A group of politicians and professors took the stage last night at the Rackham Amphitheatre as panelists for a town hall-style forum called “Election ‘08’s Impact on Michigan: The candidates’ positions on energy, the environment, and the economy.”

During the debate, which was moderated by Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, the surrogates for both candidates gave frank answers about the difficulties the next president will face.

State Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer stood in for Obama, and former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R–Battle Creek) for McCain.

The three experts on the panel were Michigan State University Economics Prof. Charles L. Ballard for economic issues, Michigan Law and Natural Resources and Environment Prof. Ted Parson for environmental issues and Michigan Public Policy, Mathematics and Economics Prof. Carl Simon for energy.

There were two points that all five panelists generally agreed upon.

First, that the issues of energy, the environment and the economy are indissolubly connected.

Second, that with these issues’ sense of urgency weighing heavily on the minds of voters, both candidates have been forced to paint an unrealistic picture of what changes can be made in the next four years.

When Simon asked the surrogates a question about reducing dependence on imported oil, Brewer said Obama’s goal was for renewable sources to provide 25 percent of our energy “within the next couple decades,” while Schwarz said that Senator McCain believes that the figure should probably be closer to 10 percent.

Simon said neither candidate has laid out a clear plan to get there.

“I’m hearing mostly numbers, even from our dear Governor (Jennifer Granholm), about how much renewable energy is our target.”

Simon referenced the two campaigns’ rhetoric about biofuels, specifically, corn-based ethanol, and said the technology has “drawbacks” that make it less viable as a long-term solution, including “its impact on world food supply and prices” and “the fact that it takes almost as much petroleum to make biofuel as it replaces.”

Simon said that on energy issues, both candidates’ positions have “sort of a scattershot feel.”

“It’s too important a problem not to be thought of in a very systematic and convincing way,” he said.

Parson called climate change “the urgent environmental issue that is like a train wreck happening in slow motion, that just nobody’s got a handle on right now.”

He said McCain was “an early leader” on the issue, but both candidates understand its importance. He said he “can’t say the same for Governor Palin, who’s made a couple of very disturbing statements about not believing the basic scientific underpinning of it.”

After climate change, both surrogates cited water policy as the second most pressing issue. Both were also vague about solutions.

Schwarz said McCain “has a holistic approach about the environment in this country, one block fitting into another.”

When asked how McCain would address the problem of diminishing water supplies in parts of the country with growing populations, Schwarz replied “I don’t believe that I could tell you, and quite frankly, I don’t think he knows either until he is elected, and until some of these things are studied and worked out.”

“The first part—global warming—he’s got it,” Schwarz continued. “He has nailed that one. He’s conversant and intelligent about that. The rest, what is a comprehensive plan for the environment going to be? I don’t know.”

Brewer said that “we are very fortunate here in Michigan to have somebody from Illinois running. He understands the issues that we have particularly here with the Great Lakes.

Brewer cited Obama’s record in the Senate and Illinois Senate as evidence Obama has been active on the issue of pollution in the Great Lakes.

“He would go well beyond where we’ve seen President Bush go,” Brewer said.

He said rather than just making legislation, there needs to be funding and action in order to “clean up and restore the Great Lakes.”

Ballard was asked how we would finance all of these suggested ideas to help with climate change and alternative energy.

He said that an important part of the next president’s role will be to use his leadership to encourage more saving and responsible spending.

“We have been on a national consumption spending binge. That’s one of the biggest stories of the last forty years,” he said. “Our federal government saves less than nothing by running large deficits, and our private citizens save very little.”

Ballard said that leaves two possibilities: an investment collapse, or foreign financing.

“But I think that there are limits to how long the Chinese and the Japanese and the Germans and the Koreans are going to finance our consumption spending binge,” he added.

The biggest recent source of debate regarding government spending is the $700 billion bailout of the financial system that Congress passed earlier this month.

When asked about the feasibility of their candidates’ promised tax cuts, the surrogates made it clear that other priorities may come first.

“I think he knows what the fiscal shape of the country is,” Schwarz said of McCain. “And he knows that tax cuts are not the first item on peoples’ agenda.”

Schwarz suggested that it would be difficult to pass tax cuts with a Democratic Congress anyway.

Brewer said Obama intends to let the Bush tax cuts expire since they are “unfairly weighted toward the wealthy in this country.”

“We’re clearly going to have to prioritize all of these issues that are in front of us,” he said. Brewer added that Obama’s first priority is the economy, followed by healthcare.

Brewer said that certain issues probably wouldn’t be addressed until later. Fixing social security, for example, “will receive fuller attention late in the first term.”

“The reality is you’re going to have to prioritize.”

At the end of the discussion, Brewer aligned McCain with the current Bush administration. In his response, Schwarz admitted he was “much more enamored with the John McCain, whose campaign I ran in 2000, than the beginning of this campaign. However, he’s coming around.”

The discussion was co-sponsored by Michigan Radio and the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.