October 2, 2006

Failures of the past and ideas for the future

This is the fourth and last year I will write a column for the Chicago Maroon, and I feel more idealistic than when I started writing. But before I spend the year reveling in the realm of distant possibility, let me begin with frustration.

For this is also the fourth year, but unfortunately not the last, that I have come back to Chicago during the national disaster that has been the Bush presidency. Given the state of our nation, I feel compelled to start with the problems confronting our country. So bear with me as I shout at the rain.

We have squandered the international support we so justly deserved from the tragedy of September 11. We were misled into a war that has cost 2,700 Americans their lives, and has wounded at least 20,000 more. Tragically, this war has not reduced terrorism, but increased it.

According to the National Intelligence Estimate, the report released by the U.S. government’s 16 intelligence agencies, the war in Iraq has not stemmed the tide of terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere, but ignited a spread of terrorism all over the world.

Bush’s failures have been made easier by a Congress that is not the robust legislature the framers created, but a despicable doormat to the president’s agenda and the whims of special interests. Instead of healthcare, immigration, or the energy crisis, what were the three pillars of effort of the 109th Congress? Making political fodder out of Terri Schiavo’s life, trying to ban gay marriage, and attempting to outlaw the burning of the American flag.

What’s more, the Republican leadership promised to overhaul the ways lobbyists have access to members of Congress in response to the frighteningly widespread federal investigation of some of its members, including Majority Leader Tom Delay. What did we get? Essentially nothing. The House has made one change—telling Congressmen they can no longer anonymously earmark tax and spending bills. In other words, they can be corrupt; they just can’t do it without anyone knowing. The Senate has not made a single change.

And those are just the problems our government is addressing. What about the fact that members of Congress have raised their salaries seven times since they last raised the minimum wage? What about the fact that our social security system is unsustainable and our healthcare system is broken? What about the 12 million children growing up in poverty or the half-million Americans who fall victim to gun violence every year?

In spite of this plethora of pressing problems, our president has spent more days on vacation—roughly one fifth of his presidency—and more days on the campaign trail than any president before him. No one expected Bush to burn the midnight oil, but if he truly is (as he’s claimed to be) a war-time president, why is he spending so much time relaxing and raising money?

But for fear of being accused of only liking to tear things down, let me suggest four things we could do right now to better our country and all of its citizens. First, let us make a national commitment, an Apollo-like agenda, not to going to the moon, but to making the U.S. independent from foreign oil by 2020. Second, let us pass comprehensive security legislation that inspects more than just three percent of what’s coming into our ports as well as some legislation and funding that protects our unguarded and exposed chemical plants—something we haven’t done in the wake of 9/11. Third, let us raise the income cap on Social Security to ensure that Paris Hilton will no longer pay the same into the program as someone who is making $90,000 a year—and in doing so, save Social Security from bankruptcy. Finally, let us strive to reduce the number of our children who grow up, in the most affluent society in the world, without hope. Let us declare that we will reduce child poverty by half in the next decade.

Many criticize the Democrats for always complaining about problems rather than solving them. I can see why some might believe that. It’s hard to articulate your agenda when the other party controls the courts, both houses of Congress, and the White House—much less to pass meaningful legislation.

But surely identifying the problems that face us is the first step to solving them. What infuriates so many Americans today is that the current leaders in Washington lack the courage to even recognize our most pressing problems, and instead address those that score political points. To put it a different way, shouting at the rain is better than standing outside in a storm and hoping people mistake it for sunshine.