Obama, loose nukes, and good motherhood issues

Everyone’s for it, but no one’s for it strongly enough to spend the money that needs spending. A great issue for a Presidential candidate to grab.

Barack Obama’s foreign-policy speech seems to be getting mostly good reviews. It had one great applause line, which I think will resonate deeply among almost all voters who might consider voting Democratic next year:

For the last six years the position of leader of the free the world has remained open. And it’s time to fill that role once more.

Even if I weren’t parti pris on his candidacy, I’m not technically competent to judge the speech overall, either for substance or political effect. But it’s noteworthy that two out of Obama’s five points were about the nuclear threat: chasing loose nukes and fissile material, and taking our own weapons off the hair-trigger “launch on warning” status they should have gone off at the end of the Cold War.

I’m pleased by this substantively, but it also looks politically savvy. These are both what might be called “good motherhood issues.”

A basic “motherhood” issue is an issue that only has one side politically: no one’s against improved education or for pedophilia. But there’s also nothing that can usefully be done about it that isn’t currently being done, so taking a position is meaningless as it is easy. Basic motherhood issues are the cotton candy of politics.

A bad motherhood issue is one where there’s only one side, and it’s wrong: for example, supporting the work of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which spends your tax dollars to terrify parents about mostly non-existent threats, but a politician would be crazy to be against missing and exploited children, so the racket continues. There are lots of bad motherhood issues around.

A good motherhood issue has three characteristics: it only has one side, it lacks a powerful, focused constituency, and there’s actually something useful to do about it that’s not being done.

Making it harder for terrorists or rogue states to acquire nuclear weapons by getting control of existing stockpiles of weapons and fissile material fits the bill perfectly. Everyone’s for it, we know how to spend money to accomplish it, but there has never been the willingness to spend the requisite money (especially since GWB took office; he preferred to cut taxes for the rich and drop most of a trillion dollars on the project of making Iraq a more dangerous place to live).

Whether President Obama, faced with the realities of budgeting in a world of bureaucratic and Congressional fiefdoms and lobbyists with checkbooks, would in fact do better on this we won’t know until and unless he actually gets elected. But his laying down a marker now is both a useful action in itself and a signal that he at least intends to get this one right.

The nuclear-trigger issue is similar, though there the problem is mostly inertia rather than money. Note that Obama didn’t take the next step: he didn’t ask why, coming up on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, we need thousands of warheads. That very much isn’t a motherhood issue, and a candidate perceived to have weak foreign policy credentials would have been ill-advised to raise it. But if he “gets” the trigger issue, he must be listening to people who will, when the time comes, give him the right advice on the warhead issue.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com