Pretend Primary: Sprawl and Lost Time
For the most part, presidents don't decide when and where to build roads, transit, housing or schools. That's the purview of state and local authorities. But few issues hit home quite as hard as the elements that make up quality of life--the growing strains on time and community caused by suburban sprawl, unaffordable housing, and outdated transportation infrastructure.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, there's not much reason for presidential candidates to talk about any of this: In those relatively thinly populated states, people think a 20-minute back-up on the Interstate is bad traffic. The heroic/moronic multi-hour commutes that rip the heart out of family life and friendships in suburban Virginia and Maryland are pretty much unknown in the places where presidential candidates have spent recent months. That's why today's installment of our Pretend Primary focuses on sprawl, lost time and other such strains on daily life in this region. If we had presidential primaries that meant anything, the voters of Virginia, Maryland and the District would demand that candidates address the sprawling array of issues that surround questions of where and how we live.
Just two cycles ago, in the 2000 campaign, sprawl, growth and development indeed pushed their way onto the campaign agenda. Al Gore and George Bush both talked about the pressures that many Americans were under as they came to live farther than ever before from where they work. President Bill Clinton's government had proposed measures to help local authorities preserve open space, ease traffic and explore environmentally-minded methods of economic development. But the campaign discussion didn't get very detailed, and both candidates ended up trafficking more in soothing generalities about wanting to boost the quality of life than in any particular plan to alter development patterns.
There's little in the way of meaty talk about these issues this time around, either. Is any candidate seriously discussing how to incentivize developers to focus on building walkable communities or whether it makes sense to revive rail travel in a country where gas prices are soaring and are likely to shoot up even more dramatically during the next president's term? There's a lot of talk in the punditry world about how the nation has finally gone green and accepted that we cannot continue to live as we have--there's lots of optimistic talk about readiness to sacrifice on behalf of the climate of the future. But if that's true, then where is the national political conversation about higher-density housing, about changing the structure of retail and residential development to favor pedestrians over cars, about how to push business toward investing in alternative energy technologies?
There is a nascent debate about a return to nuclear energy as a clean source of non-carbon-based energy, with Barack Obama saying that nuclear power is essential to creating a new menu of energy options, while John Edwards takes the safer Democratic position of absolute opposition to nuclear. Hillary Clinton, like President Bush, calls for a deep reduction in our dependence on foreign oil, and unlike Bush, she would tax oil companies to create a strategic energy fund, but Sen. Clinton is much more enthusiastic about ethanol than about nuclear, which she questions as costly, unsafe and marred by toxic waste issues.
On the Republican side, sprawl and development have made few appearances in campaign rhetoric. A few years ago, a bunch of the new generation of GOP governors got into the sprawl issue in a big way, sounding much like Al Gore in their proposals to promote growth in greater density around mass transit and in urban centers and suburban Edge Cities. New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman sought to raise gas taxes and then pushed through a bond issue to buy open spaces and protect them from development. Utah's Mike Leavitt, Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge and even Massachusetts's Mitt Romney talked a lot about the evils of sprawl. Romney said this: "Sprawl is the most important quality of life issue facing Massachusetts." (Boston Globe, 10/12/2002) As a presidential candidate, however, Romney--who at times seems to be a wholly different person from the character who played a Massachusetts governor--appears to have lost interest in the topic.
Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani seem to be blank slates on questions of sprawl and development. Giuliani's talk on energy policy, which like those of most candidates has little to say about sprawl, focuses on expansion of nuclear power plants and hybrid cars, but makes no mention of development patterns or transportation policy and its impact on shaping growth.
Similarly, John McCain appears to have given these issues little consideration. Back in 1999, McCain, during his last presidential effort in New Hampshire, was actually asked about sprawl by a voter at a meeting or Realtors. As a National Review piece back then made clear, the exchange did not go well:
One of the Realtors asks McCain what should be done about suburban sprawl in New Hampshire. "If I had any advice for you," he says, "I would say probably you might want to get together with the legislature and with some of the environmental community and others and try to sit down and start planning out some of these things so you can anticipate . . . So I would try to get out ahead of it." A puzzled woman asks, "But how?" McCain takes another stab at it, but is just as fuzzy.
What would you want the candidates to be saying about growth, development and sprawl?
(And what else should they be talking about in the few remaining weeks before our Pretend Primary here on the big blog--be sure to come on back on Dec. 13 for the vote that will assuredly rock the nation.)
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