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©2020 Mike Del Ninno

  • Mike Del Ninno

Where’s my Presidential candidate? The middle test!


Every election cycle I strive to become an educated voter, and dig deep into each candidate’s platform (remembering they are experts at the Art of Saying Nothing). I check out web sites, watch debates and attend local forums. I spend all this time searching for my perfect presidential candidate.

I think I’ve concluded there is no such beast! My friends jokingly label me as a liberal republican or conservative democrat. In other words, a normal guy that lands somewhere in the middle (although I’m officially registered as republican).

In the spirit of this presidential election, I thought I’d share my thoughts on how I shape the candidates on various issues. This isn’t a deep dive into the specifics on how each candidate is going to save us from the brink of social and economic disaster, but rather a common sense approach to how I assess the viewpoint of each candidate’s issues and how they relate to common middle-ground folks like me (keeping in mind I’m definitely not a policy wonk). I call it the middle test, and it’s based on a collective look at the following key issues.

Same-sex relationships. We all know someone who’s gay, or know someone with a gay family member, or at least watches TV about someone who’s gay. Heck, Rock Hudson was gay, and that was during the 60’s. The issue’s been around for a while.

I think same-sex marriage is really code for companionship, kind of like hetro-marriage. You live together, don’t have sex, and want the benefits of living as a couple.

I consider this issue a lifestyle choice, and therefore don’t think government should really have a serious role, other than making it easy for domestic partnerships to share and access health and estate details. I generally don’t judge lifestyle choices, unless it affects me personally. If same-sex couples choose to live together, or companies choose to offer same-sex benefits, or clergy choose to perform ceremonies bonding same-sex couples, then no problem here. Being somewhat conservative, I stop short at legalizing marriage.

Obama held the same view I had on this issue until May 2012, when after a discussion with his teenage daughters, he decided to endorse legalizing same-sex marriage. Oddly enough, after the flip-flop he also saw a huge bump in liberal elite fundraising.

I’m giving the nod on this issue to Romney, since he’s more apt to assist with helping ease restrictions for domestic partnerships, while stopping short of fully endorsing the legalization of marriage.

Middle test: Support to Romney

Pro-choice vs. pro-life. There are a few things that bother me about the Republican Party. They preach keeping government out of lives, yet continually force their view(s) through government. They also have little regard for the separation of church and state, and let religious beliefs guide policy decisions for all.

No one wants government making critical life decisions for them, especially decisions that will have lasting effects on all parties involved; the fear and anxiety must be awful. That’s why this decision must be made with a clear head, minimal pressure and loving counseling.

Unwanted pregnancies are a life-changer, and many factors should be considered. Maturity, financial support, future dreams, and family just to name a few. I’m a proponent of family planning and support the many services they provide. The decision to have a child is one of the most important decisions one can make, and choice plays a big part.

Romney is high-jacked on this issue by the extreme right.

Middle test: Support to Obama

Immigration. Unless you’re familiar with terms like L-1, H1B or TPS, I’m betting you’re not really in tune to the complex immigration issues facing America. If you’re interested in becoming more educated, I suggest checking out the Federation for American Immigration Reform website (fairus.org).

I’m guessing the majorities of natural born U.S. citizens are forming their immigration opinions based on MSNBC, FOX NEWS, or maybe twitter, and the issue seems to resonate more with states most affected by immigration issues.

Approximately 1.5 million immigrants migrate to the U.S. annually; 850,000 legally, and 700,000 illegally. Currently, there are approximately 9 million immigrants within our borders, and that number isn’t slowing. The stress on our system results from several factors, including wage deflation, skilled labor competition, social services and national security, just to name a few.

The real issue surrounding immigration revolves around enforcement, or lack thereof. The U.S. has substantial immigration laws in place to assist with controlling immigration, but has chosen to approach the issue with a soft stance (some might call it amnesty). The basic question boils down to fairness. Is it fair for the 850,000 immigrants who follow the legal path into the U.S. to be undercut by the 700,000 who chose illegal entry?

I’m not in favor of spending cash on a high tech fence, or even capping legal immigration entry. I think the current visa programs encouraging both low-skilled workers and high-tech gurus are definitely needed to fill specific labor requirements across a board spectrum of industries. However, I would like to see more resources applied towards eliminating document fraud, enforcing worksite actions, and the development of an ID verification program. It’s scary to think the majority of illegal aliens cross into our borders with proper visas, and then simply overextend their stay without the U.S. tracking them.

I do recognize a slew of younger illegal immigrants are buried deep within our American culture, and I’d favor some program that eventually brings responsible aliens into the legal system, keeping in mind that the legal path chosen by the majority should have first priority.

Obama has chosen to circumvent existing laws, relax worksite enforcement actions, and continually extend TPS programs. I give him credit for expediting the under 30 illegals into the system, but using administrative actions to circumvent existing law is a stretch.

Middle test: Support to Romney

Social Security. Is the trust fund going broke or not? Well, that depends on your set of assumptions. Best case, the fund remains solvent for the next 75 years. Worst case, the fund starts depleting within 25 years. Notice I said “starts depleting”, because the program could still pay out three-quarters of scheduled annual benefits, even after the fund is depleted. That’s because annual income to the fund would still produce three-quarters of the program cost. But hey, based on inflation and high unemployment, who really wants lower social security benefits; not me.

In my opinion, social security is one of those programs easily fixed based on minimal shared sacrifice. The program is designed to assist individuals and families with hardships, as well as provide a base level of retirement assistance income during our elder years. The key word here is assistance. The program is not designed to act as the main income component of a family budget, but rather provide a safety net. Hopefully, by the age of 70, you’ve conservatively saved, made good life decisions, and aren’t solely relying on social security. But if you didn’t, social security is there to help.

I’m actually surprised we haven’t fixed this one yet. Of all the entitlement programs, this one seems the easiest to tweak. 1) Slightly increase retirement payout age 2) slow (or eliminate) cost of living increases 3) tax all payroll wage earners (don’t cap at current $110,100) 4) transition government workers into the program (thereby reducing government pension costs). Done, fixed, move on!

Obama wants to put the burden squarely on the wealthy by increasing the payroll tax for wage earners making over $250k annually (which seems to be his solution to much of the existing economic turmoil).

Romney wants a more blended approach including increasing the retirement age, and slowing the COLA calculation. His plan wouldn’t affect individuals already receiving social security.

Middle test: Support to Romney

Medicare. Or medi-scare, as its better known, is one of the most sacred programs within our social system. It’s also the most controversial. Both candidates are trying to dupe the public into believing this program will disappear without radical changes. Medicare invokes passionate argument between individuals that work hard at staying healthy (exercise, eat right, don’t smoke), and those that simply don’t feel accountable for themselves (leading to obesity related diseases). And in the middle, elder individuals that simply acquired health issues through bad luck.

Is this program really going broke? According to the Medicare Trustees, it’s been going broke since the first report was issued in 1970. Just like social security, it depends on current assumptions based on program spending growth and incoming tax revenues. The latest report shows the program solvent until 2024, including an additional eight year extension based on the $700 billion cut from the recent passage of the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare). The $700 billion cut was actually a good thing, since it achieves savings in the Medicare program through a series of payment reforms, service delivery innovations, and increased efforts to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse. The actual projected reduction in Medicare spending is largely a result of reducing overpayments to private Medicare plans that have been paid more than traditional Medicare.

The spending cuts were accepted by health providers because of the mandate to have insurance, which increases the total premium pool into the system. And apparently, the government mandating an individual to carry health insurance just doesn’t sit well with Americans, especially younger healthy ones.

I’m currently 53 (and in good health), so I just miss the cutline for not being affected by any proposed changes. Anyone under 55 should be paying attention to this one, less they be forewarned. Anyone 55 or over, business as usual.

I think we all agree health care costs are simply ridiculous. I have the cheapest health plan I could find; major medical/hospitalization to cover any unforeseen medical issues for my wife and I. The last two years, my premium has jumped +18% and +24%, respectively. In a few years, I won’t even be able to afford the cheapest insurance on the market, and that’s just crazy. And even crazier, I’ll be mandated to carry insurance, or be fined. I must be missing the “affordable” part of the Affordable Health Care Act.

I don’t think either candidate’s plan will reduce the cost of health care. Romney’s assumption that private insurance pools will create competition resulting in lower costs is absurd. Just look at the Medicare Advantage program, which actually increased costs. In my opinion, a voucher program (or premium pay program) would be a disaster. Private insurers are all about profits and I doubt any incentive would exist to keep premiums low.

Romney talks about repealing the AHC act, but that would actually increase the program cost by reinstating the $700 billion cut already targeted.

On the other hand, Obama’s plan to slash provider rates may lead to a loss of doctors accepting Medicare. Although, I’m thinking most individuals compliment Medicare with supplemental insurance and doctors’ love those premium plans. Who knows, a few less doctors may be a good thing. Maybe people will stop scheduling appointments for every little thing that aches, which may actually free up time for serious health care, and reduce overall costs.

I find it odd republicans are upset over the passage of the AHC act, when it actually targets waste, fraud and over payments to providers (isn’t that the republican mantra?).

Either way the middle is screwed. We’ll have to buy private insurance from an exchange without any tax credits, and premium cost escalation as we get older is quickly becoming unaffordable. Scary stuff and someone needs to figure out a way to curtail premium escalation before we’re all priced out of the market.

Here are a few ideas for congress to consider from the Center of Medicare Advocacy (www.medicareadvocacy.org). These simple suggestions might be a good start to better the program and reduce costs.

Let the Secretary of Health and Human Services Negotiate Drug Prices with Pharmaceutical Companies, similar to the Veteran’s Administration. That would help bring drug costs down. Stop Paying Private Medicare Plans Anything More Than Traditional Medicare. Some are still being paid up to 115% over traditional Medicare. Include a Drug Benefit in Traditional Medicare. The current prescription drug policy is a mess. Extend Medicaid Drug Rebates to the Poorest Medicare Beneficiaries. Lower the Age of Medicare Eligibility. I like this one. People between 55 and 65 who are not disabled are currently unable to enroll in Medicare. Lowering the age of eligibility to enroll this healthier population would add revenue to the program, including the purchase of supplemental insurance.

I would also recommend discouraging unnecessary testing, restructuring the way doctors are paid, and encouraging tort reform.

As much as I dislike the government mandating insurance carriage, I dislike the existing escalation of health care costs even more. And now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the law, well, just consider it a tax on health. Costs are quickly becoming absurd, and I don’t really favor either candidate on this issue, but I’m thinking the AHC act is probably not as bad as we were lead to believe.

Middle test: Support to Obama

Tax Proposals. Both candidates know our tax policy is very broken. With well over 71,000 pages within the tax code, it’s a ridiculous testament to how complex and unfair it has become. Most would like to see the code cleaned up and simplified, although I suspect a huge amount of pushback from lawyers, accountants and the IRS, since that would mean downsizing those industries.

This is where Romney should have an edge. Restructuring the tax code and downsizing the IRS plays right into Mr. Romney’s experience base with Bain Capital. Unfortunately, his edge is somewhat diminished by his current tax proposal. Given the fact that republicans are the party preaching deficit reduction, his generous tax cutting proposal doesn’t specify how the tax cuts would decrease the deficit. The plan relies heavily on the assumption tax cuts would create jobs, which in turn would increase tax revenue. The rest would be paid for with unspecified spending cuts and eliminating various tax deductions. Tax reduction may increase consumer spending, but I’m not sure companies will automatically take the additional found revenue and simply invest capital without a compelling strategic reason. No need to bloat the system we just purged, right?

His proposal includes permanently extending the 2001-03 tax cuts, further cutting individual income tax rates, broadening the tax base by reducing tax preferences, eliminating taxation of investment income of most individual taxpayers, reducing the corporate income tax, eliminating the estate tax, and repealing the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and the taxes enacted in 2010’s health reform legislation.

Wow, sounds really attractive; and maybe a little expensive. Even Reagan finally understood, in deficit times, modest tax increases coupled with spending cuts would help to hold the line on increasing the deficit. Don’t get me wrong, I think waste in government is tremendous, and by nature don’t think any tax increase is well justified. But, the hole we dug is pretty deep, and we may need to suck it up until tax revenues pick up. Of course, that’s only if you’re really serious about deficit reduction.

In contrast to Mr. Romney, Obama’s proposal relies on couples making over $250,000 (individuals $200,000) to increase their tax burden. His proposal includes, allowing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to expire at the highest incomes, and replace with increased tax rates of 36% and 39%, reinstating personal exemption phase out and limitation on itemized deductions for high income taxpayers, allowing resumption of 20 percent rate on long-term capital gains for high-income taxpayers, allowing the tax rate on qualified dividends to return to ordinary rates for high-income taxpayers, requiring automatic enrollment in IRAs and enhanced small employer startup credit, and various other proposals. If you earn less than $200,000 you’re really not affected much.

If our deficit wasn’t so out of whack, I’d think Romney’s plan would win hands down. I also find it unfortunate Obama is shifting the burden to the high income folks who already pay a substantial amount of total taxes into the system.

The reality is this. If you’re serious about deficit reduction, then the solution has to be a blend of spending cuts and tax increases. Until the economy picks up, employment picks up and (or) tax revenues pick up, we’re stuck with fixing this mess together. Can Romney fix this mess with lower tax rates and severe spending cuts? Maybe, but I’m betting congress isn’t up to the task of severe spending cuts given our current economic quagmire (even if the republicans take the Senate). That may spell recession. We’re enjoying 2% real growth, not busting down the walls, but better than bubble bursting negative growth.

I’m betting Mr. Romney’s plan is an opening to negotiation once elected; a big assumption.

As much as I hate redistribution of wealth, and until Romney gets more specific with his spending cut plan, I’ve got to give the middle test to Obama. We absolutely have to get this deficit under control; our future depends on it. For a detailed analysis of each plan visit: www.taxpolicycenter.org

Middle test: Support to Obama

Jobs and Economic Growth. In my opinion, this is the most important issue facing America today. An increase in employment means more tax revenue into the system, which reduces the drag on the deficit and entitlements. The positive residual effects are enormous.

In reality, a President doesn’t really have much absolute clout in mandating policy decisions regarding the economy. This issue is more driven by demand, consumer spending/perception, policy stability and business capital investment confidence. The good news, consumer spending is chugging along. The bad news, gross private domestic investment activity is lagging. That means limited investment in plants, equipment, software, housing, inventories and human capital; and that means fewer jobs. Couple that with the population shift towards older Americans cashing out of the work force, and I’m thinking 8% unemployment is the new norm, at least until we cycle out.

Each candidate has a very different view regarding this subject. Obama is a bottom up guy, and Romney is a top down guy.

The president believes American prosperity comes from a strong and growing middle class, and all those people who are striving to get into the middle class. Romney believes stimulating private domestic investment activity will lead to an expansion in growing businesses, which in turn hire individuals (usually paying a middle class wage).

I have to admit, I’m not totally on board with the President on this one. In my experience, there are two types of personality traits when it comes to risk. The first is an individual that is self-motivated, hard-working and willing to put it all on the line to succeed. This person will simply find a way to get it done, and may fail a few times before building a successful business. The second individual isn’t looking for the pressure, authority or accountability that comes with starting or running a business. This individual is looking for steady work, steady paycheck and a worry-free job he can separate from when he heads home.

True entrepreneurs are the life blood of business. Once successful, they provide tremendous opportunities for individuals looking for a fair wage, steady employment, and possibly a few benefits. Policies aside, I have to side with Romney on this one, a top-down approach provides the most opportunities for individuals striving to become a secure middle class, since risk-takers drive the much needed private domestic investment activity which stimulates employment opportunities. I admit, the issue is definitely complicated, since private investment activity isn’t going to occur without some inkling of either increased demand, or some new breakthrough in technology.

The President seems like a good guy, but our past sometimes shapes our future. He chose a profession within social services, a very commendable profession. And Romney chose a profession within venture capital, another commendable profession. Each had a choice. I don’t condemn either. The President never had the pressures of building a business, meeting payroll, complying with regulatory red tape, or terminating an employee to save a business. Romney, although painted as a downsizing monster, has the history of making tough business decisions for the better good.

Republicans are known for greed, but also tremendous generosity. Let’s hope they learned their lesson and offer America a glimpse of the conservative past. Bank reserve deposits that back up debt obligations, upfront 20% down mortgage(s), de-coupling investment activities with banking activities, and focusing on “real growth”, and not short-term bubble cycles. We can only hope.

If you want to take a closer look at each candidate’s economic policy platform, simply head to their respective web sites.

Middle test: Support to Romney

Energy, Regulation and Environment. We all want energy independence. We all want a clean environment, and we all want sensible regulation.

It’s human nature to push the envelope and sacrifice short-term profits against environmental concerns. It’s also human nature to over-burden regulation for fear of disaster. However, with proper use of technology, monitoring and oversight, we can do it all. For the most part, I’d say companies are very responsible, progressive, and environmentally concerned; a far cry from a few decades ago.

My personal experience with government regulation shapes my beliefs. In my case, the EPA clearly overstepped its authority when reviewing my case for a simple construction project, a clear example of abuse of power. Lest we forget, government is made up of people, and people are jealous, envious and unfair. It’s sad, but true. Decisions made on human emotion and not science leads to over-regulation.

However, times are changing with technology leading the way. Shale extraction (for oil and natural gas) is becoming safer, wells deeper and supplies more abundant. The trick is focusing on building out infrastructure for natural gas, and retrieving challenging oil reservoirs. The political climate will always artificially spike consumer prices, but our goal is to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and use natural gas as a domestic alternative. In terms of megawatt per hours, natural gas is the cheapest compared to renewables. I can envision a day where natural gas will replace coal as fuel for power plants, and gas stations will have natural gas fueling options for automobiles.

By default, the republicans have an edge on this issue, but only if you believe that government regulation stands in the way of accelerating our energy independence. This issue doesn’t rank at the top of my list, except an accelerated energy policy would not only increase our independence, but also create much needed jobs.

If you want to take a closer look at each candidate’s energy, regulation and environmental stance, simply head to their respective web sites.

Middle test: Support to Romney

Foreign Policy. You simply can’t underestimate the complexity of foreign diplomacy. One moment you’re celebrating stability, and the next, mobs are rushing your embassy. In the age of instant uploads, twitter and YouTube, swings in foreign sentiment can occur in a flash, and totally out of anyone’s control.

Moreover, issues like trade, nuclear build out, human rights, and national security are delicate balancing acts, usually driven by politics.

Since I’m not a policy wonk, I usually keep an ear out for worrisome issues within countries like Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Russia, Libya and Darfur; each country with its own set of complex and unique problems. With its ancient religious beliefs, the Middle East seems to present each administration with challenging events. The balancing act between Russia and China, Israel and Iran, North and South Korea, and the U.S. with everyone, sometimes seems insurmountable.

In general, I think the President has done a good job managing the complexities of foreign policy. I favor a more tepid approach, rather than an over-reactionary hawkish approach. Is it a pipedream to someday hope for a new era of world-wide peace and economic prosperity? Maybe. But world peace and stability would set off the largest economic expansion in history.

The sitting President (unless he really screws up) usually holds an advantage with this issue, and Obama is no different.

Middle test: Support to Obama

National Defense/Commander in Chief. This is the most important responsibility of any President. I don’t have the luxury of sitting in on daily security briefings, or rapping with the joint chiefs, so I can’t really assess our security position. However, I’m confident these guys and girls are the best in the World.

Terrorism, cyber-threats and economic competition are the new ways to wage war today. That’s not to say large-scale invasions on foreign soil won’t ever happen again, but the face of war is definitely changing. And consequently, so should our strategy for funding the defense budget. High tech warfare, special operations, and counter-terrorism should lead the way. I favor a fresh view of defense spending leading to smarter, leaner and more efficient armed forces.

Romney is untested in this role, but I’d bet he’d do just fine. I do find it bothersome that Romney wouldn’t consider reducing the defense budget. I mean there’s waste in every aspect of the government, including defense spending. Unfortunately, since this budget is one of the largest, it also has the most severe economic consequences when reduced. A tough choice for sure.

Once again, the sitting President has the edge on this issue, and Obama has definitely done a good job so far keeping us secure.

Middle test: Support to Obama

This brings us full circle. Where’s my middle candidate?

My only option is to vote for balance. A Democratic President and Republican Congress. Or, vice-versa. Absolute power for either party makes me nervous. If you choose Romney, you may end up with some crazy new government design privatizing everything and limiting social choice. If you choose Obama, you risk inhibiting job-producing private investment and smothering regulation.

Maybe one day we’ll get a third-party middle candidate. Of course, we’ll also need a third-party electorate with enough clout to get him in office. They exist, but do they really care? They should, our future depends on it.

Don’t forget to vote!

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