The Campaign to Nowhere

Washington Matters

The Campaign to Nowhere

Let's face it. The presidential race that was supposed to usher in an age of change and be the most important in more than a generation has become a mind-numbing disappointment. Listening to these three folks right now is as rewarding as sitting down to watch your new 50-inch plasma TV and finding nothing on but a gerbil racing on a wheel.  Can anyone or anything turn this back into a real race -- with real ideas?

Of course, but it'll take two things sadly lacking these days -- political courage and an electorate willing to face up to some difficult truths.

This is a country where eight in 10 people think that "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track" -- and it's not because Americans are particularly sulky or sullen.

Far too many hard-working people are in near terror as they see themselves or their families or their friends lose jobs or maybe even their homes. They see their incomes stalled, their health care costs climbing and their retirement savings -- if they have any -- eroding like a sand castle at high tide. We are in one war where we're not sure what the objective is and are in danger of losing another because we don't have enough manpower or support from our allies. Employers can't find enough skilled workers, and we are losing our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Our education system is still turning out plenty of graduates, but far too many of them don't have the skills to fill the needs of our complex economy.

Elections are supposed to be about looking at problems like these, setting priorities and devising ways to make improvements. And they can and should be, as well, about pulling Americans together to make difficult choices and some sacrifices today to make the future more promising and secure.

So let's look at how the main the players in this campaign -- the candidates, the media and voters -- are doing.

-- John McCain says we can't lose the war in Iraq, but he's having trouble telling us exactly how we can win -- or even what winning might look like. And the man who once insisted that all Americans -- not just those in the military -- should make sacrifices on behalf of the war and who opposed multiple tax cuts for that reason is now promising to cut taxes even more.
-- Barack Obama warns us that politics as usual and the perpetual game of gotcha are distracting us from the real issues. But he's also making promises, such as raising taxes only on high-income Americans while cutting taxes for many of the rest, that will make seriously addressing those problems impossible.
-- Hillary Clinton keeps promising to fight "for everyone fighting to pay the grocery bills or the medical bills, the credit card and mortgage payments, and the outrageous price of gas." Man, that sounds good but what the heck does it mean? Almost all of us would argue that we are "fighting" to pay those bills. So what kind of help does she mean, for whom and how is it going to be paid for?
--The media thinks hard-nosed questioning means hashing over the buzz of the day and asking about flag pins on lapels.
--Voters keep playing along with all this. They allow the candidates and the media to get away with simple labels like "pro-war" this or "anti-war" without elaborating on the policies those stands dictate. When and how will we know we've won the war in Iraq? How do you pull out troops on a strict timetable without destabilizing the region?  And they act like they still believe in Santa Claus when candidates say taxes can be cut without harming things that many voters care about or that new programs can be created and old problems solved without raising taxes or hurting beneficiaries of other programs.

In other words, can someone please lend us -- all of us -- a back bone?

Here are a few modest spine-stiffening proposals that might make this campaign matter again -- not to mention more interesting.

-- Come on, Mac. For a guy who built his campaign on being a straight-talker, isn't it a little silly to pretend that just staying in Iraq without a clear strategy or goal will make us safer, that cutting taxes is all it will take to get the economy roaring and that all it really takes to balance the federal budget is eliminate waste, fraud and abuse?
-- Barack, you really got people's attention by saying it was time to address real issues that politicians keep avoiding, such as Social Security and the high cost of health care. But they are difficult issues precisely because someone is going to feel the pain from the the ultimate solution. Say so.
-- And Hillary, if leadership is the dominant issue in the race, then how about displaying some and telling people some tough truths instead of just promising to help them pay their bills. Let's take those high gas prices, for example.  Sure we hate them, but doesn't the cost help us conserve? And whatever happened to that pesky global warming thing? Wouldn't lowering gas prices encourage people to drive more and pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?
--As for reporters and interviewers, criminy folks, you regard yourselves as a public trust, how about acting like one? The really hard questions aren't the ones that make people squirm in front of cameras. The toughest ones are those that require knowledge and expertise that most ordinary people don't have. If reporters aren't going to challenge politicians when they make claims that aren't true, make promises that can't be kept, offer luscious-sounding programs that aren't paid for and appeal to emotion instead of reason, just who is?
-- What about the rest of us, those who have to sort through this mess, watch the gerbil races and actually make a decision? We tell ourselves and our kids everyday that a solid and rewarding future will take hard work, self-sacrifice and delayed gratification. So why on Earth do we not only let politicians tell us the exact opposite, but actually believe them and then think things will turn out well?