The Empty Election

Photo credit: AP

What has happened to the 2012 campaign?


This should be the most important election of our lifetime. But it’s clear that something is seriously wrong. How can we be having such an underwhelming, uninspiring and irrelevant election campaign at such a critical juncture?

Never before have voters people had more opportunities to participate in the political conversation; share and disseminate information, and speak directly to our political leaders. Yet the dialogue coming from both parties is as dysfunctional and corrosive as it has ever been in a campaign.

This has been a relentlessly nasty, divisive and vapid race. The only way to achieve victory has been through negative advertising — where the candidates play a secondary role to Super PACs.

The result has been a declining level of confidence, both domestic and international, about our leadership role. Our political system, once the ideal, is now a subject of widespread ridicule.

The very fact that 2012 is being carried out as if it were no different from any other election, at an extraordinary moment — when profound international challenges loom, and serious national crises have gone unaddressed — speaks to the ultimate disconnect between the people and their elected leaders.

It stands in sharp contrast with 2004 – when Democratic primary voters turned out in droves, energized by the prospect of defeating President George W. Bush.

If the key message voters sent in the 2010 midterm shellacking was: We don’t want overreaching big government and health care, the key message this year is: We don’t like any of you and none of this meets our concerns.

Enthusiasm about voting in the election is down across the board, according to Gallup’s latest poll. The GOP primary campaign has been marked by low voter turnout as well as widespread dissatisfaction among Republicans with what were the four leading contenders.

Indeed, the only people who appear enthused are the handful of mega-donors, bundlers, lobbyists, hedge fund managers and inside-the-Beltway powerbrokers now cutting deals, funding ad wars and propping up weakening primary contenders through massive cash injections.

Mitt Romney’s negative rating, for example, vastly exceeds his positive. Roughly 50 percent of voters view the former Massachusetts governor unfavorably in the most recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll, while only 34 percent are favorable. Voters have no clear sense of what Romney stands for, what his administration will mean and why his candidacy is at all relevant to the electorate’s deep-seated and systematic angst and fear about their economic futures.

Nothing underscores how vapid the 2012 election has become more than the senior Romney campaign adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom’s “Etch-a-sketch” comment two weeks ago – suggesting that this candidate was a blank slate who could, and would, be written on.

What Fehnstrom didn’t say, and what most commentators have missed, is that whatever Romney ultimately writes on the sketchboard is unlikely to be responsive to the problems facing America. Three-quarters of voters now believe that our elected leaders in Washington govern without the consent of the people, a majority of Americans think that the nation is in decline and believe that their children will not be able to achieve the American Dream, according to Gallup.

There is broad consensus in the electorate about the centrality of promoting economic growth— specifically, the need to promote economic growth at home and remain competitive both here and overseas.

The American people want a government that will, at the very least, be a neutral arbiter that allows everyone to reach their full potential – without favoring any strata, particularly the very rich and powerful. Neither party is addressing these issues seriously, nor offering any overarching vision of national purpose. Instead, lawmakers on the left and right continue to offer an approach that is out of touch with our increasingly disenfranchised and disillusioned electorate.

Neither side has acknowledged that until they offer a real opportunity for businesses to grow, create jobs and expand the economy, we can’t cut the debt and reduce the deficit.

Yet, we cannot simply slash spending and cut taxes across-the-board without frank recognition that many Americans are still struggling and rely on the social safety net.

One party talks about redistributing our way out of our current problems – advocating bigger and more intrusive government, higher taxes on the rich and an expanded social safety net, irrespective of costs. The other wants to cut our way to a stable economy without a plan to balance the budget any time soon, or a serious plan to rein in entitlement spending.

The Republicans are now beginning to emerge from a sectarian primary battle that focused more on church and state than on offering solutions to the day-to-day problems people face. Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget plan certainly does propose cutting tax rates and revamping Medicare to curb costs for future retirees, but its across-the-board tax cuts are accompanied by deep cuts in entitlements and spending on key social programs for the poor, as well as a reduction in Social Security benefits over time. In addition, it lacks a clear plan to stimulate or expand the economy – indicating that the Ryan Plan is only a start.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama acts like a political short order cook – doing and saying whatever it takes to get reelected, with no vision for why his second term will be different than his first.

Having abandoned Simpson-Bowles, the president has proposed no serious budget to address our national problems – and is now substituting campaign attack politics for constructive solutions, using tough sounding speeches, rank populism and political soundbites. Populism has become the substitute for policy as Obama demonizes Big Oil, Wall Street and the banks, the Supreme Court and just about anybody who doesn’t support his candidacy.

Obama promised in 2008 to help unite America and commit us to a higher purpose. Now, he selectively demonizes segments of U.S. society and business, attacks Republicans and fails to offer comprehensive policies to get America moving forward on a bipartisan basis.

Addressing these concerns will require an explicit commitment from our political leaders to uphold core values that are not Democratic or Republican. They are American values.

Specifically, it will require candidates who have the passion, the commitment and the urgency of voice that can unite people of different views to achieve fundamental national goals – whether it is our broad sense of national purpose, economic expansion, fiscal discipline or, most of all, job creation.

In short it requires a candidate who offers hope, optimism and most of all, leadership.

At this point, it seems unlikely that the country’s fervent hopes will be realized. And in an election without purpose, the ultimate loser won’t be the Democrats or Republicans — it will be the American people.