Somewhere in a parallel universe, real leaders in a country very much like our own are dealing with real problems. Imagine what America might be like if our top officials were addressing the genuine challenges that confront us.
Domestically, the president might have responded to the 9/11 attacks by calling for equality of sacrifice, as presidents have done in every other wartime emergency. Instead, our president pushed through a succession of upscale tax cuts and urged people to go out and shop.
In the parallel universe, the American leader is serious about securing our country. Here, it fell to the opposition party to demand that something as basic as airline security not be left to private, minimum-wage contractors. Nearly three years after 9/11, America's ports and other vital infrastructure are still sitting ducks. While the Department of Homeland Security played Keystone Kops with color-coded alerts that seemed suspiciously timed to alarm the public in an election year, the different agencies that were merged into one are still working on how to communicate with each other.
In that other universe, the president surely would have enlisted America's allies to combat terrorism. Had war between the United States and Iraq come, it would have come with the full participation of the world community, so that Iraq's reconstruction and the burden of keeping it secure would have been broadly shared instead of falling upon American taxpayers and GIs.
One can imagine a whole to-do list of the president's national priorities:
Repairing American democracy. American citizens still have no assurance that their votes will be accurately counted. Big money is crowding out citizen participation in politics more grotesquely than ever. More ominously, our ability to decide to rise up and throw the rascals out is being eroded by partisan trickery.
Fixing our retirement system. Corporate pension funds have been allowed to become dangerously underfunded. The public Social Security system will need an overhaul to match it to longer lifespans. In our parallel universe, both parties would work together to make the necessary, fairly minor, adjustments. In this universe, the ideological goal of privatizing the system blocks fixing it.
Keeping America healthy. Our present system, which wastes at least 25 percent of all premium dollars on paper-shuffling, claims processing, and profit, hurts doctors and patients, the insured and uninsured, alike. An administration of grown-ups would get serious about getting everyone covered, preserving free choice of doctor and hospital and getting rid of parasitic middlemen.
Dealing with global climate change. With serious people running the country, nothing would be a higher priority, because global warming will irrevocably change the planet. In that parallel universe, leaders are investing seriously in clean, carbon-free energy. Here, our leaders and their oil company brethren are in drill-deeper denial.
Saving the economy. In our imaginary parallel universe, leaders are reversing the huge dependence of the United States on foreign borrowing and the endless public deficits that are starving public services. Here, starving public services is a deliberate ideological strategy. Leaders make dire threats against China one moment and gratefully accept its loans the next. Meanwhile, American jobs continue to flow outward to nations with peon wages while the administration's corporate allies cheer.
Giving every child a chance. High-stakes testing won't equalize life chances if poor kids don't come to school ready to learn. In that parallel universe, the nation is investing seriously in early-childhood education.
Using science to the fullest. In a generation, scientific advances could prevent or cure most of the scourges that ravage Africa as well as diseases amenable to stem-cell breakthroughs, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, ALS, and viral plagues such as AIDS. In that parallel America, leaders are providing the funding for public research, being generous with help to Africa, and wrestling with genuine ethical dilemmas such as the limits of cloning. In this universe, while real menaces like avian flu are on our doorstep, religious fundamentalists and drug companies dictate science policy.
In a decade, historians will ponder how the American people could possibly have reelected a president who lives in a fantasy world and who is doing such damage to the real world.
The poet e.e. cummings wrote, at the end of a fine poem lamenting the condition of humankind, ''Listen, there's a hell of a good universe next door. Let's go." We, alas, don't have that option. We have to bring sanity to the world we are living in.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.
© 2005 Boston Globe