Taking the pulse of the people
By Matt Kelly
Part of the national pulse was taken in Charlottesville on Oct. 16.
The city was one of 17 communities across the country where randomly selected participants gathered to discuss national security and the global economy as part of public television’s Deliberation Day, an effort to sample national opinion. All participants were surveyed before and after the event to see if there were any shifts in opinion.
The program “was designed to give a diverse group of participants an opportunity to hear different opinions on what is at stake in this election for national security and jobs in the global economy,” said Cindy K. Hechler, communications specialist for WHTJ, the local sponsor of the event.
For several hours, area participants clustered in 10 small discussion groups at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Among the moderators from U.Va. leading group discussions were: Ken S. Stroupe and Meg Heubeck of the Center for Politics, history professor Brian H. Balogh, George H. Gilliam of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, Darden professor Sherwood C. Frey Jr. and history graduate student Christopher M. Nichols.
Stroupe approved of the program’s concept but doubted that those involved in the event represented a good cross section of the area. Participants appeared middle class or above, racially homogenous and highly educated, he said. He thought the producers did their best to get a diverse group, but said there was a great degree of self-selection among participants, which makes it a poor way to sample public opinion.
“There did not seem to be broad participation from people on the right,” Stroupe said, adding that he enjoyed listening to the discussions, but does not believe people were swayed.
“Issues of war and peace and the economy are central to people’s core ideological beliefs. It is unlikely that an hour’s discussion will change anything,” he said.
From the small group discussions, a list of questions was prepared for a panel of experts and politicians for the Virginia Currents election special, which will be televised locally on Oct. 30.
The final Deliberation Day panel was hosted by WHTJ television personality May-Lily Lee and made up of University professors Ming-Jer Chen and Nathaniel Howell, who is also a former U.S. ambassador, Virginia Attorney General
Jerry Kilgore and Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine. The panelists offered answers and opinions to the questions, which were at times contentious, drawing applause and boos from the audience, and which at times brought all into agreement.
Panel participants chat before the taping of the Deliberation Day session on Oct. 16 at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Included on the panel were (from left) U.Va. professor and former U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Howell, Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, U.Va. Darden professor Ming-Jer Chen, Virginia Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and show host May-Lily Lee.
On the topic of the war in Iraq all the panelists thought that democracy, by its very nature, cannot be “imposed.” Howell suggested the U.S. should serve as a good example. Kilgore called democracy the “antidote to terrorism,” and Kaine stressed the need for concern about freedom and human rights. Chen noted that “economic prosperity [in Iraq] will make the job easier.”
The subject of the Patriot Act was more divided. Howell was not sure it would prevent another 9/11 attack, but said it would make it easier to monitor suspects. Kilgore and Kaine, who have participated in homeland security efforts within the state, said that it allows agencies such as the CIA and the FBI to share information.
Chen said that he supports the security efforts, but they create a drop off of foreign visitors and students entering the country.
On the United States’ relations with other countries, Howell said that some of the countries opposed to the war were making money from Saddam Hussein’s government. Kaine, who thought alliances were damaged because of the Iraq war, advocated building relationships with
other countries to make ourselves safer.
Kilgore received a mixed reaction when he said that he would agree with a United States’ decision to go it alone militarily if necessary and reject a United Nations or European veto over U.S. military action.
In response to the question of how much information is needed to launch a preemptive strike, Howell said that there is never enough intelligence, but if the “preponderance of the evidence shows that there is a threat [then] you have to do something.” Kaine drew loud applause for saying the U.S. should not give others veto power over national defense, but it has to give a very good reason for preemptive strikes, because if the United States pursues that policy then other countries will as well.
The suggestion of a summit meeting on terrorism caused Howell to say that terrorism is already discussed at summits and, to note that while most nations say they are opposed to it, the real question is what is actually done about the problem.
Turning to the economy, the panel was asked which was the greater problem: the trade deficit or the budget deficit. Chen, noting that the election has divided the country, said that the “us vs. them” mindset blurs the global reality that the United States is borrowing $1.5 billion a day on the world market. People shop at Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail employer, because they want inexpensive goods. But, he said, Wal-Mart alone is responsible for 10 percent to 12 percent of trade deficit with China.
“We want the free market to spread as long as people don’t compete with us,” Chen said.
Kaine gathered favor when he said that jobs will go to other countries, but the United States should not subsidize this through the tax code. Budget deficits shift the debt to future generations, he added.
Kilgore said that taxes hampered competition. “Taxing people more will cause problems in the future.”
Chen questioned why people are upset with government deficit spending when the average outstanding consumer debt is $7,500. Chen suggested people look at the global economy, where new competitors are emerging in India and China and trading blocks such as the European Union are forming. He said outsourced jobs often are given away for sound economic reasons.
Kilgore responded to the question on how people can get more involved with government by suggesting that they join a party or an interest group. “The world is controlled by those who show up,” he said.
On using tax policy to redistribute wealth, Chen said the tax question is only a subset to larger questions, such as: What is the country about? What is the best way to achieve that? And how does the country relate to the rest of the world? Chen also said that research and development spending has been declining. This needs to be reversed and the nation needs to think about long-term competitiveness.
Kaine noted that government does not create wealth and should not be in the business of redistributing it. The tax code, he said, needs to be fair.
As the discussion shifted back to national security, some questioned money spent on seemingly unlikely targets. Howell said that only so much could be done to defend a place such as New York City and that terrorists would gravitate to lightly defended places, such as the recent school attack in Russia.
“We need to get everyone involved in what we need to do to prepare for a disaster, not just terrorism,” Howell said. “I think if we did, we would have a better country.”
Kaine said Virginia is a prime target, with so many federal government installations and the heavy naval presence in Hampton Roads. “There is no rule book … for this,” he said. “We need to shore up where we are vulnerable.”
The panel closed with an agreement that U.S. troops should not leave Iraq until their task there is finished, because leaving
early would create a greater crisis.
On the larger front, the United States needs to reconnect with the rest of the world, Chen said, citing a 35-country survey that found 60 percent of the respondents did not think U.S. leadership was good for the world.