Presidential candidates and their aides know a lot these days about how to run a campaign. They just seem to have forgotten what campaigns are for.
They’re immensely sophisticated about targeting and messaging. They know how to drive the news cycle — or at least, try to — and they know where to focus their resources. They control the candidate, shape his every public foray to make him or her look good, and try their best to make sure they are not subject to inconvenient questions or cross examination. When “gaffes” happen, as they are bound to do, they move quickly to minimize the fallout.
Yet what is good for a presidential campaign is not always good for the voter, as this year’s contest so far proves. An immense gulf has opened between what the country needs from the candidates and the disappointing crumbs the candidates have offered. For the most part, the election thus far has been about the past — Barack Obama’s failure to put the economy on surer footing, Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. It has not focused much on the future, which is what matters to voters.
And let’s be clear: There’s plenty to talk about. Income, especially for the middle class, continues to stagnate, while jobs and the national debt are on every policy maker’s front burner. The middle class is in trouble and looking for prescriptions that will set its families on a more secure course. We have an education system that worries many parents and causes economists to fret about our future competitiveness. Our health-care system remains bewilderingly complex and, for many Americans, at times dysfunctional. Questions about immigration and our openness to foreign talent remain unsettled.
Yet it’s hard to know from the campaign thus far what either candidate plans to do over the next four years on these and other issues. By contrast, I’m reminded of the year I first ran for Congress, 1964. Lyndon Johnson ran that year on a very specific platform, so that when he came into office he had a mandate; the result was the Great Society. Can you tell me right now what positive mandate Obama or Romney will have come inauguration day next year? I didn’t think so.
But there’s an even more troubling aspect to this campaign. We live in a politically divided country, with a Congress that is riven by ideological disagreements. To make progress on virtually any issue we confront, someone will have to find a way to overcome those divisions.
As the centrist think tank Third Way has pointed out, to balance the budget, Democrats will have to accept meaningful reduction in the cost of entitlements, while Republicans will have to accept some tax increases. To address K-12 education, Republicans will need to agree to inject more money into school systems, while Democrats must accept the need for education reform. We will not resolve our immigration challenges without Democrats recognizing the need for high-skilled newcomers and Republicans bending on their willingness to accept higher levels of immigration.
All of these issues have room for each side to accommodate the other. But it will take political leadership of the highest order to make progress — and a president who’s willing to exert it.
Yet the candidates consistently underestimate the intelligence and the knowledge of the ordinary voter. Voters want a forthright, give-it-to-me-straight campaign that doesn’t sugarcoat hard truths but that also generates new thinking about how to solve our problems.
Americans are worried about the country’s future and the well-being of their children and grandchildren. Not surprisingly, they’re looking for a candidate who will give them honest explanations of complex problems, lay out a path for us all to tackle them, and demonstrate that he has the fortitude and political skill to lead the nation at a troubled time.
So far, they haven’t gotten this from either candidate. It is time for voters to wrest control of the election campaign from the political pros who are giving us a largely depressing and irrelevant campaign, and insist that the serious business of our presidential campaigns be conducted in a manner befitting a great nation.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.