A debate debacle. Unemployment at persistent high rates. Ten or so key states still in play. A fusillade of campaign ads, each televised spot more odious, more duplicitous. One vice-presidential candidate who looks like a cackling jackal, the other who looks like a Puritan preacher, neither with much of a fealty for facts. The first American election with no white Protestant on either ticket. A late-campaign hurricane that produced a storm surge of 14 feet in Manhattan and left millions without power. All the elements of a riveting American presidential contest are here.
Except that Campaign 2012, slouching toward its dreary Tuesday conclusion, is so repellent (and, worse yet, so boring) that everybody concerned – candidates, campaign aides, commentators, most of all the voters – cannot wait until it ends. In this campaign, no one’s exhilarated and everyone’s exhausted.
How can that be?
First, the political environment. The economy remains in distress and the parties are in mortal combat. These two elements are locked in a kind of death grip, in which the continuing crisis forces the camps apart instead of drawing them together.
It does not help that the nation, for the first time in modern history, has the ideologically aligned political parties that are the norm in Canada and Western Europe, but were stubbornly elusive in the United States. Political scientists are happy – they bemoaned the mushy American parties, illogically giving the Democrats a conservative rump and the Republicans a liberal wing. Now the most liberal Republican on Capitol Hill is markedly more conservative than the most conservative Democrat, providing no common ground and no impetus for compromise. Indeed, the notion of compromise is now discredited in a country whose Constitution was formed by an agreement known to history as the Great Compromise.
Then there are the candidates, two men of great distinction, honour and achievement who have transformed the political square into a mosh pit and the election process into a rumble. In debate performances and on television ads, they more resemble Pinocchio than Lester Pearson. No peacekeeping here. This isn’t a campaign, it’s a brawl.
The state of the campaign is all the more ironic because of the incongruities at the heart of this political struggle.
It is, after all, a contest between two men who are astonishingly similar. They’ve been golden boys since their teens, both shaped by graduate studies at Harvard, both came of age politically on the East Coast but are rooted in the Midwest, both are outsiders, one an African American, one a Mormon. Both are introverts, both are old-fashioned grinds, both are drawn to hardcover books. And yet their outlooks are so different, particularly when it comes to the role of government in solving problems, in easing the way of the poor, the striving, the aged and the infirm – and even in addressing the distress of a monstrous hurricane.
Perhaps it comes down to the notion that these two breakthrough candidates, who have shattered racial and religious barriers on the way to their nominations, are so relentlessly and perhaps deliberately conventional. The drama of their emergence as outsiders is dampened by their lack of personal drama, even their colourless personalities.
But they’re the guys we’ve got, and as the hours of campaigning diminish, the polls seem stuck at the very centre. The national vote doesn’t matter, as we learned in 2000 and as our forebears learned in 1876 and 1888 – elections when the winner of the popular vote lost the election. What matters now are a handful of states that have nothing in common with each other – places like Florida, with two sun-baked seacoasts, and Ohio, on the frosty Great Lakes; and Nevada, where prostitution is legal, and North Carolina, where Baptists are the largest religious denomination.
The political cognoscenti are spending the final breaths of the campaign gauging the effects of the Tea Party and reading the tea leaves of scores of polls. These soundings show Mitt Romney apparently surging in New Hampshire, Barack Obama in Iowa. They tell us the gender gap gives Mr. Romney a six-point bulge in Ohio among men, but gives Mr. Obama an advantage among women three times as big. They tell us independents in Florida favoured Mr. Obama by seven percentage points four years ago, but favour Mr. Romney by five points now. Making sense of all this is like getting all the leaves in your autumn rake pile to point the same way.
Amid the storm clouds that have enveloped this campaign – and that shrouded the states raked by Hurricane Sandy in the last days of the contest – there nonetheless is a ray of sunshine. In all likelihood it will be over on Tuesday. In this campaign, no one is hoping for an overtime like the one produced a dozen years ago by George W. Bush and Albert Gore Jr.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.