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KNOXVILLE — While the economy has remained a key campaign platform, the importance of issues like education and the environment fluctuate with voters, a group of University of Tennessee professors said Friday.
Technology and ethics issues such as abortion and human rights have become more popular, but military and foreign policy have diminished, the UT researchers said.
“It’s going to be a while before we get another president that gives an inaugural address that is strictly on foreign policy,” history professor Kurt Piehler said, “but if you read John F. Kennedy’s address, the entire thing was on foreign policy, and not a word about domestic affairs.”
Piehler, who directs UT’s Center for the Study of War and Society, said America’s military power and the end of the Cold War have reduced interest in national defense.
“Recent presidential campaigns are much more like they were in the 1920s and early 30s,” Piehler said. “The candidates did not say much about foreign policy or national defense. During the Cold War and the World War II era, defense eclipsed domestic affairs.”
UT political scientist Bill Lyons said former President George Bush’s popularity soared during the Gulf War in 1991, but dropped sharply when the economy lagged.
“President Bush’s handling of the Gulf War focused a little attention on national defense and foreign policy, but it didn’t do him much good (in his re-election bid) because the economy slowed,” Lyons said.
“That makes the point that the economy is going to dwarf foreign policy unless people see a real foreign threat out there. I don’t think they do right now.”
Sociologist Thomas Hood has organized a series of lectures March 14 – April 27 at UT on environmental issues and the 2000 presidential campaign.
Hood said the importance of environment among the electorate has fluctuated since Vice President Al Gore emphasized it in his first campaign.
Gore’s credentials — including his book “Earth in the Balance” and his endowment of UT’s Chair of Excellence in environmental studies — might cause other candidates to shy away from talking about the environment, Hood said.
One reason voters aren’t hearing more about the environment, Hood said, is because other candidates may feel Gore would beat them badly in a debate on that topic.
While quiet about the environment, candidates are more outspoken about abortion. UT philosophy professor Glenn Graber said abortion has grown to became a standard presidential election debate since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision made it a constitutional right.
“It did not affect presidential politics immediately,” Graber said. “It evolved into a national debate after it became an issue in some local statewide races.
“Today, you have Republican candidates trying to outdo each other with anti-abortion stands and Democrats trying to outdo each other with freedom of choice. It is a more divided, polarized discussion that it has been for a while in presidential politics.”
Graber said the debate over abortion has evolved into a larger ethical debate over biotechnology, such as gene therapy, fetal tissue research and cloning.
“These issues get tied in with abortion, and conservative voters against abortion are often against biological research,” Graber said. “As we see more possibilities to treat diseases that are causing tremendous suffering and disability, these issues will become even more pertinent to presidential politics.”
Education as a presidential or national topic has traditionally been linked to larger concerns, said educational historian Clinton Allison of UT’s College of Education. Much of the current presidential education debate centers on social justice issues such as affirmative action.
“The National Defense Act under President Eisenhower provided the first big flow of federal dollars for education into local schools,” Allison said. “It was a Cold War measure to ensure that the United States produced enough scientists, physicists and mathematicians to keep with Soviet technology.
“The Elementary Secondary Act under President Johnson was part of his War on Poverty. In both cases, and still today, education is part of a much broader issue.”
UT economist Bill Fox said the economy is usually the single concern that can sway the most voters for or against a candidate. It may not be as hot a topic in the current election.
“The economy is not on the tip of people’s tongues as it is when it is not so strong. Most people realize this is the longest economic expansion in U.S. post-war history. It is generally a much more important issue when the public is looking to vote someone out of office because of a weak economy,” Fox said.
Fox said presidential candidates are wooing voters with promises of tax breaks from the nation’s budget surplus. But too much of a cut might not be a good idea, he said.
“The economic issue candidates are talking about using the budget surplus to cut taxes, reduce the deficit, or pay off social security,” Fox said. “But we need to realize that the current economic expansion has been fueled largely by a stock market boom that has created a large increase in tax revenues, and is not sustainable.
“If there is a tax break, it must be done wisely and not just to pick up votes by giving tax cuts that are not affordable in the long term.”
Fox also said taxation of Internet commerce would emerge as a major economic issue in future presidential elections.
“Not taxing e-commerce would distort the economy by overly encouraging operation over the Internet,” Fox said. “It would costs states like Tennessee which rely heavily on sales taxes millions in lost revenues.”