The 2012 campaign is mediocre. It just is.

September 24, 2012

Quick, name President Obama's best moment in the 2012 campaign so far? What about Mitt Romney's high point?

Aside from the seemingly endless string of "gaffes" allegedly committed by each candidate and the occasional inspirational convention speech not delivered by either nominee (Bill Clinton for Democrats, Marco Rubio for Republicans) this has been a general election campaign to forget. Literally.

"By their very nature presidential re-elections tend to lack big ideas and memorable moments and this one is no exception," said Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik.

In some ways, this campaign fits the times in which it is being run.  Gone is the optimism of 2008 -- or even 2000 -- that a single person elected president might just be able to change things in Washington. Taking its place is a widespread belief that things in the country are off on the wrong track and, perhaps even more corrosive, a fading belief that our institutions (Congress, Wall Street, the media) can or will do anything to make things better.

Still, there is a striking disconnect between the bigness of the problems and challenges that face the country both domestically and internationally and the smallness of the campaign to elect the person who will try to lead us through these trying times.

"The campaigns have been surprisingly risk averse in terms of big ideas or bold policies," said Mark McKinnon who made the ads for both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. "It's as if the strategy on both side has been simply to wait for the other guy to lose."

Added a veteran Democratic consultant:  "Neither candidate has any big ideas for the future, at least ones they are willing to talk about.  It's all party orthodoxy that is three generations old."

Unwilling to speak in anything more then generalities about the tough choices the country and its elected officials face as soon as the election ends, the candidates are left to run a sort of lowest common denominator race increasingly focused on gaffes.

For Mitt Romney, that's "bumps in the road", "outside Washington" and "you didn't build that".

For President Obama it's "corporations are people too", "etch a sketch" and "I like to fire people".

Regular readers of the Fix know that we have long been defenders of the gaffe as politically meaningful but the 2012 campaign has seemingly turned into an almost daily "game-changing" mistake made by one campaign or the other that, when viewed with the hindsight of 24 hours or so seems something short of earth-shattering.

"Despite all the gaffes about '47 percent' and 'bumps in the road', it’s not what is being said, it’s what is NOT being said that matters," said McKinnon.

There's plenty of theories as to why this campaign has been so, well, not good.

Chief among them is that we get the campaigns (and candidates) we deserve and that a race that has essentially devolved into a daily slap fight between the two campaigns is a pretty close approximation of the current state of affairs in the country.

There's little consensus in the country for the right way forward -- the debt ceiling debacle paints that reality in stark relief -- and without public opinion pointing in a specific direction neither Obama nor Romney is willing to climb out on a political limb to show the way.

"You might infer, since both campaigns are led by strategists who are pretty experienced readers of the public mood, that voters are just exhausted and not particularly interested in political philosophy or a contest between ideologies and world views," said Democratic operative Jim Jordan. "Elites and ideologues on both sides may be, but not most voters."

Of course, the relative smallness of this race -- in spite of the declarations by both candidates that this election is about big things -- virtually ensures that neither party emerges on Nov. 7 with a meaningful mandate for their agenda heading into the fiscal cliff debate and beyond.

An optimist would say that lack of a mandate could be a good thing as it could force both parties to work together to find solutions. A pessimist -- or someone who was watched how Washington has "worked" in recent years -- would see the almost certain lack of a mandate as a sign things could get worse before they get better.

No matter what you think the future holds, it's become abundantly clear that we are in for more of the same mediocrity over the next six weeks of the campaign. Someone will get more votes -- at the moment that looks like President Obama -- but it's far from clear whether either man can hope to actually win.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · September 24, 2012