Is Islam fundamentally at odds with the notion of religious freedom? Under what circumstances do the needs of other countries come before the needs of the American people? These are the kinds of questions our leaders should be answering instead of wasting our time reinterpreting current events or reciting hackneyed position statements. The first presidential debate took place over half a century ago. Instead of repeating the same tiresome spectacle every four years that has little to do with presidential powers in the real world, why aren’t we throwing issues on the table that speak to a president’s higher vision, like the role of ethics in government?
Presidential powers make election year debate drama meaningless.
Presidential powers are limited, even for an executive order junkie like Barack Obama. Like a president’s laundry list in the annual State of the Union Address, much of what we hear from candidates will never come to fruition. Nevertheless, we watch mock moderated debates and listen to grand designs that have been rehearsed for months and are delivered in a safe, barely confrontational venue.
President Obama has yet to come up with a tax hike phrase that will best Jimmy Carter’s anti-wealth jets and martinis remark. Mitt Romney is not the first Republican to back defense spending. We have heard it all before and unless the timing is right the promises and pledges mean nothing because a hostile Congress will never let a president get away with any of it (see: 10 Rules Republican Presidential Candidates Should Live By).
Ethics in government: what happens when opportunity knocks?
Americans know about the cover up over Benghazi. The question that needs to be asked is not what happened in Libya, but why we deemed it preferable to take the blame for a made in America video about Islam instead of responding to a terrorist attack. The issue is one of ethics in government, not current events or even why our government lies. Sometimes lies are necessary and arguably ethical, but they need to serve a purpose. Instead of asking candidates how many jobs they are going to create when we know any answer is a wildly inflated guess at best, we should be inquiring when and why they believe it is their duty to lie to the people.
Candidates take credit for presidential powers they will never possess.
Barack Obama had it good for two years. Suddenly the glory days of the health care bill and Dodd-Frank were over. The American Jobs Act is collecting dust on a shelf and the only option left is wreaking havoc with executive orders. Instead of rehashing the president’s history of independent action we should be asking what circumstances mandate that the separation of powers be set aside for the good of the nation.
War Powers Act puts a dent in plans for Middle East intervention.
The War Powers Act goes back to the days of Richard Nixon. Presidential powers include the authority to protect Americans in other countries. We just saw how well that works out in practice.
When the time comes to get tough, a hostile Congress will invariably butt heads with a president intent on going around the War Powers Act. We know how Republicans in Congress felt when Barack Obama took matters into his own hands and intervened in Libya in 2011. Mitt Romney talks about getting tough in the Middle East. Instead of listening to arguments about the merits of military action, we should find out what situations would justify military intervention without the consent of Congress.
When is it justified for government to shirk its duty to the American people?
With millions of Americans out of work and Republicans and Democrats fighting over funding unemployment benefits, how did our Labor Department find the time and tax revenue to pay for $10 million in grants to battle child labor in Ecuador and Panama, $1.5 million for labor rights in Colombia, $2.2 million for labor groups in Haiti and Peru, or $5 million for child labor in South and Southeast Asia?¹ Given that recipients of unemployment benefits pay taxes on their unemployment checks, we should have asked what circumstances dictate that the needs of other countries come before the needs of our people. How do we justify spending the tax dollars of Americans in need on the needy in other nations?
There is also a duty to protect at home. We can all read candidate tax plans on their campaign websites. What are their views on the ethical use of the tax code? Can ethics in government deny the use of the tax code to appease angry Americans by redistributing income? Should taxation be used to pit one class against another for political gain?
The role of duty and ethics in government goes unanswered for four more years.
How do we know what a president’s vision for the role of ethics in government will be and whether his or her concept of duty will rise above simple partisan opportunism? Political campaigns steer us away from questions that speak to how duty, morality, and ethics influence presidential actions. We now know what Barack Obama will do when he has the chance. Sadly, we wait for history to supply the answers to questions we should raise before we cast our votes.