Second Tier Candidates, First Rate Ideas

Every presidential election is accompanied by hand-wringing over the lack of seriousness in our public discourse. The editors of The New Republic declared the June 3 Democratic debate in New Hampshire "gimmicky," "absurd," and more like Candyland than chess. Surely fearing another Swift Boat-ing, The New York Times' Paul Krugman devoted one column to a demand for policy specifics from the candidates and used the next to flog media commentators who prize "authenticity" over political motives and goals. And everyone seemed to lament that Wolf Blitzer had more on-screen time at the debates than any candidate.

But there's reason to be optimistic. From Iraq to global warming to health care to immigration, the 2008 Democratic primary is shaping up to be dominated by substantive policy debates on issues that matter. The New Hampshire debate featured discussion on whether individual mandates are necessary to achieve universal health coverage (John Edwards: yes; Barack Obama: no), how realistic it is to deport 12 million undocumented workers (Joe Biden: completely unrealistic), and whether Democrats should support building a border fence (Biden: build a fence to keep out drugs, but not people -- sort of a head-scratcher).

But what about what's not finding its way into the debates and campaign talking points? The leading Democratic candidates have neglected to focus much attention on everything from traditional liberal priorities such as public education to seemingly intractable challenges like prison reform and drug policy; from correcting the Bush administration's shunning of international law to remembering that the United States rivals nations such as China, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq in its use of the death penalty.

It is second-tier presidential candidates who are taking a stance on worthy, yet unsung, policy problems like these.

With an eight-person race seven months before the Iowa caucus, second and third tier candidates often try to position themselves as champions of lesser-known issues in the hopes of influencing the eventual nominee or even gaining a small electoral lift.. Ultimately, it's up to the frontrunners, with their power to influence media coverage, to discuss all the issues that matter. Here's some ideas from their competitors that they shouldn't ignore, and some advice on how to tackle these tough subjects without losing mainstream appeal.

Public Schools

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation (founded by Los Angeles real estate mogul Eli Broad) have sunk $60 million into an "Ed in 08" campaign with the goal of sparking a "serious nationwide debate on education reform" involving "every presidential candidate." But although Congress is currently preparing to debate No Child Left Behind, no Democratic front-runner has embraced the issue as a rallying cry thus far.

NCLB has improved the collection of educational data, and the achievement gap between white and non-white students has narrowed in recent years. But its requirements for improved teacher quality and increased academic rigor were largely unfunded mandates, to say nothing of the law's over-reliance on standardized testing and rudimentary skills-building at the expense of higher order critical thinking. Five years after the Bush administration's signature domestic policy achievement, in states like Tennessee and Mississippi only about one-fifth of students are proficient in reading and math according to national metrics. And a recent study by the company that administers the ACT, the popular alternative to the SAT, found that only 26 percent of American high school graduates who take a college preparatory curriculum are actually ready to complete college-level work.

A substitute teacher closed the New Hampshire debate by asking the candidates what their first priority would be in office. Richardson took the opportunity to plug his commitment to reforming K-12 public schools, saying, "I would upgrade our schools. I would have preschool for every American, full-day kindergarten. I would pay our teachers what they deserve. I'd have a minimum wage for our teachers, $40,000. I did that in New Mexico. We went from 49th to 29th [in teacher pay]."

After the debate, leading education blogger Alexander Russo reported that a Santa Fe New Mexican reporter emailed him to say Richardson's claims were somewhat overblown: The minimum salary for New Mexico public school teachers isn't $40,000 but $30,000, with a three-tiered evaluation system for salary increases based on performance. New Mexico is one of only a few states to experiment with merit pay for teachers, a move traditionally opposed by powerful teacher's unions. Indeed, linking teacher pay to metrics like student scores on standardized tests could penalize the professionals willing to take on the toughest assignments teaching the most underprivileged children.

But while tying teacher pay to performance is controversial, it's understood that the tenure system gives too many bad teachers a free pass. So compromises in which unions win higher starting salaries and benefits like housing vouchers (many teachers can't afford to live in the communities in which they work) in exchange for administrators having the power to remove the worst teachers from the classroom, regardless of tenure status, amount to a move in the right direction.

Richardson's sense of urgency on education reform should be applauded. Perhaps it's because as a governor, he's one of the few candidates in the Democratic field with hands-on experience crafting education policy. Only 8.3 percent of education funding comes from the federal government, and despite the dictates of NCLB, it is state and local governments that continue to manage our schools. Richardson boasts several policy proposals that are a good jumping-off point for education reform: enforcing national merit pay and a minimum wage for teachers of $40,000, funding all the mandates of No Child Left Behind, opposing private school vouchers that drain money from our public education system, and instituting a federal pre-school program.

Among the frontrunners, Obama shows some promise on thinking creatively about public education, suggesting summer learning programs for poor and minority students and a willingness to experiment with competitive pay for teachers in the hopes of attracting better educators to low-income communities. At the Take Back America conference on Tuesday, Obama spoke of "a campaign to recruit and support hundreds of thousands of new teachers across the country... It's time to pay our teachers what they deserve." But he was short on specifics.

Educational inequality seems like a natural issue for John Edwards, yet his website doesn't even include K-12 education as a policy area. He bypassed domestic education reform again at Take Back America, although he did speak about the United States funding primary school education for children in the developing world. Hillary Clinton has spoken about NCLB and increasing access to early childhood education, but has focused her public appearances on topics like the Iraq war, health care, and women's issues. But since education is a bread-and-butter issue for the Democratic base, why isn't any of the front-runners stepping up as Richardson has done to call our schools a priority on par with universal health care or the right to unionize?

A still more visionary approach to the inequality plaguing public education would be to speak openly about the way American schools are primarily funded: through municipal property taxes. After a Vermont court declared in 1997 that the state's system of funding public schools was unconstitutional, the state legislature implemented a solution in which all school funding is pooled and redistributed more equitably to local districts. Wealthy communities found ways to supplement their schools' funding, and they always will. But we can't expect high performance from low-income students if they attend schools with the fewest resources.

Criminal Justice, Prison Reform, and the Drug War

Mention these issues and you risk sounding more like a stoner college activist than a reasoned progressive adult. But a look at the numbers of our criminal justice system is sobering: Our prisons suck up $40 billion annually and the U.S. drug war costs approximately $20 billion each year. Over half of American inmates are incarcerated on non-violent drug charges. A young black man is more likely to have been in prison than to have graduated from college. And lest you believe our harsh system is stamping out crime, two-thirds of prisoners are eventually re-arrested. All of this is not to mention the inhumane conditions behind bars, including the high incidence of sexual assault and other violent crimes.

Dennis Kucinich is undoubtedly the only member of Congress to devote a section of his website to the "link between animal cruelty and violence against humans." But if you can stop snickering at his earnestness, big ears, and funny voice, you'll find he's right on target when it comes to reforming criminal justice. Kucinich loudly opposes a death penalty that isolates the United States from its developed-world peers and disproportionately targets the poor and the non-white. He tackles police brutality head on and opposes prison terms for nonviolence drug offenders, preferring rehabilitative treatment. He writes on his website:

Only the best and brightest should wear badges and carry guns. There are many, many great law enforcement officers, but low pay and terrible working conditions allow some to slip into the long blue line that should not be there. For example, the 'War on Drugs' has made many in the black community feel as though they live in an occupied territory. Greater minority representation on police forces would help, but a new national policy on nonviolent drug users would also help tremendously.

Progressive crime reform is a tough sell for mainstream candidates. Polls consistently show that about two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty, and although large majorities of Americans would like to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, being "tough on crime" and "tough on drugs" are perennially winning stances in American elections. Just look at Rudy Giuliani.

A good place to start moving in a more reasoned direction could be for at least one brave front-runner to note the absurdity that, under our current federal laws, one minor drug offense can cost a student federal financial aid forever. And of course, such restrictions are biased against less privileged college students with fewer legal recourses. Discussion of substance abuse should also move out from under the crime umbrella and into our robust debate on universal health care. The amount of money we're spending incarcerating non-violent criminals with drug problems speaks for itself. All Americans deserve medical and psychological support in kicking an addiction.

International Law

Did you know the well-coiffed Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, 63, has only two children and they are both pre-school aged? Or that he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in the Dominican Republic and speaks fluent Spanish? But perhaps the most underappreciated element of Dodd's biography is his lifelong commitment to international law. His father, Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd, was the second American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1946 alongside Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson.

As Dodd wrote in a Los Angeles Times column last October, he's always been struck by his father's generation's insistence that even the most heinous offenders of human dignity deserved a fair trial. If the United States took the moral high ground in dealing with Nazi architects of genocide, can't we do the same for the hapless Afghani farmers and teenaged insurgent fighters currently imprisoned without trial at Guantanamo Bay?

In the Senate, Dodd sponsored legislation to restore America's adherence to the Geneva conventions, restore Habeas Corpus rights to all detainees of the American government, outlaw torture, and limit the use of military commissions in lieu of public legal trials. At the New Hampshire debate last week he said he first priority as president would be to "restore the constitutional rights in our country. This administration has done great damage to them. I would do that on the first day. I wouldn't wait 100 days on those issues."

Edwards, Obama, and Richardson all briefly mentioned torture or Guantanamo at the New Hampshire debates, but in the following weeks, the issue gained increased prominence. At Take Back America, John Edwards borrowed a line from Dodd and promised to close Guantanomo Bay on his first day in the Oval Office. He was preceded by Barack Obama, who said, "It's time for us to close Guantanamo and restore the right of habeus corpus. It's time to show the world that we are not a country that ships prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries. That we are not a country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with."

About 63 percent of Americans believe the United States should uphold international conventions in the treatment of prisoners of war. But given the deplorable behavior of American troops and commanders at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the immense popularity of 24, which falsely portrays torture as an effective intelligence-gathering tool, some cultural observers worry that torture is becoming more and more acceptable to Americans. (A website has even been set up to glorify the "good kills" and "amazing tortures" on 24.) And of course, at the Republican debate on May 15, many of the candidates tripped over each other in their rush to defend inhumane interrogation practices.

Unfortunately for the Democratic field, the presidential contender most associated with a progressive stance on this issue is John McCain, with his compelling personal story of being held as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam for over five years. But McCain is the only major GOP presidential contender to support closing Guantanamo; restoring the United States' moral authority in a time of war is an issue the Democrats should squarely own.

They can do so by beginning to talk about the issue outside of the confines of foreign policy. After the 2004 elections, some Democratic strategists suggested that speaking about a "coarsening of the culture" could be a way for progressives to win over "values voters" who see Republicans as bulwarks against sex, violence, and stupidity in popular culture. But instead of railing against nipple slips, Democrats could point out the sad truth: There's no violence as coarse as that condoned by your own government and available for people around the world to see.

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