Ruth Marcus
Columnist May 1, 2012

Maybe it’s a hangover — metaphorical, not literal — from the partying of White House Correspondents’ Association dinner weekend, but this is feeling like the most vacuous presidential campaign in memory.

Okay, there’s a lot of competition in the vacuity derby. This is not the first presidential campaign to feature ponderous hand-wringers, including yours truly, bemoaning the substance-free nature of the political debate.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

But the 2012 campaign is striking for the jarring mismatch between the seriousness of the country’s problems and the vagueness of the candidates’ policy prescriptions.

During the 2000 race, the New Republic’s (now New York magazine’s) Jonathan Chait decried the “dumbing-down” of the election.

Eight years ago, candidates waved graphs and 10-point plans,” Chait wrote. A policy manifesto was the price of admission.

By contrast, he lamented, the 2000 candidates competed to appear anti-intellectual (this came more naturally to some than others). Their quest to demonstrate fuzzy qualities like “authenticity” and “character” (in the wake of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky) triumphed over serious policy discussions.

Here’s the difference between 2000 and 2012: Back then, the flight from substance seemed affordable. The seriousness of 1992 was appropriate for the times, with the country emerging from a painful recession. Eight years later, the economy was booming, the budget was in surplus and Osama bin Laden was unknown to most Americans.

And by current standards, ideological differences between the presidential candidates were muted in 2000. Al Gore and George W. Bush differed most sharply on how best to spend the supposed surplus, and Bush, hard as it may be to recall, advertised himself as a different kind of conservative — compassionate and bipartisan.

The 2012 campaign combines the policy vacuousness of 2000 with the somber setting of 1992 — except that the current environment, foreign and domestic, is much worse.

To take just one measure: In 1992, federal debt held by the public was under $3 trillion, or 48 percent of the gross domestic product. By the end of this year, it is expected to exceed $11.5 trillion, or 74 percent of GDP. The problem of skyrocketing federal spending on entitlement programs, evident in 1992, remains, infuriatingly, unresolved — and, by dint of dithering, that much harder to fix.

The 2008 Obama campaign has been rapped, deservedly, for campaigning on gauzy platitudes. Yet the 2008 race was, in retrospect, gratifyingly specific — specific enough that I was constructing spreadsheets of competing budget promises.

Now, the president who proclaimed in his inaugural address that “the time has come to set aside childish things” is campaigning with dog jokes and a “Pet Lovers for Obama” Facebook group.

The Obama campaign just unveiled an un-illuminating new slogan, “Forward.” Compared to what — “Sideways”? Or, as my colleague Alexandra Petri wondered, “Was ‘Reply-All’ taken?”

Granted, a president running for reelection has a record on which to be judged; his policy proposals are embedded in budget submissions. But President Obama has been decidedly, deliberately obscure about the road ahead — even the foreseeable issue of how to handle the looming “taxmageddon” moment of expiring tax cuts and spending sequester.

Instead, his new campaign ad, attacking Romney as a heartless outsourcer, ends with the tag line, “It’s just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.”

Meanwhile, Romney is running a campaign so substance-free that his primary stump speech featured long chunks of reciting verses from “America the Beautiful,” a scene of over-the-top emptiness straight out of a Christopher Buckley parody.

Romney’s policy specifics are heavy on yummy dessert (tax cuts across the board), light on unappetizing spinach (and paid for by eliminating what tax benefit?). He vows spending cuts to tackle the deficit but won’t say where.

He promises to repeal “Obamacare” but offers little about what then to do about either rising health care costs or the growing number of Americans without health insurance. He says he would tackle Medicare spending by switching to a “premium support” model of giving seniors a fixed sum to buy coverage — but omits the crucial detail of how fast these vouchers would grow.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), shortly after endorsing Romney, offered some wise advice. “You have to campaign to govern, not just to win,” Daniels said. “Go ahead and have the confidence in the voters to explain the fix we’re in and then tell them with some specificity what we can do to get out of it in a way that’s good for everybody.”

Obama and Romney are campaigning to win. Governing, unfortunately, is an afterthought.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com