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Building the Frankencandidate

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But our candidate’s character is richer, more eclectic than that. We like to think of him (in just this one respect) as biblical: He contains multitudes.

On matters of national security, the candidate is a mash-up of 24’s Jack Bauer and Colin Powell. In an age of terror, he approaches foreign policy from a bedrock posture of strength and resoluteness—but also savvy and humility. Unlike too many Democrats, he takes seriously the notion that America is in the midst of a global struggle with jihadism (hence the Bauer gene). But unlike many Republicans, his instincts are multilateral (hence Powell—in his Bush 41 incarnation, that is—or Bush 41 himself, for that matter).

On economics, the candidate is one part Warren Buffett, one part Bob Rubin, and one part Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. The candidate knows that, in an ever more tightly wound world, foreign policy and economic policy are inextricably enmeshed, that prosperity and security go hand in hand. He embraces free trade, gets the money markets, and is obsessed with restoring fiscal sanity to Washington. But much as he groks the transnational flow of goods and capital, he understands that the flow of information is driving globalization—and that innovation holds the key to helping America’s workers adapt to the new reality.

The candidate, if it’s not clear already, is a bone-deep capitalist. But like Hank Paulson, the head of Goldman Sachs, and Lord John Browne, the head of BP, he rejects the notion that raking in the dough is incompatible with being green. He rejects, too, the idea that being hardheaded precludes empathy; quite the contrary. Unlike almost anyone in either party, he talks about poverty and plans to attack it, and not just in the U.S. His makeup includes a dash of Bono and a pinch of Oprah Winfrey.

Onstage and on camera, the candidate is a cross between Tom Brokaw and The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet—even-keel, charismatic, and fatherly, a new Great Communicator. True, the mildly messianic aura this creates can be a bit nonplussing, but he leavens it with a penchant for being politically incorrect. The candidate’s favorite television show is South Park, and his sense of humor draws from the well of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In private, there’s a touch of Chris Rock in the mix—profane and funny as hell.

Clinton is triangulating, while McCain is racing to the right. Depressing? Sure—unless you want to start a third party.

One of the primary attractions of a third party is that it’s a venture into tabula rasa territory: Being built from scratch, it’s unencumbered with entrenched constituencies to constrain its policy options. The Purple Party’s platform would range across the spectrum, drawing from the best of the right, the left, and the radically pragmatic middle, advancing positions without regard to whose orthodoxies were offended—or whose oxen were gored. The candidate would wage a crusade on behalf of these ideas, few of which would ever be (could ever be) put forward by a Democrat or a Republican but which strike the party as crucial. Herewith, a few examples:

Tax gas. As Cornell economist Robert Frank has argued, imposing a hefty new tax on gasoline—$2 a gallon, say—would produce manifold benefits: “significant reductions in traffic congestion, major improvements in urban air quality, large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and substantially reduced dependence on Middle East oil.” The Washington smart set dismisses this idea as politically impossible. A new tax? God forbid. But, as Frank suggests, the proceeds could be refunded to voters in the form of lower payroll taxes—and with that twist, the idea has even been endorsed by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.

Make national service mandatory. Since 9/11, politicians on both sides of the aisle (and especially Bush) have chanted in unison that America is at war. And yet apparently this is a war that demands no shared sacrifice. Requiring every citizen to serve two years—ideally in the military, but at least in an expanded version of AmeriCorps—would eradicate that fiction. Back in the “ask not” days of John Kennedy, the draft not only guaranteed a full supply of soldiers, but ensured at least one sphere in our civic life in which rich, poor, and middle class mingled. And does anyone doubt that the invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have been undertaken so cavalierly if the elite had some skin (in the form of their children) in the game? Speaking of which . . .

End the war on terror. Or, rather, redefine it. The demagoguing of 9/11 has poisoned our politics at home and contributed mightily to the diminishment of our standing in the world. And terror is, after all, a tactic, and war can’t be waged on (let alone won against) a tactic. The goal instead should be combating the spread of Islamo-fascism. By that standard, the Iraq war was a mistake from the start, one likely to fuel the fire of jihadism rather than dampen it. Extracting ourselves from Bush’s disaster without allowing Iraq to implode will be no easy thing. But the process must begin with a recognition, now, that the enterprise has failed—and that, perhaps, as Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations has suggested, the proper course is to encourage Iraq to devolve into a loose democratic federation, with north, central, and south as self-governing regions, as opposed to insisting that it be a single democratic state.


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