August 27, 2018

WU | Tracy Mitrano’s Sweet Nothings

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Most Cornellians graduate in four years. Tom Reed (R-NY), who represents New York’s 23rd district (including Ithaca), has been in office for twice that. But you wouldn’t know from the jeering Ithacans filling his town halls. Suffice it to say readers of The Cornell Daily Sun are far from Reed’s core constituency.

And yet Cornell, as with Ithaca at large, is a blue speck amid a red sea. Reed won by a hefty 15-point margin in the last election. Politicos wager he will snatch yet another victory.

Swept into office by the Tea Party wave of small-government conservatism, Reed likes to cast himself as dependably level-headed. His record is anything but. He wants to force rich universities, including Cornell, to spend endowment money on lowering tuition costs — a well-intentioned idea that ignores the realities of earmarked donations. He backs Donald Trump’s self-destructive tariffs, hurting the farmers Reed professes to support. Reed holds forth America’s eye-popping debt burden as its biggest problem, even voting for a (purely symbolic) measure to effectively block debt-financed government spending. But he voted, and continues to advocate, for the Republicans’ recent tax overhaul, which jacks up the budget deficit.

America needs fiscal reformers. Wide deficits edge out private investment, leaving everybody worse off. Running up the debt, and thus debt interest, weighs on government coffers. But Reed is a paper tiger, embracing only the trappings of a budget-conscious conservative. He is emblematic of the intellectual rot among modern fiscal conservatives — many of whom trampled old principles of balanced budgets to back a flawed tax bill.

One would hope, then, that Reed’s competitor in this November’s House race would be principled and policy-fluent. Regrettably, Tracy Mitrano ’95, a Cornell alumna who eked out a win in the June Democratic primary, is wishy-washy and too often vague.

The items lining Mitrano’s agenda are Democratic standard fare. They are also worryingly imprecise. She wants “universal health care through a single-payer system.” But does that mean nationalizing the health insurance industry à la Bernie Sanders? Or does it mean an increased, but not all-encompassing, role for government in shouldering health care costs? Even putting the nature of Mitrano’s single-payer plan aside, she gives no indication of how it would be financed.

As with health care, so too with education, foreign policy and the environment. Mitrano wants interest-free college loans, the benefits of which are dubious. Zero-interest loans offer students only marginal benefits; the monthly payment on a 10-year, $25,000 student loan drops $60 when current rates are zeroed out (in my calculations). But the public cost is far greater, since this small benefit is spread among millions of debtors. What Mitrano hopes to achieve is unclear.

Mitrano’s foreign policy platform is trite. Take her position on North Korea: “The U.S. should negotiate with North Korea to reduce tensions.” That’s a punt. Few think America shouldn’t negotiate. The real debate is over our broader strategy — whether we should pursue regime change, or simply deter and contain. On the environment, Mitrano would have America rejoin the 2016 Paris Climate Accords. But the Paris agreement was non-binding. The meat of the matter is how to reach the emissions-reduction goals set forth in Paris. Mitrano offers no opinion on punitively regulating coal-fired power plants, as Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have.

Mitrano, if she hopes to beat Reed, must be bolder. She rightly assails Reed for his limp convictions and expedient politics. Yet that criticism will ring hollow if Mitrano herself relies on policy platitudes. A Reed-Mitrano debate, as Mitrano is seeking, would be awfully lopsided were Reed able to tar her as amateurish or starry-eyed.

Fleshing out her policy platform would be a good start. Cooking up some white papers would substantiate Mitrano’s talking points. Crucially, she should avoid any association with Sanders’ ambitious plan for nationalized health insurance, which he calls Medicare for All. In this hardscrabble red district, Medicare for All is an all-around political loser. Mitrano must walk a careful line straight down the center aisle, splotching Reed as a sell-out incumbent but shunning left-liberal politics. She must appear pragmatic, competent and moderate, remembering that she will need Republican votes to turn the district blue.

Though my views are to Mitrano’s right, I cheer her campaign, if only to see Reed out the door. It will be an uphill battle, but nonetheless a worthy one. Reed has held the NY-23 seat for the greater part of a decade. But American politics is cyclical. Representative Mitrano might not be so far-fetched after all.

 

Mitrano served on The Cornell Daily Sun’s senior board of directors until 2013 and plays no role at the paper now.

 

Ethan Wu is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Discourse and Discord runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at ewu@cornellsun.com.