Ruth Marcus / Politics

Campaign 2012 -- That Empty Feeling

WASHINGTON -- 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.

OK, 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.

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 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.

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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