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 CNS Story:

GUEST COMMENTARY Sep-19-2008 (720 words) xxxa

Presidential candidates and voters ignore dire issues facing country

Catholic News Service

Responding to editors' requests for a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press, here is an editorial titled "Presidential candidates and voters ignore dire issues facing country at their own peril." It appears in the Sept. 21 edition of Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic newspaper published in Huntington, Ind. It was written by Greg Erlandson, publisher and president of OSV.

The mainstream media continues to provide the political coverage it does best -- keeping us informed on what is apparently America's only teenage pregnancy.

This -- plus hot-button issues like flag pins, a candidate's age, a candidate's angry pastor, a candidate's anger, 20-year-old charges of plagiarism and a 20-year-old DUI arrest by a candidate's spouse -- seems to be all the information some Americans think they need to pick the next president.

That proverbial alien visitor from outer space who stumbles on this election could be forgiven for concluding that we must be the happiest country on earth, since we have so few problems that merit serious discussion.

If only it were so.

The next president will face the most daunting collection of domestic and international challenges to confront any newly elected president in many years. In addition, if John McCain wins, he will face a Congress controlled by a hostile party that believes it should be calling the shots. If Barack Obama wins, he will face a Congress controlled by a friendly party that believes it should be calling the shots.

In either case, a cynic could be forgiven for wondering what exactly will change. With both parties playing to people's fears, and little effort being made to engage the American people in a substantive discussion of the issues, there is no informed majority, much less a consensus, for how to address the challenges of the next four years.

The same holds true in too many congressional races. Americans are faced with difficult choices that will impact our lives and the lives of our children for decades to come, but we seem uncharacteristically afraid to confront reality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists voting as one of the three key responsibilities of all citizens (along with paying taxes and defending one's country). But in a climate of superficiality and scandalmongering, even the sacred democratic ritual of voting becomes diminished.

What provoked these thoughts was a two-page ad in the Sept. 7 issue of The New York Times. Signed mainly by Republicans and Democrats with reputations for fiscal prudence -- let's call them the grown-ups of our political process -- it was addressed "to the presidential candidates and the American people."

The ad's purpose is to "reframe the nation's fiscal debate and raise the bar for what we expect to hear from our elected officials."

It painted a bleak picture of where we stand now: A $53 trillion gap between the government's current liabilities and unfunded entitlement promises, most of which is due to Medicare and Social Security underfunding for future commitments.

Also mentioned are overall health care costs, education and infrastructure needs, the national dependence on foreign lenders, and our own lack of discipline in terms of personal savings rates.

These issues -- which seem dry as dust in our tabloid political climate -- will impact millions of families. We may have a glimpse of that future in a recent controversy about Oregon's health care plan. While it is rationing state-funded medical care for critically ill cancer patients, it is willing to pay the cost of physician-assisted suicide as an alternative. Suicide as a cost-containment strategy is a morally bankrupt response to a real problem, but it is not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when these kinds of coercive choices could become public policy.

Placing ads in the Times is a time-honored way for policy wonks to feel good about taking a stand that most Americans are unaware of. But the ad coincided with a huge bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the economic vulnerability of our country has begun to catch the attention of more than just the professional worrywarts.

If we don't find the courage soon to force both parties to engage these issues seriously, we will deserve the consequences that in fact our children and grandchildren will suffer.


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