Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Feasibility vs. Necessity

Senators Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton were in New Hampshire this past Wednesday for a sweep of the state and two speeches and events of note. In the greater picture of the election the presentations they made weren't spellbinding, but each represents a larger trend in the campaign cycle.

As part of a roundtable discussion on higher education at the Manchester Community Technical College, Chris Dodd took the opportunity to outline his plans for making college affordable for all Americans. It's part of Dodd's "Middle Class Matters" campaign--one that focuses heavily on education.

In front of a sizable gathering at the MCTC library, Dodd proposed a number of measures to guarantee that more Americans have access to higher education. His proposals included a program in which the federal government would match state college tuition reductions, publish an index of college tuitions that rose above inflation, gradually raise Pell Grants, as well as create government auctions for student loans in an attempt to end profiteering off of student credit. As Dodd engaged in discussion with the assembled panel of students, teachers, and administrators, he was quick to admit that while raising Pell Grants by $100 a year is a step in the right direction, he wishes he could do more.

What Dodd has brought and I hope can continue to bring to this campaign is an optimistic message with a strong backbone of reality. It's easy to get caught up in the pioneering proposals heard throughout the election cycle, but it's often those that admit their imperfections (even the slightest ones) that are the most achievable and encouraging. His speech comes at a time when more and more people are aware of the growing problems with the system of higher education in America and we are increasingly looking for someone to take a stand and fix things.

Fifty miles North, Hillary Clinton was in Rochester, NH to unveil her "Rebuild America Plan." In response to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the Clinton campaign must have scrambled together some staffers to prepare a hearty response to the problems that the disaster made the public aware of. It was an opportunistic move to use her high profile status to gain an edge on this issue, but she did so with grace and the clarity.

While her words and phrases capture our attention and cause audiences to nod in agreement--"Something is very, very wrong when, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in the richest country on earth, people are actually nervous about driving over bridges for fear that they’ll collapse. Or they’re worried that their levees may burst, or their highways may buckle"--her numbers may not add up. It's the risk politicians take when they try and stand out on an issue. One can only remember President Bush's plan to put Americans back on the moon and Mars in coming decades and the lack of long-term commitment that the proposal received from his administration.

I sense that a Hillary administration would follow through on an infrastructure overhaul more than space programs, but it is unnerving to read the specifics of her proposal--the numbers she states are pocket change when you're talking about rebuilding an ailing system of roads, bridges, tunnels etc.

One major part of Clinton's address was an Emergency Repair Fund whose funds would renovate or reconstruct among other things, the 60,000 bridges across the country that are "structurally deficient" for $10 billion over 10 years. That figures to nearly $160,000 for each bridge--a figure more often associated with home renovation than critical infrastructure repairs. And we're just talking about bridges...

Her ideas cover a wide range of necessary issues, but I'm dismayed at Clinton's decision to unveil the opportunistic side of a necessary proposal instead of making it clear to Americans what the real costs and sacrifices of charting a dramatic new political course will be.

Both Dodd and Clinton's highlight policy-driven approaches to tackling the '08 campaign--an approach that distinguishes the two from the likes of Barack Obama--but it's the job of us voters to judge the feasibility of the reforms we're promised and the character leaders we're offered.

(all photos: © 2007 by Luke N. Vargas. All Rights Reserved.)

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