According to the conventional wisdom, American elections are usually determined by pocketbook economic issues. This may give too little credit to the American people’s concern for how a superpower exercises leadership in the world; it certainly doesn’t take sufficient account of how “culture war” issues can be decisive (as they were in settling the electoral college vote in 2004). Still, Ronald Reagan’s famous question in a 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — plays a considerable role in shaping voters’ choices.
Catholics seeking to bring themes from the Church’s social doctrine into American public life will thus have many domestic policy questions for the major presidential candidates:
1. Is the much-deplored “partisanship” in Washington an expression of unprecedented nastiness on the part of legislators, or does it reflect genuine, deep-set, and significant differences of opinion on serious issues?
2. How will you help save inner-city Catholic schools, which are crucial lifelines for at-risk children?
3. How can U.S. immigration policy combine respect for the rule of law and concern for national security, on the one hand, with generosity toward those who wish to contribute to our national life and improve their own condition? Will you tell Mexico that a lot of the immigration problem in the American southwest is due to Mexico’s own public policy-driven economic incapacities?
4. Do you believe that “global warming” — in the sense of dramatic, man-caused climate change with predictable, deleterious, and potentially catastrophic effects — is an established fact? If so, how should we address this issue without wrecking our economy and those of developing and transitioning nations? Are you at all concerned that today’s environmental movement displays some of the features of a cult?
5. Let’s forget the mantra of “energy independence,” which is a pipedream. Can we significantly decrease our dependence on foreign oil without a major national investment in nuclear power? What can the federal government do to encourage the development of plug-in hybrids and other more energy-efficient cars? What do you make of the resistance to oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, which some argue puts the migratory patterns and amorous interests of caribou above national security and economic rationality?
6. How would you reform American health care without making doctors de facto employees of the federal government?
7. How would you rationalize homeland security, so that legitimate concerns about terrorism are addressed without wasting vast amounts of travelers’ time and taxpayers’ money?
8. What role, if any, does the federal government have in fixing the broken mess that is the American air transportation system? The Interstate highway system, once a marvel, now suffers from age and neglect; what’s the solution there? And while we’re on the subject of transportation, why isn’t high-speed rail the answer to both transport and energy issues in our major urban corridors?
9. How would your administration’s policies encourage a culture of saving and personal financial responsibility?
10. Everyone who can read a balance sheet knows that the Social Security system is heading over the fiscal cliff. What does “social security reform” mean to you? What role, if any, do individual retirement accounts play in pension security in America?
11. What can be done to address the well-documented link between abortion-on-demand and higher rates of divorce and extramarital pregnancy?
12. What role should Washington play in elevating our national cultural life? How will you use the presidential bully pulpit to address the cultural sewer of the popular entertainment industry? Pornography is a highly profitable American export; does that concern you, morally and in terms of our public diplomacy?
13. What is the relationship between tax rates and economic growth?
14. To listen to some candidates and commentators during this campaign, you’d think we were all living in a dysfunctional hellhole like Equatorial Guinea. Take a deep breath, avoid hyperbole, and give us your honest judgment of the present state of the U.S. economy. Is it fundamentally sound or not? Would you swap the U.S. economy, even-up, for any other major national economy in the world? If so, with whom would you trade?