It’s a longstanding complaint of scientists and engineers that national political elites schooled in the humanities don’t grasp the consequences of the technology choices they make. C. P. Snow wrote an essay lamenting the gulf between the “two cultures” — science and the humanities — in 1956, and the theme has persisted ever since because politicians regularly render ridiculous decisions on issues like embryonic stem cell research and missile defense. One facet of this divide is the apparent inability of White House political operatives to see the electoral impact of cutting federal outlays to technology projects in swing states. It seems the President’s advisors are so oblivious to the political context in which such projects unfold that they allow him to make decisions that can really hurt his party in future elections.
A case in point is President Obama’s poorly-conceived bid earlier this year to reorient NASA’s human spaceflight program. He decided to kill a Bush Administration effort called Constellation that would have taken astronauts back to the Moon and then on to Mars. Constellation wasn’t all that interesting in scientific terms, but it was NASA’s main answer to the question of what would follow the Space Shuttle. More importantly in electoral terms, it had been expected to employ thousands of people in central Florida. A few thousand jobs may not seem like much in a state of 18 million people, but as George Bush and Al Gore learned in 2000, the state tends to split evenly along partisan lines in national elections, so a small number of voters can decide who carries the state. And because the electoral college operates on a winner-take-all basis from state to state, that relative handful of voters can even decide which party wins the White House.
I used to joke that if Eglin Air Force Base had been located in Alabama — it’s actually situated in Florida’s conservative panhandle — then President Gore would have led America into the new millennium. But there’s nothing funny about the way the Democrats lost Florida and thus the White House in 2000, so it’s really important for political operatives to think through the consequences of technology decisions affecting swing states. It’s pretty clear President Obama’s operatives didn’t do that during the primary season, because he advanced a half-baked idea to shift NASA funding to education programs that caused an uproar among Sunshine State Democrats. Two years later he came back with a new initiative targeting the same programs, and midterm-election voters are now getting ready to take their revenge.
That’s the price politicians pay for taking bold stands without thinking through political consequences. What Democrats in particular don’t seem to get is that defense plants are populated by members of industrial unions that should be natural allies of this White House, and many of those plants are located in swing states like Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet the White House has stood aside and let defense secretary Robert Gates — hardline Republican holdover Robert Gates — kill $330 billion in planned weapons outlays without even considering the electoral impact of his decisions. So two dozen presidential helicopters that would have been an economic shot in the arm to depressed upstate New York evaporated overnight, as did other projects in places from Washington to Florida. Now Gates has the White House committed to killing a jet engine that would be built in and around Ohio, arguably the most important swing state of all in presidential elections. Gates is right on the merits — the engine is a waste of money — but as with the other cuts the defense secretary has proposed, the White House will pay a price at the polls for its bravery in trimming weapons outlays.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to hope that an administration can think through all the consequences of choices it makes concerning arcane, cutting-edge technologies — even an administration like President Obama’s that has placed scientists in senior policymaking positions. But is it naive to expect that the White House would at least have some mechanism for assessing the electoral impact of such choices? Apparently so.
Find Archived Articles: