Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Issue

Now that the presidential primary process has produced two candidates, the focus of the press has shifted to speculating over the most likely selections for vice president. Important as those decisions will be for Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, what will probably matter more to voters in November will be how well the two cats at the top of their tickets handle the three or four most important issues of the year.

The war in Iraq is bound to be one of them. Something to do with the economy is sure to be another. An issue no one could have predicted may yet emerge. This piece supports the notion that one particular issue — let’s call it “how do we want to live from here on?” — could well be what decides the election.

Concerning how we live, have we learned our lesson the hard way yet? Are we ready to change the way we strut our carbon footprints? If not now, when?

For nearly three decades voters have seemed easy to convince that living like a little king — having it all your way, all the time — is rightfully at the heart of the American dream. Happiness has been about having it 72 degrees, upon demand … mostly, it’s been about “having.”

Although the GOP has been using this concept/issue with much success since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, it remains to be seen if McCain can convince 2008’s war-weary, recession-fearing Americans that they are still entitled to own big houses and drive big cars, no matter what.

Perhaps there’s no more visible symbol of a greed-driven lifestyle, based on the pursuit of wretched excess, than the largest of the sports utility vehicles.

The current price of energy might make yesterday’s sense of entitlement a tougher sell than it was in years gone by. On the other hand, with his message of “change,” Obama’s job will be to sell the idea that living smart will actually be better than living large.

As sensible as all that might seem, dear reader, too many Americans are obviously still clinging to the belief that access to cheap energy is tantamount to an inalienable right.

So, convincing that ilk to accept that the USA can’t make the whole world bend to its will won’t be easy. If McCain can make Obama's call for change of lifestyle seem like a second term for Jimmy Carter, the donkeys could be hobbled.

McCain’s chances diminish if Obama manages to inspire young voters to see striving to be caring stewards of the land, to be responsible parents and good neighbors, as way cooler than a lifestyle devoted to acquiring the most toys and flaunting one’s wealth.

But change won’t be painless. It might mean nobody wants to buy your used monster-sized SUV. It could mean eating food that didn’t have to travel a long distance to get to your plate. Can you stand the pain of riding a bicycle for short errands, or swearing off plastic bags?

Obama is going to have to turn around concerns for the environment and society that have been cast as wimpy in the past by Republicans. He must make those concerns seem robust in today’s context. Hope cures despair.

McCain will probably stick to the Republican playbook by telling his countrymen familiar words to the effect that harnessing greed is still the best way to promote healthy progress and stability. Can another Republican get elected with that sort of out-of-date rhetoric?

Maybe, but not if the savvy Democratic candidate convinces enough voters that on this planet, in the real world, change is inevitable. Isn't being against change a lot like being against reality?

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