With the election now behind us, it’s time to get serious about substance. That is an admonition for both the press and the politicians.
As for the press, the Politico-ization of the media (superficial, contrived scandals and invented conflicts) has turned the political dialogue into an endless series of gotcha episodes devoid of substance and sterile in its obsession with horse-race politics and tactics. Devoid of substance and indifferent to policy, the coverage becomes nonstop score-keeping. Who wins? Who benefits? The questions “What should we do?” and “What happened?” get lost in the scramble for more clicks, more eyeballs.
As for the politicians, the end of the presidential race should help, we would hope, them focus on the substance and the real issues of our day.
Let’s take Libya. Then mainstream press and Democratic pols have done everything possible to ignore and minimize (hidden, even, when it comes to CBS) the story because it was “bad” for President Obama. But it is vitally important to figure out what went wrong, address the intelligence failure and devise a national security policy that recognizes that al-Qaeda has morphed and spread throughout the region. Now that he is in no danger of losing an election, the president should come clean on his role and failings. Then the policy issues ( Libyan security, American anti-terrorism strategy) can move to the fore.
Likewise on fiscal issues, the question for the president and Congress can no longer be whether “Mediscare” can be used against the other side or if the other guys can be made to look either miserly or irresponsible (or both!). We need to determine if a tax rate hike is going to throw us into a recession and figure out how to avoid those devastating cuts that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned us about.
Without the looming election, pols should be able to recognize that this recovery is unacceptably weak. Must we learn to live with endemic high unemployment? Can we return to the premise of the grand bargain — entitlement modernization and tax simplification and reform that lowers rates but can generate more revenue? (Until it fell apart, that was the deal the president and House Speaker John Boehner had in their grasp.)
Obamacare is another case in point. It is not going away. But is there a consensus that the medical-device tax, for example, is anti-innovation and harmful to job creation? What’s the alternative? And when, as virtually all the honest gurus acknowledge, the new entitlement begins to hemorrhage red ink, what should we do?
Fred Barnes writes that the voters chose the status quo: “As it turned out, the election wasn’t historic at all, except that Barack Obama, the first African American president, became the first to be reelected. The numbers and the faces in Washington have barely changed at all. We’re stuck with them. As hard as Republicans tried, they were unable to upset the balance of political forces.” But failure to change the players doesn’t allow us the luxury of treading water. The political class must act on a variety of fronts, and the debate should turn from “Who’s winning?” to “What can work?”
It is unfortunate the president ran a campaign without a clear agenda, for he’ll have to now, without excuses and without delay, construct a series of initiatives to deal with our major challenges. It is virtually impossible for Congress to lead; the president must. That entails some honest conversation (yes, Medicare must evolve, and no, taxing the rich is not going to solve the revenue problem). That means if the president wants, for example, immigration reform, he’ll have to put his cards on the table (as President George W. Bush did) and take the political heat that he couldn’t withstand in the first term.
Republicans should look to their reform-minded governors, and Democrats should be cognizant of the failures of policy choices in places like California and Illinois. Take a page from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s book on health care, and extract the best school reforms from responsible Democratic governors and mayors. The rush to blame must give way to the search for ideas that work.
The horse-race politics and personality-driven journalism that eschew policy issues can’t be eliminated. But we have to go beyond all of it and make decisions. That involves meatier discussion by our pols and more serious coverage by the press. I fear we have so dummied down the debate in this country we’re just not up to it. I hope I’m wrong.