Campaigns for political office are often painful to watch. Here are five ways to make them better.
At some point, one assumes that the American electorate, perhaps owing to the Flynn effect, will become more sophisticated. As a result of this development, the fluffy slogans, clever catchphrases, and ad hominem attacks that characterized the presidential elections of 1800, 1840, 1884, and 1980 (to name but a few) will cease to arouse the passions of the voters. After listening to one “nonpartisan” pundit denounce Barack Obama’s speech to the DNC as “too prose-y” and “too wonky,” I realized 2012 wouldn’t be the year that occurs. Moreover, if Thomas Edsall’s claims in The New York Times are indeed correct, it would seem that the Republican Party–not too long ago the home of policy mavens and great statesmen like Howard Baker, Richard Lugar, and John Anderson–has directed its election-season appeals to a portion of the electorate that its higher-ups view as especially unsophisticated.
I’m inclined to believe that the voters, who are far from ignorant, would benefit from having the 2012 election issues put to them in the following way:
a. Do you favor raising the top two tax rates to 36 and 39.6 (i.e., the tax assessed on every dollar earned above $178,650 and $388,000 for individuals, or $217,500 and $388,000 for couples, respectively) or would you prefer to see the top rate reduced to 28 percent? In either case, do bear in mind that these rates are very nearly at historic lows for the past half-century.
b. Do you favor repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act?
c. Do you favor the continuation of federal Pell Grant and student loan programs?
d. The various wars: More of them, or much more of them?
Now here’s what shouldn’t be on the table:
1. Politicians, particularly those on the right, need to stop wasting time whipping the voters into a frenzy over cultural issues. One might quibble with my use of “wasting time” in the previous sentence, for it’s certainly not time wasted if promising to repeal Roe v. Wade or to stem the onrushing tide of gay marriage drives the base to the polls. Nevertheless, one ought to acknowledge how empty these efforts have been: Roe v. Wade is still good law, albeit with various complicated state-by-state modifications, Bowers v. Hardwick is no longer good law despite being former Pittsburgh Steeler Byron “Whizzer” White’s great contribution to American jurisprudence, and this country is far more socially permissive on the aggregate than it was when all this talk of “family values” seeped into the Republican platform three decades ago. At the same time, Democrats would be well served to heed the advice of Richard Rorty and focus more on distributive justice and less on identity politics.
2. We don’t need to hear about what a great spouse, son/daughter, etc. this politician is. I’ve never walked away from a speech thinking, “Damn, that was insightful, but does she really love her mom?” Nor have I–a child of multiple divorces–ever felt a “strong connection” with a politician who, like Mitt Romney, has wasted precious airtime boasting about how wonderful his parents’ marriage was. Bill Clinton, whose problematic upbringing and personal life are probably more relatable to voters like me than that of some blue-suited cipher who has remained chaste even in the face of his own spouse’s advances, gave a strong speech the other night. Aside from a curiously inappropriate reference to Michelle Obama at the beginning of the speech, Clinton otherwise adhered to a set of talking points that went a long way towards defining the 2012 Democratic platform. Meanwhile, both the Michelle Obama and Ann Romney speeches left us with no doubt that their husbands were great men and devoted lovers. Ann’s remarks, pitched at a very low level of comprehension, were especially fulsome:
This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America! … Look into your hearts. This is our country. This is our future. These are our children and grandchildren. You can trust Mitt. He loves America. He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance. Give him that chance. Give America that chance.
3. Candidates shouldn’t go out of their way to establish their rags-to-riches bona fides. For many aspirants to high office, the journey from poverty (or what probably wasn’t even poverty, by the standards of the era) to prosperity is so remote that attempts to reference it border on the ridiculous. “My great-great-great-grandfather, before going to Harvard, had to work two jobs to earn enough money to buy his way out of Civil War service!” Voters, on the other hand, need to accept that most of the people cajoling and manipulating them into casting ballots neither grew up in a log cabin nor fought in a war. Although it’s likely that the same cast of characters (the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Tafts) will be currying one’s favor, this is simply a consequence of living in a society with such vast levels of income inequality. Most of these individuals, having received reasonably good educations at Ivy League schools, turn out to be competent civil servants. Don’t like the oligarchy? Well, start voting for individuals who promise larger tax increases regardless of whether or not those people strike you as good sons, good spouses, or good potential Popes.
4. Everyone has to stop talking about “job creation.” This vague term, defined in a host of ways, is now the bread-and-butter of the Romney campaign. Romney will create jobs. But wait, says Obama, I created jobs. Romney, who worked in business, can create more jobs! No, Obama will create more–he has experience! No, Romney will! 80 million jobs were created in five weeks. 100 million in a night. I created 1,000,000,000 jobs right now: I just cut-and-pasted the word “job” over and over again in a Google document. Sure, government tax and spending policies, along with the monetary policy pursued by the Federal Reserve, can have some impact on the unemployment rate–but how many politicians (among whose number we must count people like the late, lamented Congressman Fred Heineman (R-NC), who once told reporters that his $180,000 annual income placed him squarely among the “lower middle class”) are capable of articulating this sort of thing? Better to stick to simpler discussions of taxing and spending, or forbearing from doing so.
5. Entitlement programs aren’t “going broke.” The United States collects $2 trillion in tax receipts each year, and even this number is artificially low due to tax avoidance and inefficient usage of the federal government’s power of taxation. The country could conceivably “go broke,” but this would only seem to be possible if revenues derived from a return to a harsher 1970s-era taxation regime proved insufficient to meet catastrophic budget shortfalls. Portending financial ruin and then promising to slash the top two tax rates defies common sense. This style of campaigning, popular with both parties since the Reagan Revolution, gives the people what they want, but at the cost that no politician can discuss taxes other than to claim that he or she will cut them. It’s especially strange that the post-Reagan Republican Party has embraced this strategy, given the avowed commitment of some of the party’s former intellectual heavyweights to balanced budgets. Well, let me restate that–it’s “strange” only in the same way that kvetching about cultural issues is a “waste of time.” If the goal of a party or candidate is to say and do whatever is necessary to win votes, then this isn’t the least bit strange.
And that’s why we can expect to see more, not less, of the behaviors I’ve criticized here. What matters is not offering the voters a clear choice, as if they were a disinterested panel of Solons to whom one you needed to plead your case, but getting the voters to buy your brand, as if you were selling them a soft drink. Presented like that, the differences between parties are about as stark as the differences between Pepsi and Coke, with the final selection every bit as arbitrary. To its detriment, the Republican Party has done a much better job of marketing its candidates in such a way. Many of the smart individuals involved in these carefully-constructed “campaigns about nothing” undoubtedly realize what a disservice they’re performing, and their appalling cynicism constitutes a threat to national security far more dire than that posed by any terrorist group.
Image–Flickr/caricaturist nonpareil DonkeyHotey