Obama vs. Romney: Choose Your Own Disaster

By Conor Friedersdorf

The winner of Election 2012 is likely to preside over more losses to life, liberty, and property. Neither candidate is equipped to lead.

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Flickr/Ian Malcm

Describing Election 2012 as the "dullest campaign ever," David Brooks writes that "both parties are driven more by hatred than by love. Both sides feel it would be a disaster for the country if the other side had power during the next four years." You know what? Both sides have a point. American presidential elections are effectively a two-party affair. The bizarre phenomenon of partisanship causes so many to insist that the Republican or the Democrat is the right man for the country.

It just isn't so this time.

Various reforms are needed if the America of four years from now is to be a moral, solvent country governed by the rule of law. And neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will implement them.

The Economist is one of a very few outlets facing this uncomfortable truth, or at least a part of it. Republicans need to recognize that government has an important role to play in a capitalist economy, an editorial states, "providing public goods and a safety net." I hasten to add that many on the right are willing to acknowledge as much. In office, however, the GOP never seems to advance those goals any better than Democrats. (Often they do worse, as when George W. Bush filled key positions with bureaucrats who performed incompetently.) Still hammering the GOP, The Economist asks, "Why on earth are people who champion a small state supporting an expensive war on drugs that has filled the prisons to bursting point without reducing the supply of narcotics?" Indeed, the War on Drugs is a failure spanning numerous decades. It is also anathema to small government.

"But the Republicans' main problem is taxes," the magazine concludes. "Successful deficit-reduction plans require at least some of the gap -- perhaps around a quarter -- to be closed by new revenue. If the Republicans got rid of loopholes, they could cut all the main tax rates and still raise more money." Alas, the GOP consensus is that a deal pairing tax hikes with spending cuts ten times as big would be unacceptable! Put simply, they care more about taxes than deficits. Hence the deficit increases that always seem to happen under all Republican presidents.

Sure, Rep. Paul Ryan talks the talk about finally addressing the problem. So did Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. The Pledge, as colossal a failure as Washington, D.C., has ever seen, outlasted them all.

It endures even now.

Says The Economist, turning to the Democrats, their challenge is "more on the spending side," adding that "productivity has been flat in the public sector at a time when it has doubled in the private sector. Mr Obama needs to decide whether he is on the side of taxpayers or public-sector workers (who, if they work for the federal government, earn more than their private-sector equivalents do in wages and benefits). He needs to get serious about cutting back regulation, rather than increasing it; and he needs to spend more time listening to successful business leaders rather than telling them all is fine." I concur with most of that analysis, though it doesn't go far enough. As Larry Lessig noted in what remains one of the most penetrating critiques of President Obama's domestic agenda, he ran for office arguing that fundamental reform of the system was a prerequisite for doing the things that would make him a successful leader.

But Obama turned out to be perfectly content advancing his domestic agenda by bribing powerful lobbying interests, shoveling vast sums to Wall Street without adequately reforming the financial system, and otherwise deepening the epidemic of cronyism and special interest favors in American life. This doesn't surprise old hands like Kevin Drum and Jonathan Chait, who cynically expected the Obama they got, and are glad to take a health-care reform bill that's better, by their lights, than what any other Democrat has delivered. I understand their perspective.

But the average American is not a political junkie who knows from long experience when to believe a candidate and when to presume that his idealistic rhetoric is but a cynical flourish that he has no intention of backing up with actions. After the Bush Administration, it took a lot to get the American people to buy into the notion of politics as a means to meaningful reform. Obama's broken promises likely destroyed that possibility for a generation -- and as improbably as his promised agenda always was, there isn't any likelier path to fundamental reform on the horizon -- the next most mentioned vehicle for change is the all but departed Occupy Wall Street on the left, and the mostly co-opted Tea Party on the right. Anyone confident in either?

If that were all, we'd be in awful shape.

Alas, it's worse, for even unsentimental analysts like The Economist's editorial writers sum up the objectionable policies and pathologies of the Republicans and Democrats without mentioning the most worrisome and potentially catastrophic excesses of them all: the unprecedented assault on civil liberties, privacy, due process, Constitutional checks and balances, and morality that the United States has inflicted on itself since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

We're a country that permitted its leaders to implement, in secret, a premeditated program of torture, and never prosecuted them for breaking the law after its discovery, because 9/11 9/11 9/11.

We're a country that scooped up dozens of innocent people and threw them in a prison without charges or a protocol for proving that they weren't guilty. We kept holding some even after we knew that they were innocent!

We're a country that has empowered its president to kill citizens on his own authority in an extrajudicial process. Its legality is ostensibly justified by a secret memo that he will not show us.

We're a country that permitted President Obama to launch wars without Congressional approval and to violate the War Powers Resolution -- a statute he claims is binding law -- with impunity.

We're a country that has embarked, with much illegality and little public debate, on a surveillance effort so sweeping that the agency spying on millions of innocent Americans cannot even say with certainty exactly how many millions of Americans it has lately spied upon.

We're a country that reacts to the publication of classified information that reveals illegal acts at the highest level of government by punishing the people who did the leaking far more harshly than the ruling elites revealed as lawbreakers.

And unlike during past periods of war and infringements on civil liberties, these haven't been temporary excesses that were reined in when the loyal opposition and the people did their due diligence. This time the war has no apparent end, the people are complacent, and the excesses are mostly things that President Obama and Mitt Romney agree upon! The current president has built on his predecessor's work and made everything but torture part of the bipartisan consensus, and torture itself something that doesn't have any legal consequences for its perpetrators. 

Forget the once controversial Patriot Act, considered radical in its time and now no longer even controversial. We're poised to add, on top of every other terrifying thing I've just mentioned, a fleet of domestic spy drones with the capacity to make America resemble a nation from a dystopian novel. Rather than an extremely consequential domestic-drone policy being shaped by intense public debate, it is driven by inertia and the fact that the domestic drone industry's interests are quietly advanced by a lobby that increases its spending at an alarming pace each year.

In another recent item, I noted a powerful and important sentence from a Los Angeles Times editorial: "Allowing the president of the United States to act as judge, jury and executioner for suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, on the basis of secret evidence is impossible to reconcile with the Constitution's guarantee that a life will not be taken without due process of law."

One of many remarkable things about that sentence: The editorial board that wrote it is effectively saying the man they'll almost surely endorse, sooner or later, is illegally killing Americans. I'd suggest it is better to refuse to reward a leader like that with an endorsement for reelection. But my argument would be much more powerful and persuasive if his Republican opponent wasn't by all appearances as likely to assert that same unprecedented, reckless, illegal power.

Whoever wins Election 2012, Americans will wake up the next morning losers, for at minimum it will be another four years living under a president likely to prove a disaster for the country, at least if you think that another four years of cronyism, extrajudicial killing, growing deficits, imprisoning scores without charges or trial, waging extra-constitutional wars, and spying on innocent Americans is a disaster. I don't mean to suggest, partisans of one stripe or another, that there is no difference between Obama and Romney. If you could run parallel versions of America under each man I am sure the outcomes would be different in many specifics, and also in aggregate: One would be really bad for the country, the other would be even worse for it.

What little room there is to mitigate the choose-your-own-disaster that is Election 2012 lies in electing a Congress with adversarial members: men and women eager to check the executive, to zealously oversee his actions, to restrain his excesses. Are there any people like that running this cycle? For civil libertarians especially, the White House is lost until at least 2016. We're aware of that going into election day, unlike in 2012. It is imperative to pressure Congress to push back hard regardless of who wins the presidential race, which hardly matters for our purposes. God only knows what liberties either man might claim as his due if given a honeymoon.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/obama-vs-romney-choose-your-own-disaster/260578/