Dullest Campaign Ever
By DAVID BROOKS
A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal that perfectly captures my attitude toward this presidential campaign: It's incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time.
Since then, I've come up with a number of reasons for why it is so dull. First, intellectual stagnation. This race is the latest iteration of the same debate we've been having since 1964. Mitt Romney is calling President Obama a big-government liberal who wants to crush business. Obama is calling Romney a corporate tool who wants to take away grandma's health care.
American politics went through tremendous changes between 1900 and 1936, and then again between 1940 and 1976. But our big government/small government debate is back where it was a generation ago. Candidates don't even have to rehearse the arguments anymore; they just find the gaffes that will help them pin their opponent to the standard bogyman clichés.
Second, lack of any hint of intellectual innovation. Candidates used to start their campaigns by giving serious policy addresses at universities and think tanks to lay out their distinct philosophies. Bill Clinton was a New Democrat. George W. Bush was a Compassionate Conservative.
But the ideological climate has ossified. Candidates know that they'd be punished for saying something unexpected — by the rich, elderly donors and by the hyperorthodox talk-show hosts. Instead of saying something new, now they just try to boost turnout within their own demographic niches and suppress turnout in the other guy's niches.
Third, increased focus on the uninformed. Four years ago, Barack Obama gave a sophisticated major speech on race. Mitt Romney did one on religion. This year, the candidates do not feel compelled to give major speeches. The prevailing view is that anybody who would pay attention to such a speech is already committed to a candidate. It's more efficient to focus on the undecided voters, who don't really follow politics or the news.
Fourth, lack of serious policy proposals. Has there ever been a campaign with so few major plans on the table? President Obama's proposals are small and medium-size retreads, while Mitt Romney has run the closest thing to a policy-free race as any candidate in my lifetime. Republicans spend their days fleshing out proposals, which Romney decides not to champion.
Fifth, negative passion. Both parties are driven more by hatred than by love. Both sides feel it would be a disaster for the country if the other side had power during the next four years. Neither side is propelled by much positive enthusiasm for their own side.
Many Democratic politicians think Obama looks down on them as a bunch of lowlife hacks. As Noonan wrote in that column, he sometimes seems to regard politics as a weary duty on his path to greatness. The Republican coolness toward Romney is such that he's having trouble recruiting people to work on the campaign.
Sixth, no enactment strategy. To avert catastrophe, the next president will have to rally bipartisan majorities around a budget deal and many other things. That will require personal and relationship skills neither has demonstrated. The polarizing, negative tactics the candidates use to get elected will make it impossible to succeed after one of them wins.
Seventh, ad budget myopia. Both campaigns fervently believe that more spending leads to more votes. They also believe that if they can carpet bomb swing voters with enough negative ads, then eventually the sheer weight of the barrage will produce movement in their direction. There's little evidence that these prejudices are true. But the campaigns are like World War I generals. If something isn't working, the answer must be to try more of it.
Eighth, technology is making campaigns dumber. BlackBerrys and iPhones mean that campaigns can respond to their opponents minute by minute and hour by hour. The campaigns get lost in tit-for-tat minutiae that nobody outside the bubble cares about. Meanwhile, use of the Internet means that Web videos overshadow candidate speeches and appearances. Video replaces verbal. Tactics eclipse vision.
Finally, dishonesty numbs. A few years ago, newspapers and nonprofits set up fact-checking squads, rating campaign statements with Pinocchios and such. The hope was that if nonpartisan outfits exposed campaign deception, the campaigns would be too ashamed to lie so much.
This hope was naïve. As John Dickerson of Slate has said, the campaigns want the Pinocchios. They want to show how tough they are. But the result is a credibility vacuum. It's impossible to take ads seriously. They are the jackhammer noise in the background of life.
This is the paradox. As campaigns get more sophisticated, everything begins to look more homogenized, less effective and indescribably soporific.