April 18, 2012

We interrupt the launch of the general election for a quick word on a question that never gets asked: Whose campaign is it, anyway?

What I mean is this: Who decides what issues the campaign will focus on, what ideas will dominate the national conversation and, thus, in large measure decide the race?

The stakes of this innocent-sounding question are high. Endless as the presidential race has already seemed, we still have more than six exhausting months to go. (Let’s pause to salute the British, who do the whole thing start to finish in a matter of weeks.) Ideally the time would be put to good use.

And it still can be. After all, if we spent the next six months educating Americans about the bold choices we need to make to renew the country, that would be time well spent. Among other things, this would mean asking Americans to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections — plus talking much more honestly about taxes and spending.

I can hear you laughing already at the touching naivete of this idea. But put your world-weariness on hold for a moment. Ask yourself why elections aren’t this way.

Obviously some of what shapes a presidential race comes from outside — the financial crisis in the home stretch of the 2008 campaign, for example, or reversals in Afghanistan. But such uncontrollable forces aside, the answer as to who decides what the campaign is about is simple. The two major parties’ candidates decide. Not the press. Not the voters. At least not in the sense that Democrats and Republicans are competing to actually solve the problems citizens face. Instead, the candidates are trying to do things that will get voters to vote for them — which is different. The two parties decide what appeals and behaviors are best calculated to get them to victory on Election Day. Then they do their best to frame the campaign on these terms.

All this seems obvious, perhaps, but the corollary can never be stressed enough: There is no necessary link between what candidates do to win power and what it would actually take to address the country’s biggest challenges.

American presidential campaigns are now a dueling series of pseudo-events, misleading arguments and symbols managed by candidates in order to gain power by attracting the support of 50 percent-plus-one of those citizens who bother to vote. Just as the standard disclaimer at the front of novels informs us that “any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental,” so do political campaigns deserve the disclaimer “Any edification you may receive on the collective choices facing the nation is purely accidental.” Sometimes it happens. It’s not the main mission.

Maybe this didn’t matter as much from, say, 1950 until recently, when America was the world’s unrivaled economic power. But everyone knows the country needs a serious call to renewal in a global age — an agenda that goes well beyond the president’s rhetorically worthy but timid proposals and worlds away from the anti-government nihilism that has devoured the GOP.

Some of us have hoped an independent candidate could force a different conversation this year, much as Ross Perot did (in his pre-nutty phase) on the narrow issue of the deficit in 1992. Americans Elect was the vehicle. The disappointment is that after raising and investing $30 million in ballot access and technology, Americans Elect did not then fund a major advertising campaign to raise awareness of its presence and mission beyond a handful of elites.

It’s equally surprising that with so much justified angst in the land, plausible independent contenders have been reluctant to jump in — perhaps scared off by what I’m told privately have been clear signals from both parties that any attempt to take on the duopoly would involve total war and personal exposure.

Still, whatever its shortcomings, Americans Elect’s innovation remains hugely consequential. There will, in fact, be an independent ticket on the ballot. The polling pioneer Daniel Yankelovich once wisely observed that we’ve become very sophisticated at measuring every blip and tremor in public opinion, yet we do nothing — nothing! — to improve the quality of public opinion. The right kind of independent candidacy presents an enormous opportunity to improve the quality of public opinion — and thus the prospect for honestly meeting our challenges thereafter. But this will happen only if the right kind of candidate seizes the chance.

So who will? Tom Friedman of the New York Times issued a call Wednesday for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to fill this role. Friedman is right that if Bloomberg wants to improve the country, he’d have vastly more impact running a bold call to renewal presidential campaign than he’d ever have via post-mayoral philanthropy at the edges. I’m told by people close to the mayor that despite Bloomberg’s protestations to the contrary, they have not yet ruled out a presidential run.

We’ll know soon enough. A serious candidate will either emerge in the next month for Americans Elect, or not. Maybe it’s possible for a president to do bold things after an ugly and unedifying campaign. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.