Presidential Candidates – an “out in front” analysis

I’ve avoided the Presidential race for quite some time in this blog. Mainly, I was irritated that the whole thing started over a year ago. I felt it was a distraction from the present – the damage being done to America by the present leaders. However, it’s getting to be that time when the race should matter. For a while, I’ve been looking at the two candidates’ websites. I reported some time ago on my impressions of the technical aspects of their sites [1].

I’ve returned to those sites many times, and I have to say that while McCain’s site has improved, overall, I still can’t subscribe to his blog in a global way. I am still offered only 4 subscription choices: Iraq, Health, Economy, Spending, Campaign [2]. None of these seems to encompass the postings in the blog I am interested in. For instance, the current top post is “New TV Ad: ‘Biden'”. If I click on these available feeds, I no where find this headline. Sigh. I wonder what the average age of people looking at this website is? There’s no way I’m going to have five feeds in my feed reader, especially since many of them share articles in common.

Right now, though, I am trying to avoid both campaigns’ headlines and go straight for their issues pages. Specifically, I was interested in comparing how they rank issues by their order of appearance on their issues pages [3] [4], and what little blurb they have next to their issue title. I was interested in seeing how far I have to dig to find out what they plan to do about the issues that matter to me.

First, let’s compare the order of issues. Here is McCain’s ordered list:

  1. Economy
  2. Energy
  3. National Security
  4. Healthcare
  5. Iraq
  6. Climate Change
  7. Veterans
  8. Immigration
  9. Education
  10. 2nd Amendment
  11. Judicial Philosophy
  12. Technology
  13. Fighting Crime
  14. National Heritage
  15. Agricultural Policies
  16. The Sanctity of Life
  17. Space Program
  18. Ethics Reform

Here is Barack Obama’s list:

  1. Civil Rights
  2. Defense
  3. Disabilities
  4. Economy
  5. Education
  6. Energy and Environment
  7. Ethics
  8. Faith
  9. Family
  10. Fiscal
  11. Foreign Policy
  12. Healthcare
  13. Homeland Security
  14. Immigration
  15. Iraq
  16. Poverty
  17. Rural
  18. Service
  19. Seniors and Social Security
  20. Technology
  21. Urban Policy
  22. Veterans

It becomes immediately obvious that McCain’s list has no pre-imposed order (numerical, alphabetical, etc), while Obama does. Therefore, one cannot conclude from Obama’s issues page what matters most, or what order his campaign thinks suits his supporters best, or best represents his current political positions. McCain, on the other hand, is either a specifically ranked list (in order of importance to him) or totally random. If it’s ranked, then we can already glean a few things from it.

First, McCain’s campaign has put the economy at the top. This suggests, but is not conclusive, that they are trying to portray him as economically savvy, something for which he’s taken fire. Interestingly, ethics reform is last. This is at least ironic, if not downright on purpose, since McCain-Feingold was supposed to be the big Congressional ethics reform bill of the past decade and it’s something he’s turned his back on. Seems like the campaign wanted to bury this in his issues list.

From my perspective as an active researcher, I am pleased to see Energy near the top in McCain’s list. However, I also recognize that education and technology are STRONGLY related issues. They are further down the list (Education is in the 56th percentile and technology is in the 39th percentile, which means that 44% and 61% of the issues he lists are above these, respectively).  The space program is related to this, since it involves putting important equipment in space to monitor climate, monitor the sun, solar wind, etc. The space program is in the 11th percentile. This suggests that McCain misses the point of energy policy – it’s about providing the foundation for a solid, new energy economy. Education is higher on his list, but certainly technology and a space program are important to this and they are WAY at the bottom.

What do the candidates have to say? Can I determine what they will do about issues important to me based on their blurbs under the issue title?

Let’s go issue by issue. The quotes are taken from each candidates’ issues webpage, referenced below.

  1. Education
  • McCain: Excellence, choice, and competition in American education. John McCain believes American education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. He understands that we are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education.
  • Obama: Throughout America’s history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background. Barack Obama is committed to strengthening our public schools to maximize our country’s greatest natural resource – the American people. Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential. Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either – or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.

Hmm. From McCain, the only concrete I get is that he wants to make education more accessible to the American people. That’s definitely a good thing. We already have a universal public education system, albeit with deficiencies in many areas. In physics, there is a growing dearth of teachers who are well trained in the field and also deeply interested in teaching the subject. There have been proposals recently to increase the incentives to train more science teachers, such as “10,000 teachers, 10,000,000 minds” [5]. It’s not clear to me whether this is what he’s talking about, but certainly this program has been bounced around in the same Congress of which McCain is a member. Interestingly, the effort to move this bill through Congress succeeded in the House and died in the Senate [6]. It never made it to a vote.

What about Obama? His blurb makes the connection between a well-educated citizenry and competition in the global economy. He, like McCain, sees it important to make sure Americans have access to good education, specifically citing poor urban and rural areas. McCain’s equal opportunity message presumably includes this idea – of making struggling schools better to give the same quality of education to those Americans as those in wealthy districts.

From neither candidate is it really clear what they would do. Obama says a bit more about accountability and funding, and points out the connection between education and competitiveness. McCain talks about some vagaries (” . . . the promise we make to our children and ourselves . . . ” – what promise?), and hits one concrete (the opportunity). I think McCain gets it, I believe Obama gets it, but from neither do I get a sense of what they would do. Digging deeper is required.

Continuing the surface analysis, let’s move onto the next issue:

  1. Energy
  • Obama: Senator Obama has been a leader in the Senate in pushing for a comprehensive national energy policy and has introduced a number of bills to get us closer to the goal of energy independence. By putting aside partisan battles, he has found common ground on CAFE, renewable fuels, and clean coal.
  • McCain: Our nation’s future security and prosperity depends on the next President making the hard choices that will break our nation’s strategic dependence on foreign sources of energy and will ensure our economic prosperity by meeting tomorrow’s demands for a clean portfolio.

Obama has some concrete things. His blurb points to his legislative credentials on the subject. He makes a point to note his support for things like CAFE (which appeals to people in his party), renewable fuels (also appealing to people in his party), and clean coal (definitely an “across-the-aisle” issue, as the left is typically skeptical of the honesty of this technology while the right wants to exploit the value of this abundant fossil fuel). From this, one can guess that Obama believes in a diverse energy portfolio – conservation, non-fossil energy, and fossil-based energy.

McCain speaks directly to the “foreign oil” issue, seen as a national security approach to the energy discussion. This implies he sees the value of expanding U.S.-based fossil fuels – coal and off-shore oil are obvious elements in this. He ties the energy issue to economics, which is good – certainly, I value the new energy economy as a means to reinvent American industry. He mentions the “clean portfolio” – this implies he values a diversity of energy sources, including non-fossil sources. Nowhere are conservation goals mentioned, suggesting this is not important to him.

Onto the next issue!

  1. Technology:
  • McCain: John McCain has a broad and cohesive vision for the future of American innovation. His policies will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce, and a dedication to opening markets around the globe. He’s committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe.
    Regarding the space program: “Let us now embark upon this great journey into the stars to find whatever may await us.”
  • Obama: “Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let’s set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let’s recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let’s make college more affordable, and let’s invest in scientific research, and let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.”

McCain is straight onto concretes in this one! It’s interesting – so far, of the three issues I’ve listed, this is the one where McCain goes straight for concretes! He avoided them almost altogether on education, which outranked Technology in his issue order, and Energy had only slightly more concretes than Education. Technology, near the bottom of his list, is less fluff and more substance.

What does he say? He ties technology right to innovation, suggesting the “Innovation Agenda” (the Democrat name for the competitiveness issues) went straight to his brain. He’s big on the private business – relaxing regulation, taxes, more capital, open markets. Education factors in here, suggesting he gets the connection to innovation and competitiveness that he didn’t make in his Education blurb. Of note for me is his statement about protecting American intellectual property. I wonder how he feels about open source, or whether he even understands what that is?

Obama also goes right for the substance. He’s right onto the education issue as well, tying technology back to better schools. McCain and Obama at least have their message integration down. Interestingly, he mentions the recruiting of teachers, suggesting he also absorbed the issue in Ref. [5]. He notes trading better incentives for teachers for more accountability – this could be another play to lean across the aisle on this issue. He rounds out his blurb with three concretes: more affordable college education, more investment in scientific research, and more broadband access. Not bad! Certainly, all three of these are important to me.

Going back to McCain for a moment, he has this comment on the space program. This is probably the most say-nothing blurb in either of their two issues page. Why is this even on his site?

One final thing. In order to dig down into McCain’s issues details, you have to click each issue. Obama has chosen to provide a single printable document that outlines his whole platform. I’ll be pouring over these in weeks to come to learn more about the candidates on these  issues.

[1] “Comparing Campaigns: Tech Perspective”
[2] JohnMcCain.com: RSS Feeds
[3] JohnMcCain.com: Issues
[4] barackobama.com: Issues
[5]10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds” Science and Math Scholarship Act”
[6] List of major actions on HR362

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