Vice Power

Conventional wisdom – and popular culture - holds that American vice presidents don’t matter much.  In television shows like “Veep” or “The West Wing,” the president’s second-in-command is portrayed as politically neutered, comically desperate or both. Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, famously compared his state of being to “a man in a cataleptic fit; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.”

Not in this election.

In the New Yorker this week, New America President Steve Coll points out that the battle between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan may have just as high – or even higher – stakes for the future of the country.

“Mitt Romney’s decision to anoint Ryan as his running mate and ideas man remains the year’s most revealing political move—a clear signal, amid the campaign noise, of what is at stake in next month’s Presidential vote,” Coll writes. In many ways, Ryan represents the most extreme elements of the modern GOP. He’s a leader, Coll says, of its radicals. By choosing Ryan as a running mate, Romney validated that fringe platform.

Ryan’s most disturbing position, according to Coll, is a fervent opposition to tax increases: “America’s debt load is unsustainable, but history, math, and common sense suggest that it cannot be reduced, never mind retired, without some new tax revenue,” Coll argues.

Another backwards notion: Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare. Beyond facts that the plan’s “ essential claim to reduce costs is unproved, and that Ryan’s stumping for it has been dishonest,” Coll notes that it won’t do anything to fix the larger issue of healthcare in America: The wasteful medical care and treatment provided by doctors who are compensated by the tests and procedures they order, not by the ultimate well-being of their patients.

How else might Ryan – and Biden’s – thinking impact the country post-election?

Read Coll’s full article for more analysis.

Photo credit: Reuters.


Why a President Romney Wouldn't Change U.S. Foreign Policy

“When it comes to foreign policy, presidents don’t deal the cards,” writes Senior Fellow Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast this week. “They play the cards they’re dealt.”
That’s precisely the message GOP nominee Mitt Romney does not want to convey. It seems that in his view, America’s commander-in-chief is both the dealer and the player, a formidable opponent who wields complete control of the game at all times.  
But according to Beinart, foreign policy doesn’t work like that.
“In the century or so since America became a world power, the big shifts in U.S. foreign policy haven’t occurred because a candidate with a certain agenda won the White House,” Beinart says. “They’ve changed because circumstances changed at home and abroad.”
The takeaway: Romney and Obama may try to distinguish their foreign policies – especially in the upcoming foreign policy-focused debate. But it’s mostly bluster. Their decisions will be determined by shifts overseas, not by partisan preferences at home.   
Read Beinart’s full post here.

The Missing Question from the VP Debate

In the Washington Post this week, Future Tense Fellow Rebecca MacKinnon suggested a question for ABC News correspondent and vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz. Here’s what MacKinnon hoped Raddatz would ask Vice President Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan last night: “Soon after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi, the China Daily ran an op-ed arguing that the U.S. has “paid a huge price” for its “Internet freedom” policy. How do you respond to this – especially in light of the fact that the White House asked YouTube to censor the “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer even though its content falls well within the bounds of First Amendment-protected speech?”
“Innocence of Muslims” is a film that mocked Islam, and enraged many Muslims throughout the Middle East and North Africa region in early September. At the request of the U.S. government, YouTube, which is owned by Google, restricted access to the inflammatory video in several countries after the attack on the Libyan embassy, and drew criticism from a community of activists that believes big companies should not be the arbiters of first amendment rights – and should not have the power to censor certain user content.
At last night’s debate, Raddatz didn’t ask MacKinnon’s question, and neither Biden nor Ryan delved into those Internet policy details. But MacKinnon and Tim Wu, another Future Tense fellow, assessed the role of companies, citizens and government in the debate over who controls access to content online in a recent issue of The Economist. Both suggested that citizens may play a larger role in future decision-making about digital free speech:
“Tim Wu at Columbia Law School speculates that video-hosting services may one day ask committees of users to decide whether to allow sensitive footage to be shown in their countries. Europeans unvexed by nudity might then escape American advertisers’ prudish standards. But it would be hard to enforce on social networks that prize their cross-border ties.

Simpler remedies might make users happier. Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on internet freedom, says web firms act as “legislature, police, judge, jury and executioner” in enforcing moderation policies and should offer their members more opportunity to appeal.”

Read the full Economist article here. And to learn about the science and technology platforms of President Obama and Mitt Romney , including their positions on Internet policy, check out the highlights from the latest Future Tense event: It’s Science and Technology Policy, Stupid.

Does Race Matter in Politics?

This post was written by New America Schwartz Fellow Reniqua Allen.

When Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus in 2008 and it seemed feasible that a black person could become president, the issue of race and politics exploded in the media. Questions about whether white America would vote for a black president, if the bi-racial Obama was even really “black” or black enough, and whether he would pander to the black community were daily fodder for the pundits and news outlets.

Flash forward four years later and for some, the question of race is more complicated and frustrating than ever. On Tuesday, New America NYC assembled a panel of journalists and academics to talk about the role of race in electoral politics – particularly in the oval office.  There seems to be no doubt that race still does matter – in this election, and in politics generally. But how much race matters and what that significance means is up for debate. (Listen to a podcast of the event here).

Fredrick Harris, a Columbia University professor and author of The Price of a Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Fall of Black Politics, said President Obama is radically different than Candidate Obama. He highlighted the contrasting priorities of the 2007 candidate who championed criminal justice reform, supported protesters in Jena, Louisiana, and called for a federal racial profiling law, with a president that has pushed for few policies targeted to the black community.

Kai Wright, editorial director of Colorlines and a fellow at The Nation Institute, said that Obama’s race is sometimes a distraction that hides a fundamental strategy and attitude shift within the party. He said that Democrats have moved away from race-specific politics to a more universalist, "race-neutral" strategy. That’s a result, he believes, of the welfare and immigration reforms of the ‘90s which some say have been detrimental to people of color.

“Barack Obama stepped into a party with that understanding [that the Democratic Party would be shifting gears to advocate more race neutral politics and policies]. Symbolically he has not challenged it,” said Wright. He said some of Obama’s policies, like those related to infrastructure and healthcare reform, will benefit African-Americans. But the President hasn’t emphasized those tangential benefits.  Wright worries whether this race-neutral stance can work against a Republican party that is “more than happy” to talk about race.

Gene Demby, a freelance journalist and founder of, said that Obama can’t have a conversation about certain racially charged issues like welfare reform because race talk seems to distract the public from the political issue at large. When the president mentioned the Trayvon Martin case, Demby noted, "he said something that tried to humanize the conversation and really it became a different story.”

All mentioned how hard it was to be critical of Barack Obama within black society, but Harris said that it’s also hard for a president to “deliver” to the black community when many of the institutions that comprise it don’t have any specific platform. He believes the black community—meaning groups like the Urban League, Congressional Black Caucus, and NAACP — need to have specific focused goals. Right now, there’s “no clear agenda,” he said. Without that, it’s hard to push for change.

The panelists weren’t sure the Republican Party would promote policies to help the black community either, despite recent high profile leaders like Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele, former Secretary of State Condoleeeza Rice and former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain.

“This is not George Bush’s Republican Party,” said Wright, who reminded the audience that George Bush received 13 to 14 percent of the black vote in some places and started a dialogue with some black leaders.

So should the president do more to advance a dialogue about race?

Harris said that when Obama talks about race — like during the aftermath of the Henry Louis Gates robbery — white support remains the same, and favorability with blacks increases. Harris said he only saw drops in the president’s percentage of the white vote when the housing market began to plummet.  The truth, he says, is “we don’t know what the possible [impact] would be if he went out and talked about these issues.”

It's Science and Technology Policy, Stupid

This post was written by Future Tense Editor Torie Bosch, and was originally published on Slate's Future Tense Blog.

Video streaming by UstreamWhich presidential candidate would do the most to further scientific and medical research, technological advancement, and STEM education? Do their differing philosophies on regulation, government funding of R&D, and even the human role in climate change actually matter in the long run?

Those were the guiding questions at “It’s Science and Technology Policy, Stupid,” a Future Tense event held at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The discussion began with a presentation from New America Foundation Bernard L. Schwartz fellow Konstantin Kakaes, who argued—as he recently did in a Future Tense piece for Slate—that politicians dramatically overestimate how much they can affect scientific and technological research. And contrary to the red-blue rhetoric that dominates so much of our political discourse, he said, neither party has a monopoly on science. Both Republicans and Democrats, for example, have backed boost-phase missile defense. But numerous studies—for example, an independent 2003 report from the American Physical Society—have said that the approach won’t actually keep Americans safe from missiles launched by enemies abroad. And in areas where we think that the parties diverge—for instance, fracking—Kakaes says that the differences aren’t actually as stark as one might expect. It’s a problem of being a politician instead of a scientist, of prioritizing today’s benefits over tomorrow’s potential problems.

Following Kakaes’ talk, panelists Sheri Fink, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigator reporter and a medical doctor; Amanda Ripley, a contributing writer to Time; and Stacy Clin, counsel for Sen. Mike Enzi, Republican ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, took the stage with moderator Robert Wright, a senior editor at Atlantic. (Ripley, Wright, and Fink are also fellows at the New America Foundation.) The group discussed how politics are shaping—or failing to shape—government funding of research, health care reform, education, and technology policy.

Cline agreed with Kakaes that in many ways, Republicans and Democrats share ground on science and technology issues—but they disagree on how much government should fund research, as well as on neutrality, or the debate over whether Internet providers should have to funnel traffic to all websites equally. While Obama has argued in favor of net neutrality, Cline said, Republicans are wary of giving the FCC too much power. Wright noted that in fact, Obama has backed off on net neutrality when it comes to mobile Internet—something that further demonstrates the shared ground between the parties. On many science and tech issues, the parties are themselves divided—Republicans don’t all agree on data privacy issues, for instance, as Cline pointed out.

Though Cline stated that Romney would freeze funding for much research and Obama plans to double it in certain areas, Fink responded that thanks to the fiscal crisis, there actually is “not much hope” of increasing federal money spent on such research in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean an end to acrimony: She predicts we’ll continue to see partisan debate over stem cell research and also health care: During the recent Obama-Romney debate, she said, the candidates continued to disagree over whether the infamous 12-member panel intended to cut health care costs could be considered “rationing.” While many Republicans warn that the panel could ban certain procedures, according to Fink, others argue that we genuinely do need to determine which treatments are actually effective and which are just wasteful spending.

And then we come to the STEM: As Wright noted, the acronym STEM—science, technology, engineering, math—has been everywhere lately as educators, politicians, and parents fret over whether students are developing the skills to keep them competitive in the job market and the United States competitive in the global market. Ripley, who is writing a book on education, agreed that the word is overused. Instead of talking about STEM, she said, she would rather we focus on rigor—whether kids are learning critical thinking. Particularly problematic is the way that the country seems to be counting on gadgets to improve education. Even poorly performing schools in the United States have digital whiteboards, she said, but most classrooms in the top-performing countries are surprisingly low-tech. The gizmos are just a band-aid on a broken educational system. But unsurprisingly, Obama and Romney disagree on the role federal government should play in fixing the schools. Despite having very little actual power over education, Ripley said, the Obama administration has been able to have a significant impact, in part because they had so much stimulus money to “throw around.” 

Much of the event focused on the difference between research and learning for their own sake—to further human knowledge and understanding—and for economic gain. The latter, said Wright, often comes down to a question of winning. In particular, politicians, businesspeople, and the laity hammer the importance of “beating China.” But Wright argued that the government shouldn’t be focused on beating China—it should be trying to improve American lives. 

Want to learn more about whether China can become an innovation powerhouse—and what that would mean for the United States? We’ll be hosting another Future Tense event on that very topic on Friday, Oct. 12, at the New America Foundation. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.


About New America

The New America Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers, breakthrough research, and policy innovation to address the most important challenges facing the United States.

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