Why am I so distressed by this presidential campaign? Let me count the ways.
First, the lowest of the low-hanging fruit involves the overblown rhetoric about how crucial this year’s race is. How often can we hear the phrase “the most important election of our lifetime” without rolling our collective eyes? Can anyone name even one unimportant presidential election?
Second, the attack ads. How glad I am not to live in a battleground swing state! I hear from friends in Ohio and Florida that the ubiquitous ads are both objectionable and mind-numbing, regardless of whom you might support. Evidently, “going negative” must pay off. Otherwise, why would both sides resort to character assassination and name-calling to the tune of millions of dollars?
Third, let’s consider those millions of dollars. The cover of the Aug. 13 issue of Time featured a picture of the White House with a “for sale” sign on the front lawn and the chilling description: “Asking: $2.5 Billion.” The unseemliness of this state of affairs is hardly offset by the fact that the major donors to both major parties largely cancel each other out. Recent judicial decisions unleashing new torrents of cash into the political process have reinforced decades of legislative gridlock on campaign finance reform. Our system of democracy appears to be thoroughly broken.
Fourth, neither the Obama nor the Romney campaign has passed the smell test for truthfulness. Emanating from both camps (and especially from the vice presidential candidates) is an avalanche of misleading statements intended to discredit the opponent. Voters should not have to race to fact-checker Web sites after every stump speech to evaluate the truth of candidates’ claims.
Perhaps the childish partisanship that breeds exaggeration and fabrication is a function of how close this election is expected to be and how few truly undecided voters remain as we enter the home stretch. In making a pitch for the support of the shrinking sliver of the electorate that will determine the outcome, is there anything that these politicians won’t say in order to gain an advantage?
Fifth, the campaign has become not only fierce and bitter, but utterly joyless. Neither presidential candidate appears to be comfortable enough to muster up any spontaneity or to speak out of credible conviction. Despite an above average acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Obama has so far failed to hit his stride in making the case for why he deserves a second term and has not described what he will do with four more years. Romney continues to struggle mightily with the charge that he is “un-genuine” and unable to empathize with ordinary Americans. Not much uplift on either side.
As they hit the stump, both candidates assume the grim demeanor of a person with something to hide. I think this reflects the vulnerability of the flawed parties they represent. The Republicans are eager to whitewash their embarrassing complicity in the serious domestic and foreign policy failures of the Bush years. Note how the party occasionally betrays awareness of its soft underbelly—by arranging, for example, to keep George W. Bush way, way out of sight. By contrast, the Democratic leadership openly flaunts what it should be most embarrassed about: nearly unconditional support for abortion-on-demand policies in the party platform, despite the fact that a majority of Americans register serious doubts about abortion rights and prefer more restricted access to it.
Conventional wisdom offers the oversimplification that every election is a mere referendum on the economic policies of the incumbent. This election is surely about many distinct things, but much rightly hinges on the state of the economy and the vision not only for economic growth but also for economic fairness proposed by each candidate. In the closing weeks of the campaign, I for one would be delighted to see much greater attention to the often overlooked issue of reducing poverty. As the U.S. bishops said in their Labor Day statement: “In the current political campaigns, we hear much about the economy, but almost nothing about the moral imperative to overcome pervasive poverty in a nation still blessed with substantial economic resources.”
Let the debates begin.