Despite the importance of national elections in America, the public dialogue is bereft of substance. The continual exchange of ad hominem invective would be endlessly amusing if it were not so frightening that the national leader of the United States gets selected in a process that’s so untidy. The irony, of course, is that there is no paucity of important issues, but the only candidates who seem to have fully developed opinions are those, like Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Denis Kucinich, who have no chance of being selected.
The Republicans do an adequate job of insulting each other, but with no putative nominee, the race so far lacks the personal attacks that make the contest among the Democrats so entertaining. The increasingly acerbic exchanges between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama have revolved around their relative experience and thus, one would assume, their fitness to lead. Since there is little discussion of the candidates' positions, one hopes that the vitriol will increase, if for no other reason than to give us something interesting to discuss.
In most polls of voters’ attitudes, national security ranks among the most pressing issues, and there should be a big difference between Obama, who voted against the war in Iraq, and Clinton, who voted for it. But the gulf between them does not surface frequently, and the topic is usually the more generic questions of who is the better candidate and who is more likely to win in the general election, not who has the better solutions to our problems.
Until recently, Clinton’s tack had been to emphasize that she earned her governing chops in the White House, but it took the Obama camp until just a couple of weeks ago to recognize that her resume is no more impressive than his. In this regard, it is interesting to note that her one notable foray into management, national health care, was a resounding failure. Her husband leapt to her defense, avowing that he was responsible for the health care fiasco, but the public record says otherwise.
One reason that we see such stultifying superficiality in the public debate is that our electoral process is so interminably long. This election cycle actually began in earnest a year ago, and it is almost demoralizing to realize that we have yet another year to go. The American process, unconstrained by any meaningful procedural rules in the Constitution, takes forever. In stark contrast to the parliamentary system in Britain, for example, where campaigning is limited to a month, the American method of selecting a national leader seems to take a lifetime.
And right now, the candidates are only campaigning for their parties’ nominations. So, almost as if the scenario were devised by Joseph Heller or Mark Twain or P.G. Wodehouse, those who don’t win the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire are effectively out of the race. Please note that only about 1.5 percent of Americans live in those two states.
An unpleasant result of the mind-numbing length of the campaign is the importance of money. It’s expensive to get elected, and, while lots of money doesn’t guarantee electoral success, a lack of money guarantees failure. So, candidates spend most of their time raising cash, not consciousness. One should be excused for coming to the conclusion that these people would be better employed as salespeople for a hedge fund than as politicians.
The candidates’ focus on cash means that politicians are not motivated to tell potential donors what their opinions are but instead what the donors want to hear. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that discourse is characterized by superficiality and personal attack.
Of course, once the conventions are over and the political parties have selected their candidates, the quality of discussion may improve, and perhaps we will be able to select the leader with the best positions and programs.
But don’t bet on it.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.