Presidential Sweepstakes Only Promise More of the Same for the Maritime Industry

Long term neglect of U.S. merchant fleet and port infrastructure continue as candidates largely avoid the issue of a comprehensive maritime and sealift policy.

I can't help but be energized by this year's ongoing Presidential primary season. Even the most apolitical person simply has to admit that there is real drama being played out on the national stage. It is clear, at least to me, that real history will be made this autumn. And for the first time in recent memory, I'll have to really think before pulling the lever; both in our upcoming primaries in North Carolina, as well as the national tilt that will follow. But, the spirited and sometimes contentious battle that is now being played out is all too familiar to those of us in the maritime world: the discussions and debates are, of course, void of any meaningful policy and position statement on a comprehensive national maritime policy.

Arguably, this is the most interesting election cycle in the past fifty years, or more. As I watched the election returns on the early primaries, I didn't so much watch the results of the individual races. Instead, I marveled at the disparity in the turnout between the Democrat and Republican voters. In some places, the gap formed a 2:1 ratio and virtually everywhere else, the Democrats outstripped their GOP rivals by healthy margins. As I contemplated the raw vote counts, I also couldn't help but think that the GOP didn't stand a chance in November. Now, of course, that metric has all but evaporated as the two Democrat heavy weights slug it out for the nomination, threatening to fracture their party and potentially ruin seemingly the easiest opportunity to change control of the executive branch that we've seen in decades. And no matter which side you are on, this is also a golden opportunity to engage the candidates in discussions that they might otherwise not want to have, as they scrap for every single vote.

You might think that John McCain would be the most likely of the remaining three candidates to embrace the concept of a strong sealift capability, the merchant fleet that would support that idea, and the way forward to achieve that goal. But if so, from what I can see, you'd also be disappointed. I took the opportunity to surf the WEB sites of the Clinton, Obama and McCain this week and also searched their position papers for some substantial (heck: even a HINT) maritime policy language and predictably, came up dry. I also contacted each of the campaigns to see if they had some gems of knowledge hidden away somewhere else that I could take some guidance from. Still waiting here.

This should be our time. Sure: the economy and the war are going to grab most of the headlines and sound bites as the candidates continue to pander to the lowest common denominator. Lost in all of that, though, is the reality that our ability to support and solve both of those important issues is also tied inextricably to our maritime commerce and ensuring a vibrant domestic component of all that; at sea and ashore. In the past 18 months, we have been fortunate to see the reinvigoration of our U.S. Maritime Administration, as it tries to foster a stronger U.S. maritime infrastructure. Led by MARAD Administrator Sean Connaughton, they have done a very good job. But, MARAD is only one spoke of the Department of Transportation's considerably large wheel – and a poorly funded one, at that. It simply is not enough.

All in all, it has been a pretty good year for U.S. maritime interests. This occurred, for the most part, despite the continued benign neglect of the current administration – and the many that preceded it. I'm also mystified at the lack of understanding amongst the candidates as to the importance of the maritime component in our overall defense strategy. As we move forward towards Election Day in November, I encourage our industry's executives to hammer home the message that a strong maritime industry will also be an integral part of solving our current economic downturn. This will be especially important since the "will to drill" has long since evaporated in the sloppy wake of the midterm elections of 2006. Squandering perhaps the best chance we will ever have to open up the forbidden fruit of our nation's energy treasure trove to development, Congress also by default may have spurred the beginning of the decline in domestic shipbuilding that otherwise might have continued to thrive and support that surge in exploration.

There's never been a better time to engage the candidates on the issues that are important to the maritime industry. Anyone who doesn't now think that November's election is headed for another razor thin margin of victory isn't paying attention. And that means that Clinton, Obama and McCain do need to pay attention to you, Mr. Maritime Executive. In the off chance that one of them might actually read this column, however, I encourage our three Presidential wannabes to write in and provide us with a glimpse of their future vision for Title XI, Shortsea Shipping, sealift issues for our military and the infrastructure fix for our increasingly congested port hubs. But, I'm also not going to hold my breath while waiting. – MarEx

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com with comments on this or any other aspect of this newsletter and our print editions.

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