After a year of flat-out campaigning, hundreds of speeches, acres of newsprint and three full-scale presidential debates, can there be anything left to say in the U.S. campaign? Can there be any meaningful subject that hasn’t been turned upside down, shaken out and examined from every angle?
Actually, yes. Here are a few issues, some of them affecting millions of Americans, that somehow, mysteriously, have not been seriously debated by Al Gore and George W. Bush:
• Gun control Remember Litdeton, Colo.? West Paducah, Ky.? Jonesboro, Ark.? Was it just over a year ago that America was wringing its collective hands over an epidemic of gun violence in its schools? When teenage killers slaughtered 13 people at Columbine High School in Litdeton, it seemed the moment had finally come to crack down on guns. Wasn’t this a natural issue for Democrats to use to rally moderate voters—especially women —against gun-friendly Republicans?
But listen to Democrat Gore in last week’s final debate. He gave the briefest possible answer when asked about guns, and stressed: “None of my proposals would have any effect on hunters or sportsmen or people who use rifles.” Could it be just a coincidence that the swing states where the election will be decided include Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio—places with lots of hunters who love their guns? I mean, could it?
• The failed “war on drugs” Evidence continues to mount that Washington’s 20-year campaign to fight illegal drugs by cutting the supply is a costly failure that is ruining tens of thousands of lives. The United States spends $60 billion a year on its drug war. The number of Americans in prison for drug offences has gone up 10 times since 1980, to 458,000. Tougher sentences combined with even more draconian policies, like “three strikes and you’re out,” mean that tens of thousands are serving a decade or more in prison (in some states, life) for simple possession of tiny quantities of illegal drugs. Yet anyone who wants them can easily get them.
Only a handful of politicians will even address the subject. Curiously, they tend to be unconventional Republicans like Tom Campbell, the Stanford economist who is running for the Senate in California, and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who points out that cigarettes killed 450,000 Americans last year, legal prescription drugs killed 100,000, while cocaine
and heroin killed 5,000. But mainstream politicians— including, of course, Bush and Gore—won’t touch it for fear of being thought (you guessed it) “soft on drugs.”
• The burgeoning prison population Drug offenders are just one part of a bigger problem: the enormous number of Americans behind bars. Spiralling crime rates in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s shocked Americans; politicians responded by increasing sentences, instituting “mandatory minimums” for many offences and taking away judges’ discretion to impose lighter sentences. Crime has been falling sharply now for five years or more, but the laws are still being enforced. The result: the U.S. prison population topped two million for the first time last year (it reached 2,026,596 at the end of 1999
—a rate of incarceration six times that of Canada). Another 4.5 million are on parole or probation, putting some 6.5 million under correctional supervision.
If they were all dangerous criminals, no one would care. But tens of thousands are petty drug offenders—basically addicts who might better be rehabilitated or simply left alone. Thousands of children whose parents have been sent away for years have ended up in state foster-care systems—another generation scarred. It took a generation for Americans to put these draconian laws in place, and it may take a generation to dismantle them. For now: little debate.
• The uninsured Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993 promising to work for universal health care. He gave the job to Hillary Clinton, with disastrous political results, and the number of Americans without any kind of health insurance has crept up almost every year since. It hit 42.6 million last year—a slight decline from 1998, but three million higher than when Clinton took office.
Health care has been a hot issue this year—-but it’s been almost all about who’ll do more to lower prescription-drug prices for senior citizens. Nothing wrong with that, though it turns out two-thirds of U.S. seniors already have some kind of drug coverage. The number truly in need and who would benefit from either candidate’s plan is relatively small. Still, seniors do something that a lot of other Americans don’t do: they vote.
It’s almost enough to make you wish for another debate. Almost—but not quite.
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