As America votes, what can be said about this nasty campaign is that it was dangerously disconnected from the actual problems the victor will face. The textbook version of American democracy holds that elections, by exposing differences of views and values, make governing easier by demonstrating where the weight of public opinion lies. The result is a “mandate” or at least a sense of direction. This has rarely been entirely true, but the gap between political theory and reality seems especially pronounced in 2012.
To state the obvious: The problems confronting the United States are first and foremost economic. There’s a triple threat to stronger economic growth. The first stems from the legacy of the 2007-09 financial crisis, which induced households and companies to shed debt and, more important, made both more cautious spenders. The second is an aging population that stunts expansion of the labor force. Finally, chronic deficits — caused increasingly by a surge of promised benefits — imply future spending cuts and/or tax increases, which might dampen economic growth.
Prosperity and political legitimacy feed each other. When people think they’re getting ahead, they feel better about their leaders. The reverse is also true. Even before the financial crisis, the U.S. economy was decelerating. From 1991 to 2001, growth averaged 3.2 percent a year; from 2002 to 2011, the pace slipped to 2.3 percent. When the economy slows, competition for scarce resources quickens. Wages and fringe benefits compete with profits. Guns compete with butter. All groups resist tax increases.
How democracy copes with weaker economic performance is a central question of our time. It’s not just American. Europe and Japan — that is, most of the rest of the advanced world — also face aging societies, over-committed governments and slowing growth. Indeed, pressures elsewhere are greater. In Europe, they’re magnified by the euro crisis. Eurozone unemployment is11.6 percent. By 2050, Japan’s 65-and-over population is projected to reach 40 percent of the total.
For Americans, the global nature of the political challenge means that we can’t rely on strong demand from Europe and Japan — buyers of 27 percent of U.S. exports in 2011 — for faster growth. Just the opposite: Their weakness threatens ours.
Generally, what should be done is clear. Government needs to adopt pro-growth policies that might cushion — it can’t reverse — the economic slowdown. At the same time, it needs to curb some benefits and find ways to pay for the rest. Together, these steps might limit the competition for scarce resources. But of course, there is no consensus on putting these broad generalities into practice. In a better world, the campaign would have focused on rival ideas to do so.
It didn’t. A campaign book might be titled “Profiles in Expedience.” To win, President Obama and Mitt Romney each seemed willing to say almost anything, no matter how twisted or misleading. The Obama campaign engaged in character assassination. If Romney could be cast as a bloodless capitalist, indifferent to average Americans, the campaign would have been all but finished. Romney’s promises struck many observers, including me, as often inconsistent and unrealistic: cut tax rates; reduce federal spending to 20 percent of the economy; balance the budget; raise defense outlays (above Obama); create 12 million jobs. There were few details.
To be sure, broad philosophical differences were clear. Romney is pro-business; Obama is pro-government. And some areas of agreement emerged: developing natural gas reserves, for instance. But mainly Obama and Romney evaded questions central to our economic future. How big will government grow? Will larger government penalize economic growth? How much will spending on the elderly squeeze other programs? How can health spending (a quarter of federal outlays) be controlled? How should changes be timed to minimize any threat to the recovery?
Although the immediate questions involve the budget and economy, the ultimate consequences are social and geopolitical. Prosperity — more or less of it — affects Americans’ pride, confidence, ability to support a strong military and willingness to be a global leader. The questions the candidates avoided remain. They will quickly reassert themselves as Washington confronts the “fiscal cliff” — the roughly $500 billion of spending cuts and tax increases scheduled for early 2013 — and the need to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Whoever wins won’t get much help with these problems from public opinion. The campaign has not prepared Americans for the debates and choices that lie ahead. Many may feel bewildered or betrayed. The silence of Obama and Romney followed standard political logic. Because the nation’s problems lack painless solutions, the safest course was to avoid them. To practice candor was to court unpopularity. But the price of political expediency may now be paid in diminished public trust and increased odds of stalemate.