ROLL CALL 10/28/08
By Michael Shank and U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD)

On Nov. 4, America will celebrate the close of the most unprecedented presidential campaign in history. On several accounts past precedent has been handily usurped.

Most notable: This was our nation’s most expensive campaign yet, surpassing $1 billion in spending. This was our most diverse campaign, in terms of probable and popular candidates, with both parties positioned to break new ground on race or gender in the White House. This was our longest campaign, with state primaries jockeying for the earliest start out of the gate and with several slated nearly one year prior to the election. And this was arguably our most hotly debated campaign, with talk shows dissecting the marrow of every utterance until little was left.

The import of all these reasons, however, pales when compared to the final criterion: that public opinion and favor – both domestic and foreign – toward the U.S. government is seriously flagging, dropping to its lowest ever. In America, percentages of positive opinion toward the president and Congress lag in the teens. In the European Union, the United States is considered the biggest threat to global stability. That is why, on Election Day, the choice of candidate carries with it unparalleled importance.

Re-establishing America’s standing globally and locally will not be easy. Specific policies aside, we believe the following principles and practices are necessary for rebuilding America’s credibility at home and abroad.

First, the president must commit to communicating, not cowering, in the face of adversity. When attempting to tackle the toughest of hotheaded adversaries, our president must take the higher road in cooling the debate, whether with North Korea, Iran or Venezuela. Meeting with these nations’ leaders undermines their domestic argument (no Great Satan would respectfully agree to a summit) and provides an opportunity for negotiated agreements, which are otherwise impossible to obtain in the absence of a conversation.

Talking does not constitute complicity. Presidents before – from Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – leveraged American power through direct diplomacy and gained significantly from it, transforming frozen conflicts with Russia and China into more pliable relationships. Our next president should heed the advice of these forefathers who were dealing with equally formidable foes.

Second, the president must recognize that the quality of mercy cannot be strained – whether on our shores or theirs. In response to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling regarding the guarantee of habeas corpus rights to detainees must be reinforced with presidential zeal. It is critical, as the world celebrates the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy to be seen safeguarding the basics of individual freedoms. Abrogating universal laws makes us look lawless and makes it doubly difficult to encourage enforcement on foreign lands.

Third, the president must aptly represent the plight of the public. Whether in bungled bailouts or costly wars of choice, federal spending must be tuned to the needs of the struggling American. By focusing overwhelmingly on security issues abroad, the homeland has become increasingly insecure with unemployment rates soaring at 6.1 percent, high school graduation rates slumping to a 40-year low, the uninsured millions mounting and the indebted in dangerous waters with a devalued dollar.

Spending $10 billion monthly in Iraq, when this nation’s economic woes continue to escalate, is not wise leadership. The new president must reprioritize, putting our public’s problems at the fore lest our social and economic infrastructure continue to rot further.

Finally, the president must be visionary, leading the nation prudently and ethically, all the while cognizant of the implications on subsequent generations. Our president’s vision of America will affect policies on a vast spectrum of issues, from immigration to climate change. If we are to be a beacon, we must courageously forge new ground on these contentious topics, leading where recalcitrants fear to roam.

This will not be as difficult as it sounds. On climate change, for example, America’s businesses, mayors, governors, religious leaders, universities and other citizens stand poised to pursue more aggressive targets and to inspire similar strategies in India, China and elsewhere. In fact, the world is waiting for Washington to lead; it is up to the next president to seize the ripeness of this opportunity.

Come January, these qualities, and more, must characterize the candidate deemed worthy to lead this nation. To say that change is needed is an understatement. Whether both candidates are capable of this change is questionable. So before penciling in the ballot’s oval for the Oval Office, think critically about which candidate is committed to the criteria above – the health of our nation, and our standing in the world, depends on it.

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest is a Republican from Maryland. Michael Shank is communications director at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.