Some 18 months from now some jerk, probably me, will write a column saying that the 2008 presidential candidates have let the country down and that many important issues have gone unaddressed. Someone writes that column every four years and it always gets huzzahs.
There's no need to wait 18 months for that column. You'll read it here first. But because it's being written before the campaign really gets under way, rather than at the end of the campaign, maybe it will do some good for a change. Assembling this column helped to focus my thinking, and maybe it will have the same effect on you -- and on the candidates.
Here are the items you don't want to find in the autumn of 2008 on a list of issues the presidential nominees aren't engaging. (Let's assume for the purposes of this exercise that the candidates debate fully the Iraq question and develop detailed plans on what they'd do there and how long American forces would serve there.) Clip and save.
Health care. Let's be fair. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina actually has a plan, and it's not a plan to pander. It costs money and he acknowledges that. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's views on this question are well known. But hardly any of the other candidates have released much in the way of details. (There's no shortage of platitudes and slogans.) It's early, of course. But no candidate should go into the Iowa caucuses next January without a comprehensive plan to address the rising cost of health care, the problem of the uninsured and the looming crisis being created as millions of currently insured workers approach a retirement (or a layoff) without the insurance to which they have grown accustomed. Be specific.
Pre-emptive war. Candidates in both parties will almost certainly criticize President Bush for undertaking a pre-emptive war in Iraq, which was supposed to possess weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps even for contemplating one in Iran, which almost daily boasts of trying to acquire such weapons. But criticizing the president for his actions in the past (supported by many of the 2008 candidates) isn't enough. This is an age when threats can come from nation-states or groups of the aggrieved and when intelligence is often sketchy. How does an established, urban, industrialized nation with thousands of legitimate terrorism targets sort out threats from rogue nations and angry groups of dissidents and zealots?
Education. Everyone wants to be the education president, and President Bush's two predecessors both took a stab at it. But whatever you think of the No Child Left Behind legislation (and someone, somewhere must support it, though I have yet to meet one of them), at least the president stepped up and proposed something. Now is the time for a serious debate about how the legislation has worked and for a separate, but related, debate about the role of mass testing in a nation that prizes individuality but also insists on accountability. This is precisely the kind of "conversation" that Hillary Rodham Clinton talks about but seldom engages. But she shouldn't be singled out for criticism. National politicians choose all sorts of dodges to weasel out of this debate, including the canard that education isn't really a federal responsibility, but the future of the nation is being shaped by this legislation and by the newly empowered testing establishment.
The environment and the regulatory state. For more than a decade Americans have dithered while environmental problems have worsened. Time to engage this issue. At the heart of it is a broader question about the nature of regulation in a democratic state. President Bush has put forward a coherent notion of regulation, and the Democrats have criticized him for it, but it is time for the new Republicans to refine their views of the government's role in preventing health and safety risks to the American people, and it is also time for the new Democrats to produce a proposal that is more creative than simply saying that the way regulators worked in the Clinton administration is the way of the future. Both sides also have got to come up with a way to make unelected regulators in the government more responsive to elected officials and the public.
The American military posture. For nearly half a century American military strategists have worked on two parallel tracks, developing a response to conventional big-power confrontations (a response that hasn't only included conventional weapons) and developing quicker, more flexible, more mobile forces for less conventional confrontations in smaller nations or against unconventional foes. The former has cost big bucks, the latter has been cheaper. But the last secretary of defense was pilloried for trying to do defense on the cheap, the implication being that if you're going to perform military chores you had better do them right, and pay the price. Each candidate is going to have to set out what he or she means by "right" and to set out just how much that will cost. All that and one thing more: How are we going to pay for this?
Taxes and tillandsia usneoides. The last major tax overhaul was 21 years ago, in 1986. That cleared away much of the underbrush and overgrowth of the tax system, but in more than two decades a lot of it has grown back. Now the tax system looks like Spanish moss (known to scientists as tillandsia usneoides). It's time to clear it away and to develop a simple, straightforward tax system that rewards work, protects the poor and, not incidentally, helps nudge the budget back into balance.
Social Security and Medicare. This is simple: No one can plausibly stand up and say he or she is a candidate for president without a comprehensive plan for bringing these two programs under control. If the country tolerates a candidate who punts on these two issues, then it deserves the fiscal chaos it will surely get, and I'll be able to say I told you so.