Thursday, October 30, 2008

McCain vs Obama on policy, part 1

I've bemoaned the way that the GOP primaries resulted in the choice of a mediocre candidate. John McCain isn't a powerful speaker or a powerful debater and he lacks a coherent vision on a number of issues. Yet I still prefer him decisively over Obama. If you read many right-wing columns or websites, this often comes across as an assumption: "of COURSE McCain is better, he's on our team!". Hardly anyone has gone over their platforms thoroughly. I think those of your reading this deserve a blow-by-blow.

Most of the information contained here comes from the McCain and Obama campaign websites. So there's the question of whether or not I trust them to run an administration based on their websites, and I'd say yes, at least as much as you can trust any politician. They've both triangulated and modified positions over the course of the year, but those are the exceptions. There are some issues (especially for McCain) where things they've said in the campaign don't jive with what they said earlier in the decade, but I think anything that survived the last 12 months is here to stay. A small number of positions weren't on their websites, but almost all of those were mentioned in speeches. I might be missing some things (mostly from McCain), but where possible I tried to see where both stand on a given item. Also sometimes the things in quotation marks are paraphrasing.

Before breaking it down, a word about the websites. Obama had many "Fact sheets" with way more detail. It's night and day. Granted, McCain couldn't get specific things done in any quantity the way Obama could, given that the Dems will control congress. Still, INFORMATION would be nice. McCain's "details" tend to be brief press releases, versus long .pdf files. Even though a lot of the Obama material is repeated (often several times) from one section to another, the total content is overwhelming. Is it easier for liberals, who can advocate for an endless array of programs? Maybe. But McCain could still stand to provide a hell of a lot more detail on his smaller number of proposals. There's a good McCain "Briefing paper" on the economy, but it's hard to find, and it's the only one of its kind that I can see. Oh and it covers a bunch of issues but isn't linked to most of them!

I'm going to largely ignore areas of agreement and things that are easy to say or seem like "common sense" but are said by everyone running for president.

National Defense & Foreign Policy

Both mention military pork, and I'm gladdened by that. Interestingly enough, both want to increase the size of the army and marines. Both want to end the practice of having ongoing military operations (ie. Iraq) be done in supplemental/emergency bills separate from the main budget. McCain is more gung-ho about missile defense, while Obama is very skeptical. Both have a lot of 'homeland security' proposals, none of which strike me as controversial. Obama mentions using more civilian government resources (ie. State Department) for operations overseas, something I'd love to see happen. Soldiers are having to learn things on the fly that we have experts on sitting in DC. Obama wants to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", though he doesn't address what (if anything) he'd do in its place.

Obama proposes to double foreign aid from $25 billion a year to $50 billion a year. I think $25 billion is already a waste given that it's largely going to countries that aren't poor (Israel) or to poorly run governments (Egypt, Pakistan). He also wants to negotiate with Iran without precondition, while McCain is focused more on getting Iran to shape up with sanctions. I think that it would be foolish to move towards normalized relations with Iran given their blatant support of militias in Iraq and their defiance of the international community on the nuclear issue. Strategically, saying this in the open only encourages Iran's current bad behavior; better to be like Nixon with China and work under the radar while keeping normalization in hand until something is worked out.

Iraq & Afghanistan

Obama wants to draw down from Iraq by mid-2010, while McCain doesn't have a timetable. As a hawk I prefer no timetable, but at least Obama's is slow and security gains seem to have held this year. I'm troubled by Obama's rhetoric about political progress in Iraq, which ignores several vital bills that have passed or made significant progress over the course of the year. Obama also says he has "Judgment you can trust", and gives the following example:

"In January 2007, Obama introduced legislation to responsibly end the war in Iraq, with a phased withdrawal of troops engaged in combat operations". He also says "A phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country".

Both of these have been thoroughly disproven over the last year and a half. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, saw with the surge that the US was finally serious about security. With Shia in particular, their willingness to take on entrenched militias only happened when the surge gave them some breathing room. McCain had a much better sense of how to move forward in Iraq, and I certainly trust his judgment more than Obama on the issue. Biden was brought in to add foreign policy gravitas, but his judgment was that Iraq should be split into three nations, and that would be an unprecedented disaster.

That McCain seems to "own" Iraq due to backing the surge well before Bush doesn't mean he should ignore Afghanistan the way he does. Do I think he'd botch it? No, but Obama is more serious about it, proposing to move two brigades there from Iraq. Afghanistan is more likely to need those brigades in 2010 than Iraq, heck, probably 2009 for that matter.


McCain: Yay guns! Yayyyyy!

Okay I'm paraphrasing there but that's the gist of it. He's against pretty much any regulation you can think of, with a couple exceptions like doing background checks at gun shows. Obama is for most of said regulations, though he mostly focuses on "hunting" and as a result talks about preserving the wilderness more than access to shotguns. Obama saying "(the) Second amendment creates an individual right" is encouraging to this right-winger, although I would be stunned if that position is in the top ten things he'll look for in a Supreme Court nominee. The strangest thing in this section is Obama wanting to spend money on a program to encourage hunting in young people. Oh, and speaking of judges...

The Supreme Court

It's an issue with about ten thousand times more importance than the daily/weekly partisan fixations, but it gets almost no attention. The next four years could well decide the balance of the Supreme Court for twenty years, as four judges (two liberals plus Scalia and Kennedy) could all step down at any time. It's not just 5-4 decisions that would change, but even some 6-3 rulings would be in jeopardy. McCain's rhetoric points towards him bringing forth judges in the mold of Scalia, Thomas and Alito; Obama's points towards Stevens, Breyer and Ginsburg. McCain would likely have to compromise in order to get through congress, though Alito and Robers made it through. This is an issue with a very marked difference between the candidates, and if you have a strong preference one way or the other then this should heavily effect your choice. I'm a Scalia man myself.


No federal anti-abortion laws are getting passed any time soon, but abortion is mostly a judicial issue now and thus primarily hinges on the Supremes. The one legislative scenario is Obama getting in and passing the Freedom of Choice act. The bill would void just about every abortion restriction on a federal or state level. McCain would veto, and a veto wouldn't get overridden. So another clear choice.

Technology & Science

Obama supports net neutrality, McCain opposes. I sympathize with arguments on both sides, so I don't feel strongly. Obama supports lots of R&D/research funding. McCain wants a ban on internet taxes. None of that should decide your vote.


Both favor a boost in the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers, something that's long overdue. Both favor a path to legalization for current illegals, though McCain says he wants to secure the border first (yeah right). Obama goes into more detail about fixing the abysmal immigration bureaucracy, something that SHOULD be a given for presidential candidates but sadly hasn't been. Obama also favors more border security, though primarily in the form of more guards/patrols, where McCain would have more virtual/actual fences. I favor a tight border and a revamped INS that processes a larger number of immigrants, so I guess I learn Obama here? What do you know, it is possible.


McCain favors school choice, which is wonderful but meaningless at the federal level. Obama wants a "Parental report card" and increased parental responsibility, which is wonderful but meaningless at the federal level. The big thing is that Obama favors a lot of spending: $10 billion a year for early education, more money for teachers, and most importantly, an up to $4000 refundable tax credit towards college. The latter would run into the tens of billions and would be a de facto subsidy for community colleges. There's worse things to spend on, but I'm usually against the federal government doing domestic spending that can be done just as well at a local or state level, and that's the case here.


McCain wants an end to all agricultural tariffs and most subsidies. I believe this to be Bush's biggest broken promise, because he said the same thing in 2000 but went along with the status quo once in office. Obama wants to cap farm benefits at people earning $250,000 a year, which would be an improvement, and he also seems to want to crack down on farm aid going to big corporations. Either of them would be better than Bush and Clinton, assuming they went through with it.

Part 2 will deal with the economy, taxes, energy, the environment, and a special grab bag.


Anonymous said...

"Obama supports lots of R&D/research funding. [...] None of that should decide your vote."

You forget, for engineering nerds like me research funding is one of the biggest issues around (I give it more importance than abortion, by far).

The money spent on research doesn't only help to solve problems in the present; it helps to solve and avoid future problems we haven't even thought of yet.

Sadly, programs like NASA are the first to take a hit when the federal budget needs trimming. This is in spite of NASA being apex of what mankind can accomplish, and being one of our best diplomatic tools (think of international space efforts).

Ditch said...

It's just so trivial to me compared to huge differences in areas like healthcare, national defense, how the constitution is interpreted, etc. But then, if R&D directly effects you, it would tend to be up there on importance.

This is one of my problems with the federal government being the primary engine of government action: small groups who stand to have a big benefit from spending have more incentive to lobby for said spending, than do taxpayers who lose a small amount per capita because the spending is spread out.

NASA is something where I view spending as a federal matter, similar to the military. A concentrated national effort can achieve things with a space program, whereas it would never get anywhere on a state level. Same way that state militias would have meant jack-all during WW2 compared to the national force.

Sadly, NASA is an exception, and most of the R&D money Obama wants to spend would be better off in the private sector.