If there is one word that characterizes the just-finished midterm campaign, it is avoidance. It was notable for the races that were not contested and for the issues that were not seriously discussed.
The avoidance began way back last winter, when legislatures were meeting to redraw district lines to conform to the new census numbers. In state after state, Republican and Democratic leaders put aside their supposed differences and agreed on lines that protected incumbents of both parties -- thus avoiding the risks of competition. California, with 53 House seats, arranged for 52 of them to be safely Democratic or safely Republican, and the last one would have been were it not for an incumbent named Gary Condit.
That deal alone took one-eighth of the House of Representatives out of play, and there were more like it all across the country. So in the end, fewer than one-tenth of the seats in the House -- the part of the national government the Founders thought would be most sensitive to short-term swings in public opinion -- were susceptible to change.
The process of avoidance extended well into campaign time, when Democrats in New Jersey were allowed by the courts -- in plain defiance of statutory deadlines -- to switch Senate candidates and dump Sen. Bob Torricelli, simply because he was fated to lose.
Avoidance was the watchword also when it came to real-world problems. The most conspicuous examples came in the 36 races for governor. It is no secret to the constituents in those states that most of them are in the worst kind of budgetary trouble. Revenue has slumped at the same time that Medicaid costs and the demand for improvements in the schools have risen. The states got through this year by draining their rainy-day funds and using other short-term gimmicks. Next year most of them will be in worse shape.
Yet in race after race, from Massachusetts to California, voters heard candidates of both parties dodging the painful reality that taxes will have to be raised or vital services cut. They talked about getting more money from Washington, about "consolidating" agencies and -- that hardy perennial -- "eliminating waste, fraud and abuse." I cannot begin to list the number of times one contender in a gubernatorial debate said, "Taxes would be my last resort" and the opponent topped it by saying, "I would never raise taxes."
The voters know they don't mean it.
Candor was no greater in most of the races for the House and Senate. The federal government has slipped into deficit and the costs of homeland defense, the war on terrorism and a possible war with Iraq have yet to be fully factored in. Yet this year Congress never was able to pass a budget resolution or even approve the routine appropriations bills. Government agencies are running on autopilot.
Still, few of the incumbents or challengers, busy promising prescription drug benefits for senior citizens and more money for farm subsidies, schools or whatever other cause stirs their voters, were willing to say how they would pay for all this.
Republicans generally promised to make the 2001 tax cuts -- enacted in a fog of optimistic budget projections -- permanent. And Democrats, as a matter of party strategy proclaimed by their top leaders, refused to challenge those tax cuts as unaffordable.
Instead of dealing with big issues, most candidates nitpicked their opponents, finding something (real or synthetic) in the past that would alienate voters. Or they simply exploited a campaign gaffe. Millions of dollars were spent on attack ads attacking the opponent for using attack ads.
As my Post colleagues Dan Balz and David Von Drehle wrote, in a country divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, neither party was willing to stake out bold positions on big questions. Instead, they preferred to craft small tactical appeals to niche voters they hoped could be swayed by appealing to their particular interests.
The problem with avoidance campaigns is that they lead to government by procrastination. Even on big things. This Congress punted on issue after issue, from energy policy to welfare reform. The so-called resolution on war with Iraq essentially said: Leave it to George W. Bush. Meanwhile, no one has the nerve to address the reforms needed to keep Medicare and Social Security viable for soon-to-retire baby boomers.
Avoidance, I'm afraid, is a contagious disease among politicians.