What Would Buddha Do?

American presidential campaigns are always fraught with all kinds of nonsense, but this year's takes the cake. It's got to be the longest on record. And I don't know about you, but I still haven't recovered from that debacle of a debate in Philadelphia, where mindless moderators switched back and forth from misinformation (remember Gibson's ridiculously claims that increasing the capital gains tax would hurt the middle class) to "gotcha" craziness.

One could be thankful, I guess, that most people probably aren't paying much attention yet. But soon they will be, and that's worrisome in the following sense. Over the Bush years, there has been damaging drift toward absolutism. You're with us or against us, diplomacy is appeasement, tax cuts forever, the axis of evil, markets always work best (and government, worst)...all of these have become mantras of the right, and McCain appears to be not only carrying this mantel, but hoisting it even higher.

Certainly, after 9/11, it was hard not to see things in black and white. When our nation was attacked, the instinct of the body politic was to strike back hard and fast, without a lot a nuanced analysis. But that was almost seven years ago, and if anything, our national disparagement of nuance or balance has gotten to the point where it is clearly blocking our ability to address the challenges we face, both internal and external.

Here is a brief survey, citing a few policy debates that have fallen prey to this reductionist thinking, followed by a plea to return some balance to the system.

Diplomacy Equals Appeasement: Under the Bush/McCain regime, the ultimate goal of diplomacy is to draw a thick line in the sand between us and our growing list of enemies, and tarnish--then politically bash--anyone who considers crossing that line as an appeaser. You then cast such opponents as naïve and soft, unable to protect us from the evil that lurks in the heart of...Raul Castro.

Yes, there are some leaders you wrongly legitimize if you sit down with them. But that list has become far too inclusive. Moreover, when the goal of diplomacy becomes party politics, the nation is poorly, if not dangerously, served. Obama and his foreign policy team understand this, and it's one of the main reasons we'll be better off in the world if he's elected.

All Markets, All the Time:
The unquestioning allegiance to market forces has gotten us into all kinds of hot water, and unless we develop a more balanced view, it's going to keep boiling. Both the last recession and the current downturn resulted from bursting bubbles born of deregulatory zeal and ideologically-induced ignoring of failing market fundamentals.

With impunity, corporate banks kept their riskiest assets off their balance sheets, so neither investors nor regulators could accurately assess or price risk. They became dangerously overleveraged; mortgage underwriting became a shell game, based on the premise that home prices could only move in one direction.

This market adulation is deeply embedded in conservative health policy. The goal of Bush's health care plan--now adopted by McCain--is, in his words, to get people shopping for health coverage on the open market as they would for tile or insulation. Yet, as every other advanced economy has recognized, the provision and delivery of health care cannot be left wholly to unregulated markets, because they will fail to control costs, under-provide health care to some, over-provide it to others, and lack the mechanisms to do much about either.

Tax Cuts Forever: Conservatives since Reagan have worked hard to reduce the debate over fiscal policy--taxing and spending--to one policy: tax cuts. Which means, of course, that there is no debate. The idea that you might ever need or want to raise taxes to meet a social need or even pay for current spending, like the war, is verboten. Instead, conservative pols show their mettle one way, and one way only: but cutting taxes even further. McCain used to reject such thoughtless reductionism. Not anymore.

As a commentator on CNBC, I hear this view regarding taxes incessantly in debates with conservative policy types. The idea that the D's would allow some of the Bush tax cuts to sunset (a Republican idea, btw--they passed the cuts that way to hide their real costs) is viewed as economic suicide, since we all know how badly the economy did in the Clinton years, what with its budget surplus instead of deficits, and much faster and more evenly shared job and income growth.

What's of course missing from the debate is any discussion of what taxes pay for. A lot of us actually value the role that an amply funded government should and could play in our lives, from reliable, public infrastructure to guaranteed pensions and health care (Social Security, Medicare); from the environment, to safety nets, to protection from the market failures noted above.

Even some Democrats fall into their own version of this non-debate, urging Clinton and Obama to campaign on program cuts and deficit reduction instead of rebuilding the government we need to meet the challenges we face.

Ending the National Stupor: This is merely a smattering of the important debates that have been shut down by the absolutist agenda: free trade is all good (or bad), the Iraq war will end either in victory or defeat, we must support either the economy or the environment, the pressure of gas prices can only be met by drilling for more oil, versus conserving what we have.

It's easy to argue that nuance doesn't play in America, especially at election time. For years, we've been in a kind of national stupor, induced by assurances that the world is simple: there are good guys and bad guys; good markets and bad governments; good tax cuts and bad tax increases; lots more good oil but for the bad environmentalists who would block us from drilling for it.

To maintain that view today misses the opportunity to tap a historically unique, latent desire for balance in the way we guide our affairs. The very tangible sentiment of Bush fatigue, from which McCain will fruitlessly try to distance himself, grows in part out of an awareness that if we care at all about the world our children are to inherit, the long, national stupor must end.

In Buddhism, the notion of balance is central. The path to enlightenment is never paved with absolutes, but with impermanence, which in policy terms means that reality is far too changeable to be guided by rules like those that have come to dominate these debates.

True leadership means finding the balance we have lost. It may thus come down to this question: What would Buddha do?