Candidates must choose

A storm blew through town the night of Super Tuesday. Rain beat a tattoo across the roof and wind rattled the windowpanes. During a lull in the action, I took the dog for his evening constitutional. When we reached the farthest edge of the park near our house, a lightning burst slapped the low clouds overhead and made me duck.

It was much better indoors. With presidential primaries taking place in 24 states, there was plenty to watch on TV. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee was the first to score, winning West Virginia. Then front-runner John McCain started picking up states, and Mitt Romney tried to maintain a brave face as he watched his candidacy slide a little closer to the brink of irrelevancy.

As most observers had predicted, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton traded blows throughout the evening. By dawn’s early light, it appeared Clinton had a slight advantage, topping Obama by just 39 delegates.

The real story, though, was less about the individual candidates and more about the voters themselves. As TIME magazine reported, total votes for the two Democrats equaled 14,622,822. The three Republican candidates (plus or minus Ron Paul) received 8,370,022. The Democrats drew a lot more people into their tent than the Republicans did — a pattern repeated again and again during this primary season. This has a lot of Republicans feeling very nervous about what they can expect in the November elections, which may have something to do with why a remarkably high number of Republican incumbents in the House and Senate have decided to retire.

But this pattern also suggests an uncommon sense of urgency on the part of many voters. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on. At the same time, the domestic economy appears to be tanking; this summer, the mortgage crisis could force a scary number of Americans out of their homes. But if unaffordable mortgages don’t do it, the high cost of health care might — the numbers of the uninsured and under-insured continue to grow. It’s no wonder that “change” has become a battle cry.

But change is a loaded concept, especially for those front-running Democrats. After the Dems recaptured majorities in the House and Senate in 2006, you might have thought some form of policy change was in the offing regarding the war in Iraq. This hasn’t happened. Oh, there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing from the likes of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, but the fact remains that President Bush has had his way with the Democrats, particularly when it comes to budget-busting appropriations for the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democrats have repeatedly threatened to pull the plug on war funding, only to back down when the president has questioned their support for the troops. Indeed, supporting the troops has become a catchphrase employed by politicians of both parties to avoid any serious examination of what the troops are actually doing in Baghdad or Falujah or, for that matter, Kabul.

While Sens. Clinton and Obama have both been critical of Bush’s war policy (McCain, by the way, has said he’s prepared to stay the course for 100 years), neither has called for a complete withdrawal from Iraq. This unwillingness has been couched as a kind of strategic realism. But, should either of these two candidates become president, this is bound to collide with the expectations of voters who elected them.

As economist Robert Reich has observed, “Middle-class families have exhausted the coping mechanisms they have used for more than three decades to get by.” Median wages today, adjusted for inflation, are lower than they were in 1970. In order to deal with this reduced spending power, the number of working mothers with school-age children has almost doubled over the same time period, from 38 percent to 70 percent. And Americans work more hours — over 350 hours a year more than the average European. We’re also up to our eyeballs in debt: The average American household owes $18,654, not including mortgages. The average credit card debt is $8,000.

The next president will not only inherit two foreign wars and an economy running on empty calories, but a record-breaking budget deficit. The candidates can talk all they want about change, but unless we change the way we think about our militaristic role in the world, none of the ideas — from universal health care to affordable college — that might begin to bring some balance to our domestic economy will stand a chance.

The line of storms that blew through town on Super Tuesday killed over 50 people in states to the south of us, like Tennessee. For a couple of days, the sufferings of our fellow citizens competed for headlines with the political horse race. Then the news cycle moved on. The candidates, reportedly, were refining their messages.

It made me want to duck. 

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