Bill Richardson: “It’s called diplomacy”

Today I got to hear New Mexico governor Bill Richardson speak about his aspirations to be president. He has lead quite a distinguished life of public service: he has also been the ambassador to the United Nations, and the US Secretary of Energy, as well as serving in the House of Representatives. With the possible exception of John Dean, Richardson has impressed me more than any other political candidate I’ve heard of. From what he said, he has a history of getting things done: his education policy brought New Mexico’s schools from 47th in the nation to 27th. As UN ambassador, he managed to extricate journalists held hostage in the Sudan. He recently took a trip to North Korea, and managed to recover the bodies of several soldiers who died in the Korean War. He doesn’t seem to like playing politics, and would much rather just get stuff accomplished. This impressed me, because most politicians I read about don’t actually seem interested in solving the country’s problems; they’re usually more interested in giving the appearance of having solutions, so that they can get reelected and buy themselves more time to campaign.

He seemed to have three large points, and then a whole bunch of small ones. His first point was that we should withdraw from Iraq, and he put forth the most plausible scenario for it I’ve ever heard. He negotiated with Saddam Hussein as an ambassador, so he has a pretty good handle on the situation. He thinks we should divide Iraq up into three states, one each for the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, with equal shares in governmental power and oil resources. He thinks our troops are one of the main targets in the country right now, so he would have a complete withdrawal of American troops from the country (but not from the region: they would stay in our airbases in Afghanistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, &c). He would simultaneously work with these other countries to help keep the peace in our stead: a stable Iraq is in the best interests of its neighbors, and he would like to get multilateral support from them to keep the government stable. He thinks the peacekeeping force should only have Muslims in it, so that each soldier can relate to the people around him or her.

His second big point was education. He admits that our education system has fallen woefully behind that of India, China, and a number of other countries. His education policies in New Mexico (namely instituting all-day kindergarten and rebudgeting for more teachers and less bureaucracy) have tremendously raised New Mexico’s education system, and he wants to do similar things in the rest of the country. He wants to offer voluntary preschool to all kids starting at age 4. He wants more of the education budget to go to teachers and less to go to side projects, and bureaucracy. He wants to create over 200 academies of math and science at which to train the most promising students for careers that will help shape the future of the country. He wants to ban “junk food” in schools, require physical education, and generally promote a more healthy lifestyle. He has already done this in New Mexico, and he says it’s working out really well.

His third point was about global warming. He thinks that not only is it a threat to the world, but it has the potential to create lots of new industries and jobs. He wants to create tax incentives for people who install solar panels on their roofs. He wants to mandate that all cars get at least 40 MPG within five years, and at least 50 MPG within ten. He wants to invest in renewable energy sources, because he doesn’t think we have much of a future being dependent on oil, foreign or domestic. He said we need an “Apollo-like” statement about our environmental and energy policies, which I thought was a wonderful, if bold, thing to say.

He calls himself a “pro-growth Democrat,” which seems to mean that he is a fiscal conservative interested in using tax incentives to promote innovation and infrastructure improvements. Not only does he want to improve our education, environmental, and energy policies, he wants to do it without increasing government spending. He wants a constitutional amendment to balance the budget each year (with exceptions for wartime and major recession), which is a policy he apparently used in New Mexico with good results. He is a big proponent of pay-as-you-go programs, which he worked with as Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration. He (rightly) thinks that our defense budget is way to big, and wants to cut many of the pet projects from it (he thinks it’s ridiculous that we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined, and in particular that we spend it developing new nuclear weapons). He has vowed to veto any bill that crosses his desk which contains what he considers pork or pet project funding. He is unusual in this respect, and he attributes it to his not being a current member of Congress (and therefore not having lobbyists or pet projects of his own to fund).

He thinks the three biggest threats to the future are global warming, the deficit, and Social Security and Medicare. I’ve discussed his plans for the first two, but I don’t really understand his plans for the last one. He thinks we should decrease the age at which you are eligible for Medicare from 65 to 55, because many senior citizens who need Medicare help aren’t getting it right now. I’m not really sure how he plans to fund this in the future, but he talked about a plan to get universal health care for everyone, similar to the policies that have worked so well in Canada and Europe, and that this program should include the homeless and illegal immigrants (more on this later). Richardson says that at the moment, 31% of our healthcare budget goes to administrative costs and bureaucracy. Of the rest, a third goes to treating diabetes and obesity. He wants to cut the administrative costs and instead promote healthy lifestyles (just like in his education policy), so that the costs for diabetes and obesity go down. To get this system to work for everyone, he doesn’t want to force you to change your current healthcare plan if you don’t want, but he wants to get everyone to help pay for the new system: companies, individuals, and the government should all work together for this new healthcare plan. To be honest, I don’t see the incentive for any companies, government, or wealthy individuals to go along with this, but it would be great to see universal healthcare, if he can get it to work here. Even more interestingly, he wants veterans to be given free medical care at any hospital, not just the underfunded Veterans Hospitals that have second-rate treatments.

He wants to secure our borders, but in a smart way: he doesn’t want to build ineffective walls, but instead increase the number of border patrollers on duty. On top of this, he wants to increase the number of HB1 visas to let more people into the country legally, and he wants to create a program to legalize the aliens who are already here. Moreover, he wants to work with the Mexican government on this problem: if Mexico can get help creating an environment in which fewer people want to leave, the immigration problem will be lessened. He has already worked with the Chihuahuan government towards these goals (they’re a region of Mexico that shares a border with his state).

He is a big proponent of using diplomacy as the first tool to solve any international problem, but that it should be used to solve the problem instead of treating the symptoms. In particular, he thinks that the way to deal with North Korea is to arrange a deal similar to the following: get North Korea to disarm its nuclear weapons, its nuclear facilities, and allow in UN inspectors to verify that the nuclear program is completely disarmed. In return, the other countries in the traditional 6-party talks (the US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea) will promise not to attack North Korea, and instead create programs to give food, medicine, and other humanitarian aid to the country. Richardson says this plan has been floated by several strategists from several countries over the years, and that it would be a great way to solve our North Korean problems once and for all. In other parts of the world, he wants to increase our aid budget, but with a focus on education and renewable energy. He thinks that the problem with the World Bank is that the programs it creates to “help” third world countries land them in tremendous debt. Instead, we should be helping them in such a way that their futures aren’t completely ruined. He talked about bringing computing power and broadband internet access to much of Africa, which impressed me, because he apparently hasn’t heard of the One Laptop Per Child project, which tries to do something quite similar, and of which Google is a large sponsor.

The thing that impressed me most about Governor Richardson was how genuine he seemed. He cracked jokes (his commercials are quite funny) and had a back-and-forth with the audience. He seems to honestly want what is best for the country, and he appears to have practical plans that can actually work to bring us out of the sorry state the country is in right now. He listened carefully to people’s questions, and paused for thought before he answered. One such answer impressed me immensely: he was asked for his opinion on the Farm Act of 2002, and he paused for about 5 seconds. He then admitted that he wasn’t familiar with the act well enough to have a firm opinion on it. Instead, he got his aide to take down the email address of the person who asked the question, and promised to look into the issue and write an answer soon. This is in sharp contrast to the shenanigans John McCain pulled recently when he met a question he didn’t know about.

I don’t know enough about all the presidential candidates to endorse one yet, but I’m really impressed with Bill Richardson. He thinks he doesn’t have the money or “rockstar status” to compete in advertising with Senators Obama or Clinton, and instead is relying on something of a grassroots movement to get his message out. If you’re as interested in him as I am, it would be great if you wrote a letter to your favourite newspaper talking about him.

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  1. Wow, this is a very long Bill Richardson entry. To be honest with you, I’ve always felt extremely uneasy about Bill Richardson ever since he was implicated in the Wen Ho Lee scandal a few years ago. In case you forgot, Wen Ho Lee was the Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos who was the target of some hysterical and largely baseless accusations of espionage, partly because of his Chinese ethnicity. After the media circus quieted down, Lee sued the NYTimes to find out who had illegally leaked his name to the press, but the journalists refused to say, citing their right to protect their sources. Most people at the time, including the judge in the case, believed the leaker had been Richardson. I’m surprised, actually, at how many Americans have completely forgotten that this ever happened.

    The other thing that bothers me about Richardson is that he is, by far, the most pro-gun Democratic candidate and gets a lot of support from the NRA. The other thing that bothers me is that, when asked why it took him so long to speak about against Alberto Gonzales, he replied, “Because he’s Hispanic.” While this is an example of the genuineness that impresses you so much, I personally thought that is also an example of stupid thinking. This kind of thinking would never have been tolerated if Richardson had been, say, a white politician who had supported another white politician solely on the basis of his whiteness.

    There’s no Democratic candidate who impresses me very much right now, although I have moderately positive feelings toward both Obama (who gave the most nuanced answers in the televised Democratic debate a month ago) and Clinton.

    • Alan says:

      I had not heard of Wen Ho Lee; thanks for telling me about the scandal. I also hadn’t heard of Bill Richardson before today, so my main impression of him was from him talking about himself (where he probably comes out looking nicer than usual). You’re right that the Alberto Gonzales comment doesn’t reflect well on him; thanks for telling me about that, too.

      The gun control thing doesn’t really bother me. There are two ways to make the gun problem better: get rid of the guns (which is actually a very difficult thing to do in a culture like ours and with the Second Amendment) or teach people about gun safety (which I suspect would be easier; see Sweden for an example of this in action). Either way would work for me, but I agree with you that our current gun culture needs to be changed.

      I’ve gotten the impression that Senator Clinton is trying to gain political power without actually trying to improve the country, so I’m not very fond of her. Senator Obama has a lot of potential; I don’t know enough about him to have a strong opinion one way or the other. but I liked how Governor Richardson actually had plans to get stuff done, rather than grandstanding about the issues. I think this country needs an honest, forthright, go-out-and-do-it kind of president, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. Governor Richardson seems closer to this ideal than any other candidate I know of, but I haven’t looked at all the them yet. and I’m happy to support anyone else if they can do it better.

    • kitty_tape says:

      The “Because he’s Hispanic” comment may be an example of stupid thinking, but it is stupid thinking that everyone engages in. Everyone feels a little more sympathy for someone they feel they have a personal connection to. I think this is especially true for minorities because they know that, unfair as it is, each one of them is seen as a representative of that group.

      An example from my experience: I cringe a little whenever I hear about some woman in technology getting fired even if I know, intellectually, that it was probably legitimate. I cringe because I know that some people, not all but some, will think “Oh, she could not handle her position because she is a woman.”

      Such sympathy is less tolerated in majority groups because people do not see a majority group member as a group representative. Richard Nixon does not reflect badly on the ability of white men to be president because Thomas Jefferson was also a white male.

      • Yeah, I understand what you mean; there is a difference between majority groups and minority groups here, and I probably shouldn’t have been so harsh on Richardson. However, I think there’s also a difference between feeling inwardly sympathetic toward someone of your own race and basing one’s actions on said feelings. I may cringe when a woman commits a crime, but this doesn’t mean that it’s okay for me to pardon her for her crime if I wouldn’t pardon a man who had committed the same crime. There’s a gap between emotions and actions, and I just feel uneasy about having someone in the Oval Office who makes bad decisions based on gut emotions in this way. I wouldn’t be so hard on Richardson if he were just a classmate or a some guy in the street and not someone running for a top political office.

        • kitty_tape says:

          But is not calling for Gonzales’s resignation faster the same as pardoning him? Richardson eventually did call for Gonzales’s resignation. He just required more proof than others. Really, even if his reasons for not calling for Gonzales’s resignation sooner were not up to the highest standards, in general it would not be that bad if politicians were a little slower in condemning others.

          It almost seems like criticizing Richardson for not condemning Gonzales fast enough is almost hypocritical when you also criticizing Richardson for leaking information about Wen Ho Lee. How much evidence makes condemnation justifiable? The situations are not analogous because there were more issues involved in the Wen Ho Lee case, but both cases, at some point, deal with what constitutes enough proof to accuse someone of wrong doing.

          • These are very good points. I agree that, in general, one should not hurry to condemn others when evidence is limited, and that both cases mentioned do have to do with this. I also agree that there are a lot of differences between the Lee case and the Gonzales situation. In Lee’s case, people hurried to condemn him partly because of his race/ethnicity (He’s of Chinese ethnicity, ergo he must be selling secrets to the Chinese government), and the reason why I think the media should have refrained from attacking Lee isn’t because he is Asian but because the evidence against him was insufficient. In Gonzales’s case, people hurried to condemn him for reasons not having to do with his race/ethnicity (None of the editorials against Gonzales that I saw mentioned his race; instead, they portrayed him as an overly partisan lackey of Bush), and the reason why Gonzales refrained from joining in was (partly) because of his race. Also, Lee was a private citizen rather than a politician and, as such, never asked to be the subject of media attention, whereas I think Gonzales was already in the limelight prior to the controversy due to his being a politician, and therefore I think it’s less wrong for people to parse Gonzales’s actions in the public arena while evidence is still being gathered. And you’re right to point out that it’s ironic that Richardson’s knee-jerk reaction to Gonzales on the basis of Gonzales’s race had the ultimate effect of causing Richardson to refrain from making a knee-jerk decision to condemn him, which may ultimately have been a good thing.

            In any case, my intention wasn’t to list definitive reasons why I think Richardson is a “bad” candidate and shouldn’t be voted for; I just wanted to put some issues on the table that hadn’t been mentioned in the original post, as these are reasons why I am more uneasy about Richardson than about Obama or Clinton. It may well be that Richardson’s good points outweigh his bad points and that he might end up being a better president than the other candidates. I honestly don’t have a whole lot of confidence in any of the other candidates at this point, and it irks me that the Democrats, who had four years to think long and hard and come up with a great candidate, couldn’t come up with anyone better than the field that we have before us.

  2. riccobot says:

    I voted for the Gov. Yeah NM!

    I’m kind of surprised you hadn’t heard of him, as he was supposedly pretty high up on the short list to be Kerry’s running mate in 2004. Maybe that was only news in NM.

    To conclude, I repeat my yay New Mexico comment.

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