Commentary: Presidential politics are a blazing pants inferno

The Miami HeraldSeptember 6, 2012 

Actually, that was us, perched there in Clint’s empty chair. A collective non-entity, subjected to a dazzling campaign about next to nothingness.

Eastwood’s discourse with unoccupied furniture, however peculiar, seemed no less enlightening than other aspects of a presidential campaign that has been boiled down to itty bittiness, then sauced with mendacity. Lies rung up by PolitiFact, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times fact-checking enterprise, are reported with such mind-numbing frequency that presidential politics has become a blazing pants inferno.

Paul Ryan may have broken some records the other night but his speech was only notable by degrees of dishonesty. Both sides in this deplorable campaign, as PolitiFact has demonstrated time and again over these last few months, torture the truth in ways that would never occur to CIA interrogators. Worse, still, are the super PACS, cowering behind an utterly deceitful construction — supposedly they operate independent of the candidates — to spend unlimited millions on such perfidious advertising that the effect mostly is to depress — or maybe suppress — the electorate.


Just as disheartening is the claustrophobic narrowness of the campaigns. Essentially, we are to choose between an Obama who plans to transform America into a northern European socialist nanny state or a Romney who intends to outsource our jobs and stash the profits in a Swiss bank account. Both, apparently, intend to bankrupt Medicare.

Think what you will about Todd Akin, the Missouri senate candidate with the odd notions about “legitimate” rape and pregnancy and the inner workings of the womb, but at least he provoked an actual national conversation. I’m guessing a significant chunk of the Republican constituency wanted rather badly to hear their presidential candidate reveal specific thoughts about the stuff once known as “social conservatism.” At least, both sides of the debates on abortion or gay marriage might have been roused out of their comatose states.

All that was mostly ignored last week. No deviation from the teensy message allowed. Nor was there much mention of foreign policy, other than the rote pledge to preemptively approve whatever Benjamin Netanyahu decides to do about Iran (no mention of the rather sticky problem of the Israeli religious settlements on Palestinian land). Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan made the cut. Associated Press offered this remarkable lead on its analysis of the candidate’s acceptance speech: “With America embroiled in its longest armed conflict, Mitt Romney became the first Republican since 1952 to accept his party’s nomination without mentioning war.”


One might think that the recent horrors of the Colorado cinema massacre, followed by the Sikh temple massacre, and the mounting toll of gang murders in urban ghettos, might spark at least a conversation among our presidential candidates about curtailing the insane amount of high powered weaponry available, even to the mentally unbalanced. But no. One national leader did say, “The fact that criminals, terrorists and other mentally ill people have access to guns is a national crisis,” but that was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the most prominent Republican not invited to speak during last week’s convention.

Not that the words “gun control” will ring from the podium during the Democrat’s shindig.

Immigration reform may be a raging debate out there in the roiling heartland, but it was largely forgotten last week by the political class, the calculation being that the mere discussion of a volatile and difficult issue may lose more voters than it offends.

Down here in Florida, where civic leaders are already grappling with the threat of rising sea level, a measure that may go up another three feet or more over the next decades, climate change might seem worth a mention.

Brutal droughts, melting polar ice caps, giant forest fires, the warmest July on record for the contiguous 48-states didn’t inspire any speeches. “The main thing is just to look at the statistics and see that the change is too large to be natural,” NASA Scientist James Hansen warned earlier last month. He was talking into a political vacuum.

The climate, and the kind of world we’ve decided to leave our children, was deemed unworthy of debate. President Barack Obama, if cornered, might talk about the need to invest in renewable energy but seems to regard discussion of the climate crisis as a political trap.

And this is what we got from Romney on Thursday night: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans.” He paused, cueing the audience that this was a laugh line. Climate change, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that we’re all in trouble, was offered up as one of the great absurdities of our time. “And to heal the planet,” he added as a punch line.

This was the same fellow who in 2010 said, “I believe that climate change is occurring. The reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor.”

It’s not as if the climate has cooled since 2010. It’s that his campaign strategy — not unlike his opponent’s — is to mislead and lie or, at best, avoid anything that might provoke an impassioned conversation.


Both candidates have studied the polls, interrogated the focus groups, figured the percentages, assessed the electorate, surrendered their actual ideas to marketing specialists and dismissed difficult, unsettling issues that might move the polls a point or two in the wrong direction. We’re left with a mindless and dispiriting and empty campaign. Two over-cautious, over-calculating politicians, talking to that vacant chair.

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