by Laurianne McLaughlin

Election 2008: Technology Issues Will Play a Key Role

Oct 30, 20075 mins
GovernmentIT Leadership

What will the key technology questions be for the 2008n presidential candidates? Taxes, education, math and sciencen training and trade issues will heat up in this election,n says the former RNC chairman.

Politics in 2008 won’t be more of the same, says one prominent Republican party strategist. 2008 will be “the biggest, most open election of our lifetime,” Ken Mehlman, a political strategist and former Republican National Committee chairman, told attendees at the CIO|08 The Year Ahead conference in San Diego this week.

Mehlman, who helped run President Bush’s successful re-election campaign in 2004, expects a close race, decided by only a few percentage points. Consider this: “The last time there was no real frontrunner a year before the election was 1940,” says Mehlman, now a partner at law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Candidates will also spend more on advertising for the February 5 “Super Tuesday” primaries than was spent in the whole 2004 election, he says. (More than $660 million, according to campaign finance website

Technology concerns play into key issues ranging from the war on terror to education and healthcare, Mehlman says.

Two overarching issues are shaping the campaign debate, Mehlman claims. First the country wants change, as evidenced by approval ratings for George W. Bush’s performance hovering near 30 percent and Congressional approval ratings nearing 20 percent, he says. Second, the country’s at war. “These two trends have the potential to run contrary to each other,” Mehlman says, noting that in wartime situations, the United States has historically elected a hawkish presidential candidate. Both parties have an easy road to follow, but maybe they shouldn’t, Mehlman says: If Democrats push the “Bush is bad” message and Republicans push the “Let’s not elect another Clinton” message, they’ll both alienate independent voters, he says.

The candidates of both parties are pursuing themes out of synch with American’s lives, Mehlman argues. The Democrats in 2008 are backing “a paternalistic model in an iPod era,” Mehlman says. “All the things people used to rely on institutions for they can do for themselves.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are talking about modeling themselves after President Reagan. “Ronald Reagan was president 27 years ago,” Mehlman says, noting that when Republicans say they want to be the next Reagan, he thinks it’s a mistake, because the set of challenges facing the United States is so new. Second, he adds, “Our party is too white, too male and too southern.” The party needs to “look more like America,” Mehlman says.

Both parties face tough core issues in the election, starting with the global war on terror, Mehlman says. “This is where technology has a big role to play,” he says, noting that mass production helped win WWII, and specialized missiles, NATO and Radio Free Europe helped win later battles. What will the next equivalent be? That’s still unclear.

Mehlman also cites healthcare as a core issue, noting that both the healthcare delivery system and technology need examining. It doesn’t make sense, Mehlman says, that he can get cash in a foreign country in the right currency using an ATM machine, but that his grandmother is still wearing a Medic Alert bracelet. (For more on one hospital’s answer to this issue, see Power to the Patient: Mount Sinai Puts Medical Records Snapshot on Smart Cards

What are the key technology issues in the election? He sees five: tax policies, education, H1-B visas, global trade and legal liability tort reform.

Mehlman believes 2009 “will be a huge year for taxes” because some Bush tax cuts will expire that year. IT leaders should be particularly interested in how the candidates will handle issues like taxes on capital gains and the investment dividends that some companies depend on for R&D efforts, Mehlman says.

On education, he predicts that encouraging more teachers to enter math and science should play a big role in the election. “We need more kids to go into those professions than ever before,” due to the increasing competition with India and China, he says. “That won’t be controversial.”

H1-B visas will not be a polarizing issue, he says: “Almost all candidates in both parties agree we need to expand the number of H1-B visas,” Mehlman says.

Trade, however, will be a big issue, Mehlman predicts, noting that there’s less support in the Republican ranks for NAFTA and free trade than there used to be. Throw in the elements of globalization (which IT leaders know cannot be ignored), protectionism, and consumer protection concerns, and the trade issue only grows.

Mehlman urged the conference audience to take up the traditional Republican issue of legal litigation burdens: “You want people to take risks. You’re not going to do it if you’re sued everyday.” He says no one candidate has stood out on the issue of tort reform so far in the campaign. 

As for which party has the best technology team, Mehlman says look for the Republicans to build on the use of technology in the campaign that helped them win in 2004. The Republicans made heavy use of “microtargeting consumer data” to contact potential Republican voters and a volunteer, Web-based effort to help get those people to the polls, he notes. The party also used blogs to battle what it calls the traditional leaning of the TV news networks, he notes. Look for more of that: “Technology will be a huge issue in this campaign.”

Does Mehlman think any one candidate has broken out of the pack and made himself the “technology candidate,” as Al Gore presented himself? Not yet.