Modern elections are generally fought over pocketbook questions, with perhaps some foreign policy thrown in. As Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville put it in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
This year’s campaign has brought considerable debate over taxes, including reforming the tax code. But these discussions are generally wrapped in slogans and lacking in facts and details. So far, the true bread-and-butter issues are not receiving much emphasis on the campaign trail from either party. Rather, the American people have been watching considerable ugliness and name-calling emerge from the angry intra-party “debates” within the Republican Party as well the barbs being launched against President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The baseness of some of the ad hominem attacks has degraded the entire election process. The GOP candidates are struggling to capture the public’s attention as they posture their way to the first party caucus in Iowa on Feb. 1 and the first primary in New Hampshire on Feb. 9.
Much of the initial discussion on the stump began over illegal immigrants and immigration reform, focused largely on illegal immigrants from Latin America in general and Mexico in particular. Much bluster was wasted on the conditions and costs for admitting or expelling illegal aliens. (What is truly curious is that the Republican Party understands that Latino voters are the fastest growing voting bloc in the country, but still can’t come up with a policy that appeals to them. Unless all the GOP candidates internalize this reality, Hispanic voters will wreck any possibility of a Republican victory come November.)
While their issues have hardly disappeared, the immediate immigrant debate — especially since the tragedy in Paris on Nov. 13 — has shifted to the question of whether to admit Syrian refugees seeking to escape the horrors of civil war and ISIS atrocities. GOP objections have focused on the danger that potential terrorists will slip in with the refugees.
In tackling the threat posed by ISIS, the GOP candidates have offered unsophisticated policy recommendations, making many of the candidates appear to be totally unqualified to lead the country in a time of international crisis.
Back home, the Republicans have little to say about tensions between the African-American community and the police. The evidence that law enforcement agencies have sought repeatedly to cover up, deny, or repudiate racial bias has produced nary a peep from most of the GOP candidates. Again, the issue could well galvanize black voters, who were expected to vote in fewer numbers next year without Obama on the ticket.
This is just the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a very nasty campaign, even if you don’t take into account hot-button issues like climate change, gun control, and domestic surveillance. Outsiders can and should be encouraged to run for office but not merely by running non-substantive, attack-laden campaigns. Given the polarizing character of discussion in Washington over the past few years, the American people ought not to be surprised that the candidates are running away from the issues. Sadly, we probably should not have expected anything else.