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6/18/2004
01:05 PM
Bradford Brown
Bradford Brown
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On The Horizon: Time For Technology To Get National Debate

Neither the Bush nor Kerry teams like talking about technology.

Technology isn't a political bellwether when it comes to presidential elections, but it should be.

Why isn't it? Michael Mandel, the chief economist for BusinessWeek, made some comments at the recent CeBit Technology Conference that provide part of the answer. There's "a lot of discomfort in the electorate, among politicians, among economists, surprisingly, with technological change," he said, according to BusinessWeek. "You can listen endlessly to what economists say about the economy without hearing a single whisper that what you need is another round of technological change. ... Technology is off their radar screen.

"This is something which is true on the Democrat and Republican side. And if you don't believe me, listen to Kerry and Bush's speeches and see how much they talk about new technology. And the answer is: Very little."

If you take a look at www.johnkerry.com, technology isn't listed on his home page alongside issues such as health care, education, foreign policy, etc. You have to click on "more issues" and then click on "technology" and you will find a five-point "technology plan." On www.georgewbush.com, the president's six-point economic plan is focused more on the broader economy and improving the underlying economic climate. The truth is that the Bush team doesn't like talking about technology any more than the Kerry team. You cannot make many political points talking about technology with voters or the media, and it's a zero-sum game for national coverage between Bush and Kerry from now until the election. You can raise campaign funding from the tech sector, but it takes a lot of work to understand the issues and the language of technology, and, frankly, they don't spin well once you do.

As a result, outsourcing quickly became a "jobs" issue. Kerry made it a local economic issue, not a technology issue, that he examined in the context of the global economy. "All politics is local," as Tip O'Neill so aptly pointed out. Kerry took the issue to Midwestern battleground states that had lost manufacturing jobs. In March, he announced a series of tax proposals in Detroit targeted at slowing outsourcing. His problem now is that the recovery is stronger, and the economy is creating jobs. Job growth has neutralized outsourcing as a political matter for the time being.

Kerry has been on the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate for 18 years. The issue he wins or loses on is the Iraq war, not open-source software. The same is true for Bush because even though the economy is recovering strongly, the war is filling the news with stories that are making the markets and voters uneasy.

The question is how voters will react to the domestic security issue and assess the current status of the war. They will decide whether or not they think President Bush or Sen. Kerry can do a better job in the current economic and geopolitical environment on that basis.

Technology is a key driver of economic growth. A discussion about innovation, technology change, R&D, education, IT security, capital investment --a candidate outlining a vision of the technology future--is certainly a subject worthy of a future national discussion. We won't have that discussion, though, in this presidential election in any meaningful way.

Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at bbrown2@gmu.edu. (Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the George Mason University School of Law.)


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