Politics & Policy

World without Walls

The central issue.

As the president prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address and the candidates work Florida and the Super Tuesday states, the 2008 election is — perhaps without any major player noticing it — shaping up to be about one central question: How does America deal in a world without walls?

All the major discussions of the campaign revolve around this issue. Immigration, of course. And terrorism. But also the economy — from the role of exports and imports to that of sovereign funds in domestic investment, including in the bailout of subprime-stricken financial institutions. And the environment, where global warming has become the only game in town.

#ad#Throughout the Cold War, America’s cause was to tear down walls. Now that not only the Berlin Wall has fallen, but also walls to trade and investment, to population flows and to news and information, what kind of world have we wrought? What is America’s place in it? Is this really the world we thought we were creating? Most important: What is to be done?

The parties and their candidates have very different answers.

On economics the entire Democratic primary campaign is about going back to the government of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — a time when the nation could do pretty much as it pleased behind walls of distance, of declining but still formidable trade barriers, and of American financial dominance that made most other economies largely irrelevant to our economic policymakers.

Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all favor the high taxes and expansive federal spending of the New Deal and its aftermath. The New Deal’s enthusiasm for economic regulation is reflected in their enthusiasm for environmental regulation and for giving trial lawyers all but unlimited room to roam. But in advocating a New New Deal, each favors a different decade of the old New Deal’s dominance.

John Edwards is a ’30s child. As Amity Shlaes has detailed in her revealing history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, a major and often-forgotten theme of the Roosevelt administration was persecution of companies because they were big and of rich people because they were wealthy. Edwards rants against corporations and wealthy CEOs the way FDR denounced the malefactors of great wealth, pledging to, as he put it, drive the moneychangers from the temple.

Hillary Clinton belongs to the Truman era. Her signature issue, national health care, was a big new idea when FDR’s successor first proposed it in 1945. Two decades later, partial enactment in Medicare and Medicaid led our federal and state governments to today’s frontiers of insolvency. Yet she remains committed to her Trumanesque proposal, even as more sensible, humane, consumer-driven solutions have been developed. Clinton may be experienced, but the nation’s experience since Harry Truman left office has, apparently, left no impression upon her. She is not as aggressively anti-rich and anti-corporate as Edwards, but she retains a Truman-era disdain toward anything big and moneyed except government.

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Barack Obama could fit easily into the ’50s and the Eisenhower administration. Tax rates and regulation would be astronomical under him, but, as with Eisenhower, his administration’s tone would be of national unity — bringing all parts of the country together.

Meanwhile, on immigration and terror, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama give every sign of believing they can act as though nothing has changed since the immediate postwar period, except that the Soviet Union has been defeated. They see little or no need to secure a southern border, and no awareness that, unlike past decades, instruments of mass devastation will certainly be slipped into the country if we don’t take the battle against terror to its source.

#ad#Much has been made of the Republican party’s nostalgia for Ronald Reagan. But even as they look back, each of the major GOP candidates is trying to stake a claim as the man to lead us into this wall-free world. Romney knows the new global economy; he helped to create it. McCain knows national security — in his early criticisms of the military’s strategy in Iraq and his early advocacy of the now-successful surge, he has shown a rare grasp of the strategic imperatives of the current conflict. And Giuliani has run one of the world’s first truly global jurisdictions, transforming the naked city’s once-brutal civil life into one of humanity’s most hopeful and humane.

Each has his flaws, but all three are grappling with the future in a world without walls in ways that the Democrats are not. Through their various tax-cut and spending-cut plans, all are suggesting how America can prevail in the borderless global competition for capital during an entrepreneurial age. Through their immigration plans, all ask in different ways how to maintain the integrity of the nation even as we take advantage of the talent available to us from easy global-population flows. And each recognizes the imperative of prevailing in Iraq and all other aspects of the war on terror.

Some elections are about maintenance — how most appropriately to keep to a route already mapped. Others occur while the earth is moving under our feet, as old barriers crumble and new worlds open up. This is such a year, the first in decades in which we have truly had to ask how do we deal in a different kind of world.

– Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group, Inc.

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