How to Talk About Politics You Don't Really Understand

A shamelessly oversimplified cocktail-party guide to where the candidates stand on the big questions.

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ISSUE

The War on Terror:
Do we pull troops out of Iraq? Send more to Afghanistan?

MCCAIN'S TAKE

Wants to stay the course in Iraq, with no firm withdrawal date, and add at least 10,000 more troops (some from NATO) in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.

OBAMA'S TAKE

Wants most troops out of Iraq by the end of 2010. Would take the fight (and at least 7000 more troops) back to Afghanistan.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"Well, Iraq isn't the first time we've overestimated an enemy. Hello, NSC-68? The intelligence report that grossly misrepresented Russia's capabilities, jump-started the Cold War, and pushed us into a decades-long arms race? Duh."

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ISSUE

The Economy: Unemployment's up, the deficit's at $400 billion, there's a mortgage crisis, a banking crisis. Recession? What recession?

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MCCAIN'S TAKE

Would spend $3-$10 billion to help bail out homeowners. Would cut tariffs on sugar-based ethanol imports. Loves NAFTA just the way it is.

OBAMA'S TAKE

Proposes a $50 billion stimulus package for creating jobs and $10 billion to fight foreclosures. Flip-flops on NAFTA like your best Havaianas.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"Dude, de Tocqueville nailed it when he said that even if our balance of power, it doesn't mean the best men rule - just look at those grain-gouging hedge-funders and their influence on world politics."

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ISSUE

Abortion:
Should abortion be legal?

MCCAIN'S TAKE

He's pro-life and thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned, but believes abortion should be decided by the states.

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OBAMA'S TAKE

Pro-choice. Would oppose antiabortion legislation and boost funding for sex education and family planning.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"When does life begin? I can tell you when my life began: when I turned in my thesis, hit my favorite wine bar in Cambridge, and made a man out of the Florentine bartender who was pouring those bottomless Barolos."

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ISSUE

Taxes:
Do we cut 'em to stimulate the economy or raise 'em to keep federal programs funded?

MCCAIN'S TAKE

Wants to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, slash the corporate tax, and offer a modest trim for the rest. Would repeal the alternative minimum tax.

OBAMA'S TAKE

Wants to raise taxes on those making over $250K and lower them for everyone else; would increase the capital-gains tax.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"Of course, in the '50s, the tax rate for those making over $400K was 91 percent. But who knows if anyone actually paid up-the IRS barely kept records back then. How do you think Pop-pop got the house on Martha's Vineyard?"

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ISSUE

Energy & Environment:
How do we lower emissions and combat global warming while keeping energy costs out of the stratosphere?

MCCAIN'S TAKE

Favors giving away federal permits that cap the carbon emissions a company can produce; supports domestic drilling; wants to build a whole mess of nuclear plants.

OBAMA'S TAKE

Would auction off permits that limit carbon emissions to companies; he's hedging on domestic drilling and supports subsidies for dubious corn ethanol production.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"You know, in New Zealand, where sheep outnumber people 10 to 1, over half of greenhouse gases come from the country's 50 million livestock. If only they could harness all that methane . . . could you pass the bean dip?"

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ISSUE

Education:
Schools are overcrowded, and dropout rates are some of the worst in the developed world.

MCCAIN'S TAKE

Says he would update No Child Left Behind but had no particulars at press time. Favors school vouchers and merit pay for teachers.

OBAMA'S TAKE

Would increase funding for No Child Left Behind but de-emphasize standardized testing. Would offer college-tuition benefits in exchange for public service.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"John Maynard Keynes called education 'the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.' Ha! I love me some Keynes, my fave turn- of-the-century economist-funnier than Hayek and Sraffa combined."

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ISSUE

Health Care:
The average cost per person is $4500 a year, and 47 million have no coverage. How do we lower costs and insure more folks?

MCCAIN'S TAKE

Would encourage people to buy individual plans over employer-based ones and offer a health-care rebate of $2500 for individuals. Would allow competition across state lines.

OBAMA'S TAKE

Would require employers to provide insurance or pay a tax to help fund a government insurance plan. Would broaden Medicaid and require that all children be covered.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS SOUND BITE

"Sure, the U.S. ranks 37th in the world for its health-care system-just behind Costa Rica. But we're still number one for boob jobs. USA! USA!"

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