Framing the campaign for Obama and Romney

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Having listened to both national conventions in consecutive weeks, you’d think these two characters, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, were demons from a bygone era. Not only are they probably nice people you’d like to have dinner with, they probably don’t mean most of what they say, and don’t say what they really mean.

We forget sometimes that they can’t help themselves, since they are politicians first and decent people second. Since decency and civil discourse aren’t possible in the era of 24/7 sensational reporting/blogging, perhaps we should discount everything we hear and search for the meaning behind their appearances.

But let’s not make the mistake of the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, who was looking at the sky and fell inadvertently in a well, or the silly one who looked for his lost car keys under the street lamp because that is where he could see best.

Instead, we should ask serious questions not only about the facts, but also about the framing of these facts. As any trial lawyer will remind you, framing the facts ultimately influences how they are judged.

Which frames matter more than others? Three frameworks weigh heavily on the American mind: the economy, national security and religion — and not necessarily in any particular order.

The religious framework is front and back in every discussion, from one’s character, trustworthiness and faith, to one’s personal choices, primarily about marriage and sex.

For secularists and those believing in the separation of state and church, there is an important lesson about the character argument: If one believes in God and afterlife, one is more likely to be moral and fearful of one’s ultimate judgment.

As for personal choices driven by religious belief, there are many arguments about following the Bible as God’s laws of human behavior, as opposed to those laws humans have voted on. Sometimes these arguments are focused on the wrong issues, such as abortion (as a form of murder) rather than on the antecedent conditions that bring about such choices (abstinence, safe sex, loving marriage, financial basis for child-bearing, and prenatal care).

Is either of these demons, Obama and Romney, religious enough to be moral? Have they both been role models to others? Will their faith fill them with humility? Will their faith ensure that love is the most important factor in their decision-making process? The jury is out on both, since love isn’t foregrounded in their rhetorical outbursts.

The second framework is national security. Most would argue that this means military might and international presence, which translate to close to 24 percent of the federal budget of $3.8 trillion in 2012 (close to 5 percent of our GNP). Outside of Saudi Arabia (10 percent of GNP), the U.S. spends twice as much as any other country (as percentage of GNP, not to mention in real dollars), and we account for 41 percent of the global military expenditures.

Neither presidential candidate offers any ideas on how to spend less on a smart military force, which would be more effective. When it comes to national security, it’s an article of faith that more is better.

Why not transform the debate about national security and include education? Why not include sustainable energy sources? Or, water in the drought age? Perhaps include health care provision?

The third framework is the economy. Adam Smith looked at it, so did Karl Marx. John Keynes had some ideas, so did Milton Friedman. They all agreed that it was fundamental in human affairs and deserves inquiry. What ideas do the candidates have?

According to the New York Times, “Since bottoming out a year after Mr. Obama took office, private-sector employment has risen by 4.6 million; but government employment, which normally rises more or less in line with population growth, has instead fallen by 571,000.” How should we frame this?

Republicans should delight that government jobs have decreased, as they want small government; instead, they count all jobs and decry Obama’s failure. Democrats are delighted having done something to reverse job-loss trends of the Great Recession. But with high unemployment rates — official and unofficial — there is nothing to crow about.

Religious faith and defense spending, the two other frameworks, depend on the economy being vibrant. You can have all the right religious beliefs (Carter) and still fail economically; you can end the Cold War (Reagan) but increase government jobs by 238,000. Or you can be morally corrupt (Clinton) and leave a surplus.

I predict that economic data reports will be splendid for the next two months, especially in light of the Federal Reserve Bank’s latest commitment for long-term intervention — anyone surprised?

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com