The weird part about writing this column this fall is that I’ll never see it in print. I’m spending the semester in Australia this fall but I decided at the end of last year to continue writing this, assuming—incorrectly—that this would be an interesting election about important issues. So, welcome to election season 2012: the race to the bottom. If 2008 was a baseball game where the teams tried for home runs, this time it’s around all about clearing the benches and charging the mound.
Which is worse for America? A campaign based almost entirely upon falsehoods and platitudes, or one that focuses on the small, petty, petulant problems it has with its opponent? The latter is more depressing but as we struggle to our knees and begin to look for answers to the questions of the 21st century, both are dangerous. Together, they add up to a depressing election between two men so walled off from the world that they make Don Draper look like the Kardashian family by comparison.
Presidential elections in the modern era have developed a distinct pattern: candidate runs on lofty ideals and promises to change the way Washington works. Then, four years later, the less shiny incumbent desperately tries to retain his grip on power with a barrage of mud throwing or red meat that brings out the base and depresses the independent-minded voters who just might cross party lines. We can ill afford another such election cycle.
Today, we view the history of America as the history of great leaders. The election of Obama was always more about the man, his story, and his speaking abilities than about any real issues. America is crying out for a knight to appear and lead us out of the wilderness. But this is merely a mistake of our modern cult of the individual. We’ve always done best when our leaders were secondary to their ideas; not Jefferson but independence; not Lincoln but a house united; not FDR but a new deal for a nation tired of the old one. FDR actually went to great lengths to hide his personal story and the crippling illness that came with it. There is a reason the nation bloomed under quiet leaders like Eisenhower, who understood that duty leaves little room for ego. In our system of separated powers, no great businessman or cunning politician is enough to break through the divide. History shows that it is determined groups of people willing to form coalitions who solved the problems at hand; the Constitution was not written by one man, nor were the federalist papers. Lincoln would never have restored the Union without Grant. FDR could change little until public opinion shifted so clearly that the Supreme Court followed along.
Now is not the time for pet issues and character attacks. It is the time for consensus and compromise. You don’t redo the kitchen cabinets when the house is on fire. If we cannot set aside minor quibbles like who put a dog on the roof of his car, the marathon time of his running mate, and the tax rates that they paid, or move beyond fait accompli like the Affordable Care Act, we will slide into the league of fallen empires; one of those giants of history that children will read about in history class, and marvel that the speed of our rise was matched only by the depth of our decay.
Here is the state of our union going into the fall election: not only is our house divided against itself, it’s also crumbling and close to default. Our middle class has become endangered. Our infrastructure is the shame of the developed world. Our schools are stuck in the industrial era. Our seas are rising and our soldiers are falling. Yet nobody wants to pay to fix any of these, or to actually talk about what we can go without. We expect first-world infrastructure, a level of entitlement support developed when lives were nearly two decades shorter, and the most powerful military in the history of the world while paying little of our unprecedented wealth. Rarely before has the magnitude of our challenge been so poorly matched by the level of our political discourse. President Obama earned my vote when he signed the healthcare act that will forever bear his name, an historic achievement that must be defended from the scourge of the Tea Party agenda, even at the cost of another four years of gridlock. The Democrats did a fantastic job in putting on a convention to remind us all of the stakes. But despite all the speeches and attacks, neither candidate has earned my enthusiasm or my confidence that he will help deliver the solutions we so badly need.