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Texas Faith: Is the 2012 election serving the common good?


The following ran on the Sept. 11, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Political scientist Matthew Wilson and theology professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.

September 17, 2012

By Bill McKenzie

As a way of introducing this week’s question, I want to announce that our next Texas Faith public forum will be held on Thursday, September 27. William Lawrence and the Perkins School of Theology will be hosting the event at SMU’s Prothro Hall. The session will start at 7 p.m. and run until 8:30 p.m.

I hope that all our Texas Faith readers will put the date on their calendars. The session will focus on whether the election is furthering the common good, and how it can do so better.
With that in mind, I would like each of our panelists to provide their thoughts about these points:
*Is this election furthering the national common good? If so, how?
 *How do you think it could better serve the good of America?...

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
In some ways, this election is serving the common good by at least opening up a necessary discussion on big questions like tax fairness and the future of entitlement programs. While the temptation is always there to demagogue, argue in sound-bites, and mislead about an opponent’s proposals (such is politics), at least we see the beginnings of a realization that the status quo is unsustainable. Both campaigns are talking, in different ways, about hard choices and sacrifices. While it is only the barest start of an honest and open national dialogue about our country’s financial future, at least it is that.
The problem, though, is that neither side has yet been bold enough to ask for meaningful sacrifice from its own core constituencies. Republicans have done critical work in finally biting the bullet and touching the “third rail” of American politics, talking about substantive changes to the entitlement state (and essentially seeking to transform Medicare and Social Security from defined-benefit to defined-contribution programs to keep them solvent). Their credibility in calling for these sacrifices, however, is undermined by their anti-tax fundamentalism, their dogged refusal to even consider a return to the Clinton-era tax rates for upper-income households (which certainly didn’t seem to stifle economic growth when they were in effect). A concession on this score would make the push for entitlement reform more palatable.

Democrats, however, have been even worse. They haven’t even offered a long-term plan on entitlements, and seem willing to call for sacrifice only from the top one percent. Indulging the dangerous populist fantasy that our budget problems can be solved simply by “soaking the rich” ignores mathematical reality and does nothing to advance a serious, adult conversation about our fiscal challenges.
What I wish this election could provide is the opportunity for a real reflection on what we want our society to look like. Are we comfortable being a society where half of us get a government check every month (through Social Security, unemployment, disability, welfare of various sorts, or government employment)? Maybe the answer is yes, but we need to realize that that is what we have become.

Are we comfortable with the fact that the top half of our society pays 98% of the federal income taxes, essentially paying for everything government does outside of Medicare and Social Security, and that the top quarter pays 87%? Again, maybe the answer is yes, but I suspect most Americans are unaware that half of our society has essentially no “skin in the game” when it comes to frugal stewardship of public resources.

If we can, in the course of this campaign, have people come to grips with these realities and develop coherent, ethical responses to them, we can count that victory. I see now only the barest beginnings of this....

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
At this point in the process, there is scant evidence that the political system is contributing to the common good. Far too much of the discussion and debate has centered on the topics that cater to fears rather than facts.

Whether Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan would eradicate Medicare as we know it is a matter that should be addressed by knowing the facts about their position not by focusing on fears about what they might do. Whether Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden are stewards of a careful, responsible approach to improving the nation’s economy is a matter that should be addressed by examining the facts about long-term recovery through their revisions of the nation’s educational, manufacturing, health, and transportation infrastructure, not by focusing on fears about some sinister hidden agendas that they are plotting.

Thus far, the campaign has condemned what is bad rather than what can be done to enhance the common good.
One suggestion for a campaign that will serve America better is actually an increase of time on television. I will propose two changes in the political advertisements that appear on air.
First, I propose that political advertisements must be a minimum of four minutes in length. Second, I propose that the candidate whose position is advertised must appear and speak personally in at least three-fourths of the advertisement.
The Supreme Court made clear in Citizens United that there can be no limit on the amount of money spent by advocacy groups or political action committees, because to do so would curtail free speech. That is settled law. But candidates themselves should be the ones who are doing the speaking.

Mr. Romney should be required to take three minutes at least to discuss the details of his plan for providing health care to cover all Americans. Mr. Obama should be required in his advertisements to take three minutes for a detailed explanation of his plan for ending the war in Afghanistan.
More thoughtful talk focused more on facts than on fears could enhance the common good....