Elections should be about something. Elections are expensive and cumbersome, and therefore are precious, our main opportunity to connect our government to the major questions it needs to answer.
An election that isn’t about anything important is an empty exercise. It may stir interest as a sporting event – a very long horse race – or as a celebrity reality show. But if an election isn’t about fundamental issues of human existence and political theory, it’s a sham, nothing more than very expensive patriotic bunting draped across the real business of governing.
Many elections are shams. The Soviet bloc had elections, but they were mere political shows, rituals designed to buttress the legitimacy of communist dictatorship. Hosni Mubarak won four elections in Egypt, none of which was about anything since he was unopposed.
An election can be a sham even if it sends the government’s leadership packing. Middle school student body elections do that. But then the new leaders accomplish as little as the previous ones. Clearly nothing has changed. Faces shuffle into and out of offices, but the unelected system just keeps grinding along doing what it wills, drawing sustenance from its deep and ever-growing roots. The election turns out to have been about nothing.
Is our current presidential election about anything? If so, what?
Each of the Republican candidates offers the voters a chance to stamp this election with a different answer to these questions.
For example, Mitt Romney says this election is about getting the American economy going again so it can provide jobs. An election about providing jobs is better than nothing, certainly, but it isn’t likely to resound as historically profound. No one will ever run against jobs. If Romney wins the nomination and sticks to his theme, he and Obama will debate means, but not ends.
Where Romney’s theme is clear but bland, Gingrich’s is vivid but mystifying. Gingrich sometimes echoes Andrew Jackson, out to liberate Washington from the thrall of the elites holding it captive, and deliver the national government back into the hands of the common people and their common sense. That would make the election about something big: who governs? Do the “smart” people with their Ivy League credentials govern as wise benefactors over commoners too simple, bitter and clingy to understand the world? Or are the common people better situated to know their own needs and values and thus to govern themselves?
As brilliantly as Gingrich sometimes articulates this theme, the message clashes with the messenger. Gingrich got rich as one of those paternalistic insiders. And he continually strays onto side topics (disciplining the courts, building moon bases) that distract from his message. If Gingrich carries the Republican banner next fall, it will be hard to know what the election is about
Ron Paul wants to make the election about something truly revolutionary – ruthlessly slashing government, retreating from nearly every one of our foreign entanglements, and moving back to the gold standard. There’s a big question: should America abandon the 21st Century? But Paul is already at his ceiling in popular support, at about 10% of Republicans. Can 10% of one of the parties set the terms of an election? Obama could win by simply ignoring Paul. As Hosni Mubarak could tell you, an election that’s a walkover is not about anything.
This leaves us with Rick Santorum. Santorum has found it hard to get people to take him seriously. His political career was obliterated in 2006 when he lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat by a record margin. He was the butt of jokes even before his loss, as an earnest social conservative out of touch with the times. In this election he had to wait in line for his turn in the spotlight behind such luminaries as Rick Perry, John Huntsman, Rachel Bachmann and Herman Cain.
Now that he is Romney’s last and most serious challenger, Santorum can’t seem to make up his mind about what the key question is in this election. He has strong opinions on gay rights, abortion, and contraception, and talks about these topics readily. If Santorum wins the nomination, the fall campaign might mostly be about sex and the definition of marriage – decidedly non-federal questions in the Framers’ minds, I would guess.
But conservative columnist William Kristol thinks Santorum is trying to make his campaign be about something bigger and more urgent, and more clearly a matter of federal jurisdiction. Kristol (with a second from fellow conservative George Will) believes the Republicans should use the ongoing controversy about President Obama’s health care reforms to bring voters’attention to a very big issue: in a time of economic pain and dangerous deficits, should government expand its role so we can use its powers of coercion to be sure people get the help they need? Or should government’s role in our lives be scaled back in hopes of reducing the debt and freeing the private sector to meet human needs via the market?
Kristol believes that Santorum would, if he could, make this election about the biggest and most urgent question facing American today. But Kristol is not sure Santorum can break out of his sex-and-family box to help the rest of the nation focus on the bigger question.
Ironically, Obama may be happy to debate the bigger question. He seems to hold firm views about the size and role of government, and is willing to explain them. But if the Republicans nominate someone who sees the election as being about other smaller, or more radical, or more scattered questions – or if the nominee clearly is not up to the task of being President – Obama will accept the walkover, seeing no reason to help the Republican become a more serious and formidable candidate. And we’ll have missed a major opportunity that only comes once every four years.