CHICAGO: Monday’s presidential debate probably did not cheer up voters who see the election as a choice between diabetes and terminal cancer — an awful affliction versus a fatal one. But at times like this, it is useful to remember that many things are beyond the control of the person occupying the Oval Office, some of which are welcome.
The chief source of alarm today is that one of these two will have many opportunities to interfere with our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But in many ways, citizens are gaining control rather than losing it.
On Election Day, voters in four states will decide on medical use of marijuana. Better yet, five, including California, will decide whether to allow, um, nonmedical use. Four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational cannabis.
The trend is in keeping with a public that has decided adults should be free to decide for themselves whether to use pot to treat pain or illness or to get high. A Gallup Poll last year found that 58 percent of Americans support full legalization — up from 36 percent a decade ago.
None of this affects the federal ban, which will remain in place. But both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have indicated they would let states do as they please.
Their acceptance of change is also on display with regard to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court granted it constitutional protection in 2015, but Supreme Court rulings sometimes inflame rather than quell controversy.
Not this time. At the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, just 40 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage — Obama not among them. Today, 61 percent do.
The next president will have to contend with a public that is weary of fighting costly wars that don’t directly advance our national security. Clinton, whose record has been biased toward military action, got surprisingly little attention a few weeks ago when she steered conspicuously the other way.
“We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria,” she declared. “We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops.”
During the debate, Trump faulted her for making public her plan to fight the Islamic State, but not for rejecting the use of ground forces. Though vague on his own plan, he stresses his (fictitious) claim that he opposed the Iraq War before it began, and he says, “I am going to have very few troops on the ground.”
Fiscal realities will the limit the ambitions of the next president. The profligacy of the past mandates frugality in the future. It will not be easy to find money for the new ventures the candidates have in mind.
“By 2022, nearly every dollar of revenue the U.S. collects will have been committed before Congress even takes a vote, according to an analysis by Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “With more and more federal spending on autopilot, there is ‘almost no discretion or flexibility to act to address new challenges without having to renege on past promises to the public,’ says Mr. Steuerle, a Treasury official in the Reagan administration.”
The swollen federal debt will discourage extravagance. Trump’s fiscal plan, which the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says would add more than $5 trillion to the debt, would have trouble getting through Congress.
Clinton plans to pay for almost all her new spending with tax increases, which might also be dead on arrival at Capitol Hill. A 2013 poll found that only 20 percent of Americans favor a combination of more government services and higher taxes.
The space for personal freedom has expanded in some significant realms. All but two states now have legal gambling. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft enable urbanites to move about more conveniently and less expensively.
Life is getting better in ways that even a terrible president is not likely to ruin. Infant mortality has fallen; violent crime is only half as common as it was in the early 1990s; and teens are less likely to drink alcohol, use other drugs and get pregnant.
If the wrong candidate wins, a lot of Americans will yearn for an option that is not on the ballot: Sweet Meteor of Death 2016, which would end our misery by wiping out the human race. But even with Trump or Clinton in the White House, there will still be reasons to go on living.
Chapman is a Chicago Tribune columnist. He blogs at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve-chapman. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveChapman13.