use that time to go back to the accusation! He was again booed and he looked a little unsure, but he persisted. I think it was a supremely stupid decision. I was so disappointed. The first attack – ok, whatever. But going back to it?

After that “question”, the moderator gave my friends’ candidate rebuttal time in addition to his time for the question. He took the high road and went straight to the question. The crowd applauded and I too was impressed. Even though I liked my candidate’s answers all night and I hated my friends’ candidate’s constant appeals to emotion over substance, I was embarrassed to still like my candidate after his behavior. It was so weird.

Of course, my friends thought it was great.

During our discussion in the car, I learned that they thought their candidate was clearly leading even before the outburst. I don’t know how. I guess some people must like listening to those dramatic stories about the candidates’ upbringing, about the plight of people in the audience, etc.

So much depends on these human factors. Preferences and feelings of voters, human emotions and mistakes made by candidates – it’s all completely intangible and illogical. In a way I’ve always known that, but given the importance of the issues and decisions, it just doesn’t seem right.

What can you do? I’m going to keep paying attention to these elections, and I’m going to become more involved with the party. Republicans certainly aren’t immune to the human factor either. Hopefully, I’ll be a helpful addition to the group and I’ll continue to learn along the way – about issues AND intangibles.

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