Ask either presidential candidate what’s at stake in this election and he’ll assure you it’s the most consequential contest of our lifetime. The candidates would also agree that the election is not a referendum on President Barack Obama but a choice—a “very dramatic choice,” as Mitt Romney told a crowd in Westerville, Ohio, on Wednesday—between two very different governing visions. That choice is all the more important because so many formidable problems await the next president: how to reduce the deficit, reform the tax code, and curb the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, to name a few. With so much on the line, you might naturally want to know more about these competing visions. Here again the candidates would agree. They’d say, “We’ll get back to you.”
One of the odd and frustrating things about this election is that while each side will spend around $1 billion persuading voters to turn out, the candidates have essentially opted to withhold what electing them would really mean.
Romney is the worst offender. He promises to cut personal-income and corporate taxes, close loopholes, and repeal Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, all while balancing the budget. But he will not say how he would pay for this or what he’d put in place of the programs he vows to cut. He’s been uncharacteristically forthcoming about explaining why not. In April he told the Weekly Standard: “One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education.” Romney, in other words, fears that if he explains his actual intentions, he’ll lose.
Obama has laid out a bit more detail, but he didn’t have much choice—presidents have to produce a budget. But he, too, has ducked major tax and entitlement issues, choosing not to embrace the recommendations of his own bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, known as the Simpson-Bowles commission. On Monday his chief strategist, David Axelrod, was asked how Obama proposed to reform Social Security in a second term. With the election 43 days away, he replied, “Now is not the time to have that discussion.”
Obama has the same reason for being coy as Romney. He doesn’t want to risk losing votes by proposing anything unpopular. As a cold-eyed political calculation, that may be an effective path to the White House (although it sure isn’t looking that way for Romney). But as civics, it’s deplorable because it prevents voters from making an informed choice.
Recently I got a chance to observe a focus group of undecided voters in Fairfax County, Va., put on by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. It quickly became clear that the candidates’ lack of detail was a big reason why the participants hadn’t made up their minds. Most were open to supporting Romney, but exasperated by his vagueness. As one put it, “I’d like to see something that resembles a business plan.” Their frustration extended to Obama because they couldn’t see how the next four years would differ from the last four if he wins another term. Hard to blame them: He hasn’t said.
The bigger problem is that the unwillingness to do anything unpopular, no matter how necessary, doesn’t go away after the election. Eventually this makes governing impossible. After Simpson-Bowles died, the parties averted a catastrophic debt default with a hastily patched-together deal imposing automatic year-end cuts to entitlement and defense spending if the two sides cannot agree.
It looks as if they can’t. And so, terrified by these looming, unpopular cuts, Congress spent the last few weeks trying to postpone them while still maintaining some appearance of reform. The lawmakers can’t agree on this, either. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to not have to be the person to make the decision,” Senator Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, told Politico.
One way to break this cycle would be for voters to deliver a clear message in November, giving a mandate to the vision of the winning candidate and his party. But Romney and Obama have made this impossible. To furnish a mandate, voters first have to know what the next president proposes to do.