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Decision 2014: A Campaign About Nothing?

Image: Republican primary in Wisconsin

epa03169727 An election worker puts up a clock above voting booths in Saukville Wisconsin, USA 03 April 2012. Reports state that voters are going to the polls in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington to make their choice in the US Republican presidential primary election EPA/JEFFREY PHELPS JEFFREY PHELPS / EPA

The 2014 election sounds at times like a campaign about nothing.

Climate change. A lack of social mobility. A troubling racial divide in some places that was illustrated in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. A declining level of trust in American institutions, from the government to churches. The growing percentage of tax dollars spent on Social Security and health care. Income inequality.

Grimes to McConnell: ‘I Don’t Need Hound Dogs to Track You Down’ 1:03

Those are just some of the major challenges for America in 2014. But they are at times almost entirely absent from the discussion by candidates running for state and federal offices this November.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by both Democrats and Republicans to win control of Congress and gubernatorial seats, many of the biggest issues are being ignored or playing very small roles in the 2014 campaign.

Many Democratic candidates, despite being heavily reliant on the black vote, have offered almost no policy prescriptions to the challenges illustrated by Ferguson, campaigning as if the incident and resulting controversy never happened.

The party’s hopefuls avoid speaking forcefully about climate change, which President Barack Obama has called the “one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than other.”

Republicans chase headlines in search of whatever issue in the news they can use to attack President Obama, whose rising unpopularity is the center of their 2014 strategy.

“The most important economic issues facing the country concern big, long-term challenges and the 2014 election season seems if anything obsessed with the complete opposite,” said Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor who served as one of President Obama’s top economic advisers from 2009-2011. “The big issues seem to have almost been forgotten.”

The environment is a marked contrast from recent elections. In 2004 and 2006, Democrats ran explicitly to reverse President Bush’s policies on Iraq. Republicans attempted in 2010 and 2012 to stop Obamacare from going into effect and limit the president’s ability to pass more large federal programs.

The big issues seem to have almost been forgotten.

Now, the U.S. is largely out of Iraq. Republicans have successfully stopped Obama passing major bills. The two parties differences on how to fight ISIS are small. Obamacare is very unlikely to be repealed. And the president has said he will act on immigration through executive action, regardless of what happens this November, removing the issue as a major campaign debate.

Those old issues are not being replaced by new ones. Congressional Republicans have refused to put out any kind of broad document revealing their policy ideas. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, in a speech last week billed to explain “the things we’re for” as Republicans, was full of vague statements like “our Constitution should be preserved, valued and honored.”

The comprehensive budget overhaul proposed by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which calls for major changes to reduce growth in spending on Social Security and Medicare, is rarely discussed by most Republican congressional candidates. Few Republicans have joined Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky in urging a shift on how the U.S deals with racial disparities, particularly in the enforcement of drug crimes.

Similarly, the call by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, for a broad rethinking of the American economy and how it rewards the rich in her view is virtually absent from the campaign trail. And Democratic candidates are also avoiding the comprehensive agenda that Obama himself laid out in a speech last week, expanding pre-kindergarten education, creating mandatory paid family leave for parents after they have a child and other ideas he said would create a “new foundation” for the American economy.

Candidates Trade Jabs in N.C. Senate Debate 1:31

“This has become an election about small things,” said former top Obama strategist David Axelrod. “It’s a tactical election. I think particularly in these swing states, Democrats don’t want a national election. Republicans sort of want a national election, but it’s not an election about ideas.”

This is not an accident. Democratic Party officials concluded early this year that the best approach to keeping control of the Senate was to avoid a focus on climate change or income inequality, in favor of a series of issues where polls show the public clearly on their side, raising the minimum wage, passing legislation that makes it easier for female employees to file suit if they feel they are not being paid fairly and attacking Republicans for backing bills in the past that would limit women’s access to contraception and abortions.

Some prominent Republicans, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, urged the party to release an updated version of its 1994 Contract with America. That advice was rejected in favor of an anti-Obama approach that is tailored for each state. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, running for reelection, is targeting Democratic nominee Charlie Crist for supporting Obama’s policies on the economy. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky suggests his opponent backs Obama’s approach to regulating the coal industry.

To be sure, these larger issues are not being completely ignored. NextGen Climate, the political committee founded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, is spending millions of dollars in key races to attack Republican candidates for opposing efforts to combat climate change.

And strategists in both parties note that some issues smaller issues on the campaign trail are connected to larger ones. Democrats are talking about the minimum wage as a way to address inequality, Republicans attacking Obamacare as a symbol of a federal government that spends too much money on health care and other entitlements.

The problems that Republicans have been talking about since Reagan have primarily been solved.

Data from Kantar Media, which tracks campaign advertising, shows that healthcare is the top subject for commercials in Senate races, while government spending is No. 1 in House races.

“There are some important, fundamental issues that are being talked about, most especially the Affordable Care Act,” said Pete Wehner, who was director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives under President George W. Bush.

Some strategists in both parties say that the presidential campaign will bring a broader discussion about America’s problems. Paul in particular seems to want to overhaul the Republican Party on both foreign and domestic policy in his presidential campaign, and Democratic activists are determined to push Hillary Clinton to detail how she would reduce income inequality and focus on climate change if she runs for president.

But others say that the lack of bold ideas stems from a deeper problem, namely that neither party has updated its policy ideas to the problems of the U.S of today.

“The problems that Republicans have been talking about since Reagan have primarily been solved,” said Time magazine senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald, who wrote a recent piece titled “The Politics of Nothing.” He noted the decline in both violent crime and tax rates since the 1980’s addressed two issues Republicans have long focused on.

“The problems Democrats have been talking about, Obama enacted most of that,” he added.

Mark Schmitt, director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation, said, “Dems don’t really have good or persuasive answer to issues like the wealth gap.”

“It’s easy to say, more education for everyone, but that’s a very 90’s answer and kids with expensive BA’s are folding shirts at Abercrombie and Fitch,” he added. “There is a real ideas gap. Minimum wage is one thing we know, and it’s worth doing, but it doesn’t create good jobs.”