The Big Five: where the would-be presidents stand on the key issues

The issues: Four years of US policy-making starts this week. And the candidates are poles apart
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The Independent US

1. IRAQ

1. IRAQ

Whoever is inaugurated president on 20 January will have to manage the Iraqi elections, if they happen, and deal with the political fallout if they don't. And he will have to grapple with the questions: is the situation winnable for the US? If not, can it withdraw with dignity? If it drags on, can a military draft be avoided?

Bush: Will have to get over his addiction to Iraqi oil and no-bid corporate contracts if he wants to get out in one piece. No coherent alternative strategy is apparent, however. A major cabinet shake-up might create one, but with Dick Cheney still Vice President, the ideology will remain unchanged.

Kerry: Will have a very brief window of opportunity to broaden international co-operation. His best bet would be to relinquish control of the oil fields and the big contracts and let the UN manage transition to a new regime. But unclear whether his hawkish national security team would allow that.

2. NUCLEAR WEAPONS/TERRORISM

North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and Iran is well on the way. Al-Qa'ida is certainly after nuclear suitcase bombs and dirty bomb material. Anti-American sentiment has surged since 9/11: new sources of violent extremism are inevitable in the Islamic world.

Bush: Being pushed by neocons to act against Iran. Uninterested in reducing hostility to US. New nuclear tests and weapons planned.

Kerry: Wants bilateral talks with North Korea. Would have to soften pro-Israeli stance. Would scrap new US nuclear weapons plans.

3. ENVIRONMENT

The Kyoto Protocol on global warming was in trouble before Bush came in, and knocked out cold shortly after. The administration failed to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but handed out leases in Rocky Mountain wilderness areas. Hydrogen has been hailed as the great alternative to gasoline. Meanwhile, grossly inefficient SUVs keep rolling off the production line. Industrial polluters have been allowed to regulate themselves and logging companies invited into national forests to cut down mature trees. Off-road vehicles have been let in to America's last few unspoiled landscapes.

Bush: The President shows every sign of continuing to reward his oil and gas industry buddies. Would make a new attempt to open up the Arctic in a second term. Existing legislation likely to pollute water, air and forests still further. Nuclear testing could turn out to be a disaster for parts of the American West.

Kerry: Will not be able to revive Kyoto with a hostile Congress but likely to rekindle the debate. May be similarly stymied in reversing Bush legislation on air, forests and vehicle fuel standards. May sponsor a range of alternative fuel research. Arctic drilling will be off the agenda.

4. THE ECONOMY

The Bush administration has turned record surplus into record deficit in three years, a trend unlikely to be sustainable much longer. Bush tax cuts have widened the wealth gap and shifted the burden from corporations and the rich on to the middle class. New jobs being created are less secure and worse paid than those lost. Manufacturing and service jobs go to the Third World. Should companies be offered incentives to speed up that process for the benefit of their figures, or should it slow down to help US workers?

Bush: Wants to make tax cuts permanent and even extend them, in defiance of economic logic. At some point Congress or his own advisers will have to encourage him to stop. Growth and job creation - both spurred by massive increase in government, especially military, spending - are likely to hit a brick wall, too, whether or not deficit is reined in.

Kerry: Would repeal Bush tax cuts for wealthiest, get back on to Clinton's deficit-cutting track and encourage companies to keep workers in US. Will have great difficulty funding domestic agenda if budget austerity implemented. Will also struggle to keep Social Security trust fund solvent and to maintain retirement benefits.

5. DOMESTIC AGENDA

Four places are expected to open up on the Supreme Court in the next presidential term, giving the incumbent the opportunity to shape the court for a generation. Appointments to lower federal courts could prove equally influential. Healthcare is in crisis, with 45 million Americans uninsured and the government health programme for pensioners in continuing turmoil. Arguments about stem-cell research, abortion, and gay marriage rage. Education loses funding, as the rhetoric about standards is stepped up.

Bush: He will relish solidifying an ultra-conservative majority on the Supreme Court, with a view to outlawing abortion and lifting government regulation of all kinds on business. Stem-cell research will be kept largely on hold. On education and health, expect more fine-sounding slogans masking a continuing deterioration in services. A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is unlikely, however.

Kerry: Would bring Supreme Court back to the centre after 20-yearrightward drift. Likely to go ahead with stem-cell research. Ambitious plans for healthcare could run into trouble. Funding for education will depend on success in cutting deficit.

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