Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grading the Candidates

It took me a few days, but as I promised the other day, below is my analysis of the three remaining candidates with a realistic shot at the Presidency. Should Bloomberg run as a third party candidate (or for that matter, Bob Barr or another prominent libertarian), I will revisit this analysis. Of course, this analysis is utterly useless if you are unwilling to vote for someone who is not a libertarian in any way (and will thus be abstaining or voting for the LP candidate no matter what). But I think it's a useful guide to the big three nonetheless.

I have prioritized and weighted the issues based on their importance to me in this election; I have no doubt that others will disagree with that weighting and prioritization.

1. Executive Power/Civil Liberties - This is by far the most important issue this year in my mind. A politician with an expansive view of executive power is a politician willing to cram policies down our throats regardless of whether there is an overwhelming consensus (or any consensus at all, for that matter) behind those policies. In other words, a candidate's views on Executive Power affect the weight I give to their views on all other issues. The simple fact that all three major remaining candidates come from the Senate suggests that no matter what we will have an improvement over Bush due to a likely respect for the institutional separation of powers that presumably results. A view of Executive Power that is less expansive is, by the way, a necessary component of the Madisonian view of faction that is supposed to be the focus of this site; an expansive view of Executive Power will lead a President to run roughshod over opposing factions in the hopes of creating a permanent majority faction.

First, Sen. Clinton's past creates many serious questions about her on this issue, particularly with respect to the way in which she handled her infamous Health Care Task Force, and also with respect to her avowed support of an expansive view of executive privilege. McCain and Obama's political careers have both primarily been in the legislative branch, suggesting a likelihood of profound respect for the legislative process. However, McCain's sometimes bulldog-ish style on legislative matters creates some room for concern, as does his support of today's FISA legislation, complete with immunity for the telecoms. I have no doubt that he would be a vast improvement over Bush/Cheney on Executive Power, and to his credit he has stood up against torture. As importantly, he has absolutely condemned the use of signing statements across the board, which neither Clinton nor Obama has done. However, McCain voted against restoration of habeas corpus, which is a huge strike against him. Obama, on the other hand, is a constitutional law scholar who has largely stood up against expansion of executive power in a way that neither Clinton nor McCain have; moreover, his rhetorical emphases on consensus-building hint strongly at a candidate who is unlikely to force policy and law down our throats without having something resembling a super-majority behind him.

Grades: Clinton: D, McCain: C+, Obama: B+

2. Foreign Policy/Defense Spending/Commander-in-Chief Role: Foreign policy is arguably the arena in which the President has the greatest amount of direct control, Constitutionally speaking. As a practical matter though, entrenched bureacracies often inhibit a President's ability to actually make dramatic changes in foreign policy. That said, I can say from personal experience that the Bush neo-con bureaucracy is largely located at the top of the food chain at the moment, and would likely be replaced under a Dem administration. The biggest sub-issue within this field is obviously Iraq, Afghanistan, and the GWOT. Sen. Clinton's position on Iraq ought to be cause for great concern, as should her advocacy of "coercive diplomacy" and her support of Kyl-Lieberman. Add to that her husband's rather extensive use of American military power, and I simply can't trust her on foreign policy or the GWOT. While I could not disagree more with McCain on most of his current foreign policy views, his pre-9/11 foreign policy views were quite sane. I also believe that, if indeed we must stay in Iraq, McCain is best equipped to oversee our actions there, and will do so with dignity and without authorizing torture and war crimes. Obama, on the other hand, is by far the closest to a libertarian in his foreign policy views (excluding, for the moment, his views on trade). Personally, I tend to support an immediate or rapid withdrawal of forces in Iraq, with a redeployment to Afghanistan for some of them. However, I do have questions about Obama's ability to oversee such a withdrawal in a wise manner given his lack of military experience (then again, he would presumably defer to the generals on the best way to accomplish a withdrawal). Importantly, Obama's election, in and of itself, would noticeably improve the world's image of the United States, creating an immediate intangible effect.

Grades: Clinton: D+, McCain: C, Obama: B-

3. Economic Policy/Taxes: Both Obama and McCain are well-established deficit hawks. We should never forget that the deficit itself creates a hidden tax in terms of both inflation and additional spending on interest payments. Obama is most likely to attempt to downsize the military budget, but McCain is the most likely to have the ability to do so. McCain has historically been a tax-cutter, and for the record, I think he was right to insist that Bush tie tax cuts to spending cuts. While I will deal with healthcare and SS more below, it's worth pointing out that McCain's positions would, I think, actually cut costs in those fields whereas Obama's would significantly increase them overall, and Clinton's would dramatically increase them. McCain is by far the best on free trade, though Clinton has a pretty good record in that respect, and Obama's economics are much more trade-friendly than his rhetoric. While I think the mortgage "crisis" will be over by the time the next President takes office, it's worth noting that Clinton's call for a lengthy moratorium on ARM adjustments is beyond obtuse from an economics standpoint.

Grades: Clinton: D+, Obama: C-, McCain: B

4. Health Care: Clinton wants to force health care down our throats at tremendous cost and with mandates that scare the bejesus out of me. Hers is an outright nanny-state position that is beyond disturbing from a libertarian point of view; equally bad, she insists on universal health care as an end in itself, and improperly diagnoses the problems with our health care system. She refuses to even discuss the possibility that there are long-term problems with Social Security, dismissing suggestions to that effect as Republican talking points. Obama correctly diagnoses the problems with our health care system as being cost-based, though he incorrectly diagnoses the source of those problems and is far too willing to blame insurance companies for all the ills of the system. Still, his admirable refusal to cave on the mandates issue shows a willingness to leave health care largely in the hands of individuals. In addition, he has actually acknowledged the long-term problems with Social Security; while his solution to those problems is hardly libertarian, my understanding is that it does provide some room for market-based reforms. McCain's health care proposal is far and away the best, and I evaluated it more fully awhile back. It is far from perfect, but by politician standards, it's pretty damn good.

Grades: Clinton: F, Obama: C, McCain: B+

5. Personal Freedoms: Obama gets some bonus points as the rare candidate who may actually scale back (however minimally) the War on (some) Drugs. None of the three candidates would support a Federal Marriage Amendment. Outside of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I don't think there is much that a President can do on most gay rights issues, but I have little doubt that McCain would keep that policy in place, Clinton would be likely to do so for quite some time, and Obama would likely try to repeal it relatively quickly. On firearms, all three are terrible; however, McCain should be by far the scariest on this issue, as he would be most likely to have political capital on this issue, particularly if he only ran for one term. All three, to my knowledge, support the onerous McCain-Feingold law, but of course McCain loses extra points for being the sponsor of that bill.

Grades: McCain: D+, Clinton: C, Obama: B-

6. Education: On education, McCain appears pretty close to the libertarian position; however, his position on No Child Left Behind is extremely vague, and is a major strike against him. Obama gets major points for his support of merit pay and his support of increased education tax credits (which inherently promote greater school choice). Hillary Clinton's position is in lockstep with the teachers' unions.

Grades: Clinton: C, McCain: B/incomplete, Obama: B

I would have liked to include judicial appointments in this evaluation, but I suspect that they will all appoint judges with whom I agree as often as I disagree, but who will on average be well-qualified and fair-minded. I don't think there is a judge on the SCOTUS these days with whom I agree with much more than 50% of the time on close issues.

Final Grades: Clinton: D+, McCain: C, Obama: B-

To be honest, I'm surprised that McCain didn't do worse in this evaluation, while Obama scored about where I expected him to, as did Clinton. I do think this evaluation shows that the differences between Obama and Clinton are fairly substantial, especially on the two most important issues of executive power and foreign policy.

The end result of all this is that Clinton scares the hell out of me, and I think would be as bad or worse than Bush/Cheney have been, McCain would be at least tolerable, and Obama would be above average in comparison to previous Presidents, but by no means the second coming of Grover Cleveland (or Calvin Coolidge, for that matter). Depending on how things shake out in November, I can see myself voting for Obama, the LP nominee, or McCain (but this would require that Clinton be the Dem nominee AND that NJ became a critical swing state, which is unlikely).