On Feb. 28, the first meaningful debate of the 2008 campaign will take place between two men of ideas, neither of whom, at least as of this writing, is running for president. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), a Republican, and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, have agreed to sit down at the historic Cooper Union in New York City for a bipartisan dialogue, as Gingrich puts it, “not to propel either of us to the presidency, but to propel our political system toward a genuinely productive search for the solutions to the challenges that face us.” [IMGCAP(1)]
What the American people likely will see is a rapid-fire exhibition of what great intellect and political courage can produce — inventive, even revolutionary, ideas that can address their problems. They will see a meaningful and thoughtful discussion between two of the country’s most innovative and passionate politicians, proving a civil debate between the parties is possible. Exactly what our presidential election campaigns should be and aren’t.
The oddity of our current political system is this: As Americans clamor for serious dialogue on issues from national security to health care, presidential campaigns have become increasingly vacuous. The past 20 years have seen the dumbing down of American politics, and candidates, campaigns and the media all must share the blame.
Fearing controversy or a campaign gaffe, candidates today strive mightily to avoid specifics on issues, giving voters lofty platitudes and feel-good promises rather than real policy.
Rather than demanding that candidates address issues in substantive ways, the media more and more choose to focus on process and personality. Today, voters see and read stories about who’s raised the biggest war chest, how many trips candidates have made to Iowa or New Hampshire, and who’s hired whom, along with a microscopic look at every mistake made by candidates regardless of whether it has any real importance or relevance to crucial policy issues.
But just as culpable for the dumbing down of our politics today is the campaign consulting industry. Far too often, consultants in both parties rely on a scorched-earth strategy for election success, attacking opponents personally and relentlessly to gain strategic advantage rather than promoting their own candidate’s accomplishments or vision. In 2006, this overreliance on a negative strategy was a key factor in the Republicans’ loss of their majority.
The truth is, creating negative attack ads is a no-brainer. Coming up with one really good idea for America is hard.
Voters want a genuine contest of ideas to help them choose their leaders. What they are getting is a protracted and increasingly boring game of gotcha. Thoughtful political dialogue about solutions to people’s problems has gotten lost in the partisan vitriol and the media’s increasing attention on how candidates are doing rather than what candidates are thinking or proposing.
The events of the first few weeks of the 2008 campaign seem to indicate the next presidential election may well be more of the same. Other than the “battle of the announcement videos” and the usual bashing of President Bush, Democratic presidential candidates in recent weeks have done little more than try to outdo each other for the “privilege” of carrying the anti-war banner off the battlefield of Iraq, with or without victory in the war on terror.
At the same time, the Republican contenders have found themselves the target of endless speculation about their personal lives, their religion and their ideology.
The media have spent hours of television time and hundreds of inches of newspaper print asking whether Americans will elect a woman or an African-American president. Will Republicans nominate a Mormon or a social moderate or someone who has locked horns with the religious right?
Questions about current husbands and former wives seem to get equal if not bigger billing than candidates’ positions on the Iraq War or health care when it comes to campaign coverage. But what about the candidates’ ideas? For those who favor withdrawal from Iraq, do they have a substantive plan to ensure a stable Iraq and Middle East, contain Iran and Syria and defeat Islamic extremists likely to be emboldened by a U.S. pullout?
How will they help working Americans meet the rising costs of health care and college? Do they have real solutions to the long-term financial pressures threatening the Social Security and Medicare systems? What about balancing the budget and maintaining a strong, vibrant economy that continues to create jobs?
Politicians of every stripe ought to heed the lesson learned the hard way by former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). After his losing campaign for re-election in November, Allen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I wish I had done better in making sure the campaign was focused … on the issues, ideas and my record of performance.”
America can no longer afford the continual dumbing down of the political process. People want answers, and for good reason.
This country never has faced the kind of challenges it does today — the threat of radical Islam, global economic competition, increasingly contentious domestic social demands, environmental pressures. In choosing the next president and Congress, the American people deserve more than they have been getting from candidates, campaigns and the media.
They deserve the kind of serious and substantive dialogue that Gingrich and Cuomo soon will provide.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.