In this extra-long (and far from finished) campaign season, we have heard a lot from the candidates. We have seen them in many debates and public forums -- engaging with one another and with the animated snowmen and gun-toting hunters that populated the YouTube debates.
But all this exposure has not resulted in an abundance of substance. Hot issues like immigration and gun control provide juicy sound bites and smoking zingers on both sides but fail to inform voters on the candidates' stances on looming and critical foreign policy issues. Perhaps even more importantly, this flavor-of-the-week approach fails to engage or activate the millions of Americans alienated from electoral politics.
So, we know all that Michelle doesn't like Barack smoking, that John Edwards is a bit obsessed with his boyish coif, that Hillary needs Bill but doesn't want to appear to need him.
We also know that Mormonism and evangelical Christianity need to do some healing after the Romney-Huckabee firestorm, that Romney opposes illegal immigrants but still hires them, and that Giuliani loves his third wife so much he'll interrupt speeches to take her calls. I guess we can be thankful that no one is asking the boxers-vs.-briefs question, but the campaign hit new lows with the focus on Dennis Kucinich's close encounters of the third kind.
In this sound and fury, there is little room for the nuts and bolts of real issues. Whole regions of the world have been largely overlooked -- including Africa (except for AIDS and Darfur) and Latin America (except for immigration). Mega-issues like catastrophic global climate change, or the threats posed by nuclear proliferation and pandemics, have been subject to only passing and rhetorical reference.
On some of these critical issues, the candidates actually have positions and policy solutions, but they don't fit into the sound-bite structure created by a mainstream media on autopilot.
Where Are the Nukes? The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the political crisis in Pakistan should put nuclear weapons back on the front burner. Pakistan first tested a nuclear warhead in 1998 (along with rival India) and is thought to have more than 90 warheads. The nation, headed by General Pervez Musharraf, was a major nuclear proliferator -- selling nuclear material and know-how to North Korea, Libya and other nations. The Pentagon was quick to correct a member of the joint chiefs of staff who raised the alarm about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons after Bhutto was gunned down. A press secretary said, "We have no concerns. We believe [the nuclear warheads] are under the appropriate control."
But, the crisis in the Muslim nation -- which could be on the edge of either a civil war or a renaissance of democracy depending on who you listen to -- underlines the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, and the paucity of true leadership and vision on nuclear issues.
This is an issue where the candidates could really stand-up and stand out.
- U.S. nuclear policy: President Bush has overseen a renaissance of nuclear weapons, and under his presidency the nuclear weapons complex has pushed for new nuclear technologies, applications, and relevancies. Will a new president take the United States farther down the road of nuclear menacing or instead complete Ronald Reagan's disarmament agenda?
- Global Nuclear Proliferation: Iran's pushing of the nuclear envelope is just a small part of the story. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute names 13 nations that could "go nuclear" in the next decade, including: Algeria, Indonesia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Will U.S. policy encourage or discourage nations from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons? What diplomatic and military tools will the White House have at its disposable? How will the president use those tools?
- Nuclear Terrorism: Nuclear material is ripe for the picking. More than 15 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear stockpiles remain unguarded and unsecured. The threat of a terrorist organization acquiring or making a crude nuclear device nuclear material is real -- and preventable. Can the new president approach the issue from both sides: locking up loose nuclear material to make it harder to acquire, while removing some of the grievances that would drive a group to pursue such a nefarious tool of terrorism?
Where the Candidates Stand We need to hear a lot more from the candidates on these issues. John Edwards, for example, pledged to "eliminate nuclear weapons" at a forum in August. It was qualified with the phrases "over time" and "lead an effort" -- which means not tomorrow, and not alone. But it is a start. In a long speech in March, Bill Richardson asserted that "It took a Manhattan project to create the bomb. We need a new Manhattan project to stop the bomb: a comprehensive program to secure all nuclear weapons and all weapons-usable material, worldwide," and went on to say: "We should re-affirm our commitment to the long-term goal of global nuclear disarmament." In August, Dennis Kucinich appeared on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" that he would "lead through multilateral nuclear disarmament." He also called threatening the use of nuclear weapons "insane."
Writing in The Nation, Jonathan Schell looks at the statements candidates have made about nuclear weapons. He looks for candidates who have taken up the call for nuclear abolition -- a posture made timely again by an unlikely foursome of Cold Warriors (George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn) who co-authored "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," a now famous January 2007 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Analyzing statements by frontrunners Clinton and Obama on nuclear weapons, Schell finds less equivocation and caution in the junior Senator Barack Obama's assertion (during an October speech) "We'll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons.... As we do this, we'll be in a better position to lead the world in enforcing the rules of the road if we firmly abide by those rules."
The positions of the Republican candidates are clear, if not often highlighted. Responding to a question posed at a September 2007 appearance in Ashland, New Hampshire, Mitt Romney said: "We're not going to eliminate our supply of nuclear weapons. We're going to maintain our supply of nuclear weapons. It's an important deterrent. It's important for our nation's security."
No one wants to consider impending nuclear doom. It is a lot more fun to talk about sending Hillary to Mars. And there is nothing sexy about the delicate work of nuclear disarmament. But, the candidates have positions on nuclear issues. And as the field narrows in the early primaries, we need to ask them a lot more questions.
FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation.