Written by Richard Schiffman
Maybe you followed the recent disaster of the substitute referees. With the regular refs locked out since June, the NFL brought in replacements (a few were high school coaches) to officiate. But the scabs proved to be not quite up to the job, leading to comedies of errors like the match between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. Some commentators described it as the worst-called game in football history.
It made me think of the current election campaign, another comedy of errors where the non-professionals are calling the shots. The amateurs in question are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. To call them amateurs is actually kind. Take Mitt Romney, whose chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease has rendered his campaign an exercise in slapstick worthy of the Marx Brothers. The president, while lacking Romney’s unerring instinct for self-destruction, has run a lackluster campaign deficient in anything like a compelling vision for the next four years– witness his recent debate debacle.
Candidates are supposed to tell us where they stand and what they intend to use the highest office in the land to accomplish– right? They are job applicants whose task is to convince us that they have got some really great ideas, as well as the will and the skills to implement them. What we have gotten instead are vacuous platitudes and bald-faced lies, character assassination and adolescent gaffe-attacks. These guys clearly don’t know how to call the shots!
Politics as usual, you say? Well, no– it didn’t used to be this way. Remember when campaigns were about things called “issues”? Remember when candidates grappled– sometimes even intelligently and passionately– with matters like war and peace, civil rights, poverty, free trade? Didn’t our aspiring leaders once use the bully pulpit of a national campaign to push for agendas that they cared deeply about?
Think FDR, think JFK, think LBJ. Hell, even Richard Nixon put forth some bold ideas– like opening up a dialogue with China and protecting the environment– during his election bids. Politicians were not infrequently folks with a commitment to improving people’s lives, an instinct for creative leadership, and even in some cases the courage of their convictions.
Ok, perhaps I am letting my imagination run away with me. The past always looks better through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. The truth is that politics has always been more about winning elections than fostering a national dialogue.
But once upon a time winning elections and speaking truth were not necessarily antithetical as they have become today. We actually expected our candidates to talk realistically– and in concrete detail– about the challenges that faced America, and not just to chant magic spells about “rescuing the economy,” “saving medicare,” “bringing the troops home,” “creating jobs,” and “lowering taxes,” as they routinely do today. We also expected them to be themselves, to tell us what they truly think about things.
Both of the current contenders agree that the issue is the economy, and by extension the deficit, which threatens to sink our economic ship for good. But one candidate wants to cure the deficit by– gulp!– further cutting taxes on the rich and further deregulating the scoundrels who caused the near collapse of the economy with their recklessness and pathological greed. The other candidate proposes only token regulation and more federal stimulus packages, half-measures that didn’t solve the problem the first time around. Neither is seriously addressing the long term systemic failures that are at the root of America’s decline.
Voters still say that they expect straight talk from those seeking the presidency. They say that, but truth be told they want their politicians to continue to deceive them. This is the dirty little secret of American political life. How else to explain the fact that we reward candidates when they offer us soporific words of false comfort, and punish them whenever they dare to speak to us like adults about the hard choices and knotty complexities of the real world.
Let’s face it, voters today are looking for simplistic answers to questions that for the most part they don’t even properly ask.
Can we continue to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without destroying the delicate web of life, not to mention the basis for the economy? Will we eschew campaign finance reform and allow our democracy to be auctioned shamelessly to the highest bidder? Will we continue to ignore the grotesquely metastasizing deficit? Will we fail once more to regulate the gambling cartels on Wall Street, and allow the banksters to continue mortgaging our collective future?
These are just a few of the questions you won’t hear either candidate talk much about during the next four weeks. Oh, they may mouth ventriloquist-dummy-like some of the buzzwords that their pollsters and focus groups have told them that you want to hear. Who knows, we might even hear that cloying and disingenuous word “hope” again. But don’t expect anything substantive or real. Because they are substitute candidates after all.
The good news is that the NFL solved its dispute with the referees last month, so we can look forward to the return of accurate calls in the game called football. The bad news is that in the game of politics for the foreseeable future the amateurs will stay in charge.