First, Obama's worst:
Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement
What he said: “I will make sure that we renegotiate. … I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.” —Democratic primary debate in Cleveland, Feb. 26, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: Trade agreements take years to negotiate, and Mexico and Canada would almost certainly seek new concessions of their own in a new round. Obama is right to argue that more economic development in Mexico will lower illegal immigration; he’s wrong to think that bashing NAFTA is the right way to address the Rust Belt’s economic woes. Happily, since the Ohio primary, Obama has backed off his harshest criticisms of the agreement.
Opposing the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement
What he said: “And I’ll also oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement if President Bush insists on sending it to Congress because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” —Speech to Philadelphia AFL-CIO, April 2, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: Although Obama cited antilabor violence, the murder rate for union members in Colombia last year was 4 per 100,000, well below the rate for the general population. The deal carries little to no cost for the United States; economists actually predict modest increases in U.S. exports. The upshot for an important ally in the war on drugs, however, is high, and consolidating Colombia’s commitment to open trade with the United States is a worthy goal.
Talking Openly About Bombing Pakistan
What he said: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” —Speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2007
Why it’s a bad idea: Engaging in military strikes in Pakistan happens to be established policy. But, as none other than Joe Biden pointed out last August, “It’s not something you talk about. … The last thing you want to do is telegraph to the folks in Pakistan that we are about to violate their sovereignty.”
Sitting Down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
What he said: Asked if he’d be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea,” Obama replied: “I would.” —Democratic primary debate, Charleston, S.C., July 23, 2007
Why it’s a bad idea: Engaging rogue states can be a savvy move, and even the Bush administration has negotiated with Pyongyang and sent envoys to meetings with Iran. But sitting down with heads of state without precondition? That’s another thing entirely, especially when it comes to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Carnegie Endowment expert Karim Sadjadpour told the Wall Street Journal, “Only two things can rehabilitate Ahmadinejad politically: bombing Iran or major efforts to engage.” No wonder Obama’s foreign-policy team has walked back its candidate’s off-the-cuff remarks.
Pushing the Patriot Employer Act
What he said: “When I am president … I’ll pass the Patriot Employer Act that I’ve been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senate—we will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America.” —Speech in Janesville, Wis., Feb. 13, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: British economists Willem Buiter and Anne Sibert slam the bill as, “reactionary, populist, xenophobic and just plain silly.” That’s a bit much. A little populist pandering is hardly a threat to the global economic order—the bill offers employers a small tax credit if they meet six conditions, including the probably unworkable provision that they keep their headquarters in the United States. It’s never smart economic policy to reward companies for placing limitations on their own profitable activities, but as The Economist put it, “Obama deserves a slap on the wrist” for this one, not a full-throated indictment.
Promoting Coal-to-Liquid Fuels
What he said: “The people I meet in town hall meetings back home would rather fill their cars with fuel made from coal reserves in Southern Illinois than with fuel made from crude reserves in Saudi Arabia. We already have the technology to do this in a way that’s both clean and efficient. What we’ve been lacking is the political will.” —Statement introducing the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2006, June 7, 2006
Why it’s a bad idea: Obama’s energy policy has much to commend it. But borrowing an idea from World War II Germany and apartheid South Africa? Bad move. Coal-to-liquid fuels produce nearly twice the greenhouse gases of ordinary petroleum, experts say, and it’s foolish to subsidize an industry that easily could go under if oil prices fall. Under withering fire from environmentalists, the Obama camp clarified his position in June 2007 as, “[U]nless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20% less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.” It’s since been dropped from campaign materials.
Eliminating Income Taxes for Seniors Making Under $50,000
What he said: “I’ll make retirement more secure for America’s seniors by eliminating income taxes for any retiree making less than $50,000 per year.” —Speech on Nov. 7, 2007, in Bettendorf, Iowa
Why it’s a bad idea: Most seniors already pay no income taxes. That’s because they already get preferential treatment in the tax code. Plus, why are seniors more deserving of tax relief than struggling young families? The Tax Policy Center—run by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute—criticized the idea in a recent report, saying that because government spending on seniors is already set to balloon due to retiring baby boomers, “it seems inappropriate to target special income tax breaks to this group.”
Boosting Ethanol Subsidies
What he said: “[Ethanol] ultimately helps our national security, because right now we’re sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth.” —Statement at the opening of a VeraSun Energy ethanol processing plant in Charles City, Iowa, August 2007
Why it’s a bad idea: As economist Paul Krugman has written, corn-based ethanol is “bad for the economy, bad for consumers, bad for the planet—what’s not to love?” World Bank economist Daniel Mitchell blames biofuels, including ethanol, for a 75 percent increase in global food prices since 2002 that has led to economic distress and rioting in such countries as Haiti, Egypt, and Somalia. There’s also little evidence that they do much to prevent global warming. A recent study published in Science demonstrated that the farmland needed to grow corn for ethanol results in deforestation on a massive scale, negating any benefit the reduction in carbon emissions might have. So why does the senator support such a wasteful and damaging subsidy, even voting for the recent farm bill’s billions in pork for ethanol producers? “[B]ecause Illinois … is a major corn producer,” he said in April. At least he’s honest.
Taxing Oil Companies Extra
What he said: “I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills.” —Speech in Raleigh, N.C., June 9, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: He’s attacking the symptom, not the disease. It’s certainly hard to defend oil companies making record profits while consumers are struggling to fill their tanks, but Big Oil has very little control over day-to-day gas prices, which are set by global supply and demand and, of course, OPEC. By discouraging oil companies from making big profits, such a tax could potentially discourage them from making investments in new refineries and finding new oil sources, resulting in fewer jobs and even higher prices at the pump. Jimmy Carter tried this in 1980, and it only increased U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Singling out one particular industry for punishment because it is politically unpopular doesn’t make much economic sense, either.
Opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve
What he said: “We should sell 70 million barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve for less-expensive crude, which in the past has lowered gas prices within two weeks.” —Speech in Lansing, Mich., Aug. 4, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: Obama was right in July when he said that the strategic oil reserve “has to be reserved for a genuine emergency.” Selling oil from the 700 million barrel reserve would increase domestic supply and could drive down prices in the short term, but encouraging consumers to use more oil isn’t going to fix anything. And depleting the reserve would leave the United States vulnerable to a supply disruption caused by a natural disaster or further unrest in the Middle East. Obama swapped common sense for this dangerous boondoggle in August after McCain started to hammer him on offshore drilling. So much for tough truths.
And here are McCain's worst:
Creating a League of Democracies
What he said:“We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact—a League of Democracies—that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.” —Speech at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, March 26, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: As Thomas Carothers argues in the July/August issue of FP, “[T]he idea that democracies naturally align is only half right and risks being a dangerous oversimplification.” Carothers and other critics have noted that such a league might further weaken the United Nations. For the most part, world leaders have been cool to the idea, and rightfully so. A previous iteration, the little-known Community of Democracies, founded in 2000, has stumbled into irrelevance.Calling for a Gas-Tax Holiday
What he said: “I propose that the federal government suspend all taxes on gasoline now paid by the American people—from Memorial Day to Labor Day of this year. The effect will be an immediate economic stimulus—taking a few dollars off the price of a tank of gas every time a family, a farmer, or trucker stops to fill up.” —Speech at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa., April 15, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: Pick your poison. Many (including Dick Cheney) predict that such a “holiday” would have little effect, as oil companies would just pocket the difference. Ditching the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gas tax and 24.4-cents-a-gallon diesel tax would deprive the already-strapped Highway Trust Fund, which relies on gas-tax revenues to fund transportation projects, of cash. Economists and environmentalists also widely deride the proposal, which would boost demand and therefore quickly drive prices back up. When you’re in a hole, it’s best to stop digging.
Requiring a Three-Fifths Majority to Raise Taxes
What he said: “John McCain believes it should require a 3/5 majority vote in Congress to raise taxes.” —Press release, Dec. 18, 2007
Why it’s a bad idea: States that have enacted supermajority requirements for tax increases haven’t exactly entered the pantheon of budgetary glory. Take California, which requires approval from two thirds of the state legislature to raise taxes. The Golden State has recently struggled to raise revenues—and has witnessed an increase in taxes disguised as “fees” as a result. Raising taxes should be like the use of force in foreign policy—the last resort, yes, but you never want to take any option off the table.Flip-flopping on Immigration
What he said: “I understand why you would call it a, quote, shift. I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people’s priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders.” —Remarks to reporters in Simpsonville, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007
Why it’s a bad idea: Immigration was once an issue where McCain could justifiably claim to be a “maverick,” unafraid to buck party orthodoxy and popular opinion. The Arizona senator even partnered with Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2005 to craft a bipartisan bill that would both give illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship and boost security at the U.S.-Mexico border. But with his poll numbers plummeting during the Republican primary, McCain began trumpeting the party line of “securing the borders first.” The problem is, without providing more opportunities for legal immigration or taking steps to build up the Mexican economy, taller fences and more guards will only address the symptoms, not the ultimate causes of illegal immigration.
Drilling Our Way Out of the Oil Crisis
What he said: “Gas prices are through the roof. Energy costs have seeped into our grocery bills, making it more expensive to feed our families. ... It is time for America to get serious about energy independence, and that means we need to start drilling offshore at advanced oil rigs like this.” —Press conference on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, Aug. 19, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: Even ignoring potential environmental impacts, lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling would make little difference for consumers. According to the government’s own Energy Information Administration, production of the new supplies would not even begin until 2017 and would have little effect on what Americans pay at the pump anyway—just a few cents a gallon by 2030 under the best-case scenario. More to the point, it’s a strategy of yesteryear. As columnist Thomas Friedman put it in a recent interview with FP, “When I hear McCain pounding the table for ‘drill, drill, drill,’ it reminds me of someone pounding the table for IBM Selectric typewriters on the eve of the IT revolution.”Balancing the Budget through Victory in the War on Terror
What he said: “The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.” —Jobs for America: The McCain Economic Plan, released July 7, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: The yearly bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is certainly enormous. Yet it still covers less than half of the United States’ projected $490 billion deficit for 2009. Given the massive tax cuts that McCain also supports, it’s unclear how his debt-reduction math adds up. McCain opposes a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, yet he feels confident enough to budget for victory by the end of his first term. Afghanistan is getting worse, not better. And as for “the fight against Islamic extremists,” how does one even define victory? Don’t try asking McCain: He doesn’t have an answer.
Making the Bush Tax Cuts Permanent
Why it’s a bad idea: You might say McCain was against the $1.35 trillion Bush tax cuts before he was for them. In 2004, he said he opposed them “because of the disproportional amount that went to the wealthiest Americans.” Now, he says he supports them because the economy is weakening. Yet “the tax cuts are more likely to reduce long-term growth than to increase it,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. McCain insists he will restrain spending and eliminate the budget deficit. But McCain’s budget numbers simply don’t add up, and the senator’s constant hammering on congressional earmarks misses the big picture: Defense and entitlement programs are where most of the fat lies, not in relatively small pork projects such as Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”Supporting Abstinence-Only Education and the Global Gag Rule
What he said: Asked on the campaign trail if he thought grants for sex education should include instruction on contraception, McCain turned to an aide for help, saying, “Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception—I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.” The reporter asked, “Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?” After a long pause, McCain replied, “You’ve stumped me.” —Town hall meeting, Iowa, Mar. 16, 2007
Why it’s a bad idea: A landmark, 10-year study sponsored by Congress found in 2007 that students in sexual-abstinence programs “were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, reported having similar numbers of sexual partners, and first had sex at about the same age,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Abstinence-only education is one of the core principles guiding the so-called global gag rule, an executive order passed by President George W. Bush in 2001 that prohibits giving foreign aid to NGOs that offer any kind of counseling on abortion as family planning. McCain voted against repealing the measure in 2005. Critics of the gag rule point to reports showing a shortage of contraceptives, clinic closings, loss of funds for HIV/AIDS education, and a rise in unsafe abortions since it was instituted.
Calling for 45 Nuclear Power Plants
What he said: “If I am elected president, I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America.” —Speech in Springfield, Mo., June 18, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: There are many good reasons to be skeptical of the widespread new enthusiasm for nuclear power, including its high-and-rising costs, but perhaps the best one is that, as experts Charles Ferguson and Sharon Squassoni explained in 2007, “a nuclear renaissance will take too long to have a significant effect” on climate change. Moreover, how do we know that 45 is the right number? A drop in the price of alternative fuels could “make nuclear plants look like white elephants,” the Wall Street Journal noted in May. For someone who likes to extol the virtues of the free market, McCain’s target sure smacks of socialist planning.Backing Cap-and-Trade Without a 100 Percent Auction
What he said: “We will cap emissions according to specific goals, measuring progress by reference to past carbon emissions. … Over time, an increasing fraction of permits for emissions could be supplied by auction, yielding federal revenues that can be put to good use.” —Speech in Portland, Ore., May 12, 2008
Why it’s a bad idea: McCain’s gotten credit for supporting a cap-and-trade system, but his specific proposal is pretty weak. Cap-and-trade systems work by putting a ceiling on carbon emissions, and then allocating permits that give companies the right to pollute a given amount. From an environmental standpoint, it doesn’t much matter how you initially distribute the permits, as long as the cap is stringent enough. But most economists think that, unless you first auction these off in a transparent process, you’re basically enabling a massive corporate giveaway, raising the likelihood that well-connected corporations or industries will get sweetheart deals, and failing to capture revenue that can pay for other priorities.
Now, I'm on record as supporting the attempt to create a league of democracies. And I find the rationale against it presented here monumentally unconvincing. No one assumes that all democracies think alike or will automatically cooperate on all issues. But there certainly are more commonalities between democracies than between non-, and those commonalities might be exploited. I really don't see this critique as being a reason not to try...maybe a reason it won't work, but not not to try.
The scariest of these bad ideas are, in my opinion, Obama's opposition to free trade. It may be that that opposition was a political ploy, and that Obama will, in the end, support the expansion of free trade. But if he meant what he said, Obama's policies threaten to undermine the global trade regime and squander American goodwill and leadership in a way George Bush couldn't even have dreamed of doing. Re-opening ratified trade treaties, or refusing to push for new ones, will have disastrous consequences for this country, and for the larger international community. Let's hope that, if he wins, Obama quickly disassociates himself from the anti-trade wing of the Democratic Party.
As for McCain's ideas, most of them are simply stupid, as opposed to dangerous. However, restricting immigration is the worst and most potentially dangerous of them all. Restricting immigration would put massive demographic and economic strains on countries like Mexico, by stopping unemployed and disaffected peoples from finding gainful employment. It would also depress the domestic economy by raising the cost of labor. This is one of the worst and most shameful of McCain's reversals. Again, as with Obama's trade statements, let's hope that if McCain wins he can move away from the neo-isolationists and anti-immigrants in the Republican Party and adopt the more sensible policies he espoused in the past.