Three opinion pieces in the last several days have set me thinking about just how much free rein a democratic electorate can or should extend a candidate to withhold information concerning his/her views or to seek deliberately to obscure those views so as to maximize his or her appeal. On October 21, the University of California Politics Professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, entitled his commentary, “Romney the Detail Man?” Reich argued strongly that Romney has disclosed very little about anything he would do as President, not concerning the budget, or taxes or how he would replace the nation’s health care access law. The former Secretary wrote in reaction to a front page article in the New York Times the previous day headlined, “Romney Recalled as a Leader who Savors Details.” In response, Reich indignantly argued that Romney in fact has shared almost nothing with the American people about what he would do, should he be elected President. Reich observed that the one-time business executive has publicly evidenced no interest in details whatsoever and instead simply stonewalled when asked to provide them about every important element of what he would, in fact, do as President.
Meanwhile, Thomas Edsall, a noted Columbia University Professor of Journalism, writing in the New York Times on October 21, offered an essay, “The Undisclosed Mitt Romney,” that examined in considerable detail how little the former governor has revealed about what he would do as President. Romney, Edsall contended, has offered only a range of vague positions that simply do not add up to anything. That is, he has promised he will not raise taxes, called for a still larger defense budget, suggested he will provide additional significant tax reductions and said only that he will seek repeal of certain tax expenditures, without specifying which ones, to pay for these things. Many commentators have suggested that the math and the positions make no sense in the face of Romney’s claims that he will realize large-scale budget deficit reductions. Most analysts contend, in fact, under most possible scenarios, which Romney has not provided in any case, that his stands would only exacerbate the nation’s fiscal woes.
Edsall argued, however, that whether Romney’s political stance is factually true or even tenable, is not the point. Rather, the Columbia professor suggested that the former business executive and his advisors have designed his campaign solely to persuade by offering appeals to broadly and vaguely framed values and little else. Accordingly, Edsall’s concern, if Romney prevails in this election, is that future campaigns are likely to emulate this strategy. The journalism professor contends future national campaigns may be built on the same model of relentless criticism of one’s opponent, factual or not, combined with a “platform” of bromides in lieu of any real information concerning what one would do as President, because this strategy will be perceived to have “worked.” Edsall’s analysis raises the spectacle that not only will voting soon be emptied of all meaning, for how can one vote meaningfully when one does not know what a candidate stands for, but the very idea and ideal of democratic deliberation may also be set aside as archaic. In this view, future campaigns are likely to be emptied of all substance and instead composed of endless posturing and criticism, because such would be considered “smart politics.”
Finally, Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on October 23, had this to say about the recently concluded 2012 presidential debates and current national campaign more generally:
These debates did in fact give us truth. I don’t mean that the candidates themselves spoke honestly. Hardly. In fact we should pause to note how sad it is that we’ve come to regard a post-debate fact-check — a report card on who told the most and biggest whoppers — as an inevitable and unremarkable part of the process. In campaigns these days, dishonesty is both an art form and a given.
It is difficult to be more clear than Bruni is here: Too many candidates today seek earnestly and methodically to be dishonest in order to persuade. Taking Bruni’s thoughts at face value and combining them with Edsall and Reich’s comments concerning the Romney campaign, one must consider seriously the possibility that the United States citizenry could elect a president who has, as a self-conscious strategic choice, decided to share with them almost nothing about what he would do once elected to that office by either avoiding questions, shifting his apparent positions endlessly and/or shrilly pointing to his opponent as the source of all of the nation’s woes. None of these offer Americans any meaningful information relevant to making a choice concerning the nation’s future direction or what steps a Romney presidency would actually take or why. A colleague called this “smart politics” when I mused about this matter and Bruni similarly has argued such dishonesty is inevitable as well. I wish here to accept neither proposition and instead ask three salient questions: What will elections mean when they are emptied of all content so as to ensure that the would-be voter has only aspersions, fear and empty sloganeering as a basis on which to cast their ballot? Can such hollow events any longer even be considered democratic elections? Why does it follow that dishonesty should be acceptable because it occurs? It strikes me that Edsall is right. This election represents a decided and troubling turn in American politics. Notably, only the electorate can demand a different course, now and in the future.