Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- February 19, 1996
by James Fallows

What to Cover

As the Iowa vote was being counted last week, one TV analyst noted that so many primaries would now be coming so fast that the Republican race could be over by the end of March. After that, he asked wistfully, what would journalists talk about until the fall?

Well, very little, as long as they confine their interest to tracking polls or the effect of negative ads. But in principle political coverage could include the questions our system will have to deal with no matter who the next president is. As a way to fill those empty months, here are three themes journalists might help us better understand.

First: is it time to declare defeat in the war against drugs? Several years ago, in Shanghai, I asked an official how China had dealt with the millions of opium addicts it had before World War II. "Simple," he said. "When the communists took over, they gave all addicts one year to be cured. At the end of the year, those who hadn't quit, were shot." Inhumane it may sound, but an approach like this may be what it takes for any society to make real inroads against drugs. At the moment America's policy has many of the drawbacks of a brutal crackdown -- soaring costs for new prisons, a huge share of America's minority population in jail for drug offenses -- without the offsetting virtue of effectiveness. No one wants to encourage drug use, but the question is whether the financial and social costs of today's losing crusade are becoming intolerable.

Second question: can we stand the social pressures caused by global economic change? Two decades ago, layoffs mainly happened when sluggish steel or auto makers lost to foreign competition.. Now they come when the most modern companies -- AT&T, Kodak -- downsize to win in the world marketplace. In this campaign the idea of economic anxiety, and of the polarization of America into rich and poor, has has been treated mainly as a campaign slogan, which Pat Buchanan has exploited and that Bob Dole may be forced to embrace. It's time to hear about the underlying realities -- whether any policies can stop this polarization, and how we'll endure the results if the trend goes on.

Third: how can we coexist with China? A quarter-century ago, under Richard Nixon, the U.S. began what seemed a promising new chapter with the world's most populous nation. Now almost every trend looks bleak. On trade policy, human rights, arms control, and perhaps most threatening, the future of Taiwan, American and Chinese interests seem at fundamental odds. The next president will confront continuing tests about how this country can defend its interests with getting into economic or literal war.

So if they run out of ways of analyzing who might win the next election, our reporters could instead prepare us for the choices we'll all face when the campaign is done.

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Copyright & copy; 1996, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.