2012: An Election About Nothing

Neither Romney nor Obama are running on policy; rather, they're trying to persuade people the other guy would be even worse.

While Robert Reich and I disagree on a lot, he’s dead right here:

The worst economy since the Great Depression and you might think at least one of the candidates would come up with a few big ideas for how to get us out of it.
But you’d be wrong. Neither candidate wants to take any chances by offering any large, serious proposals. Both are banking instead on negative campaigns that convince voters the other guy would be worse.


So whatever happens on Election Day, the next president will have to contend with two handicaps. The public won’t have endorsed any new ideas or bold plans, which means he won’t have a clear mandate to do anything on the economy.

The only thing the public will have decided is it fears and distrusts the other guy more. Which means the winner will also be burdened by almost half the electorate thinking he’s a scoundrel or worse.

The worst economy since the Great Depression, but we’re in an anti-election that will make it harder for the next occupant of the oval office to do a thing about it.

The conventional wisdom is that American presidential campaigns are about appealing to the Center. The argument is that roughly a third of the country are firmly Democrats, another third are firmly Republicans, and another third are persuadable. Both camps, though, seem to be of the mind that the reality is that those who will actually show up to vote are roughly half and half in each camp and that the winner will be the side that gets his people the most motivated to show up.

They may well be right as a matter of political calculation. But Reich is right: the result will be a continuation of the status quo, in that the winner will not only lack a “mandate” to govern (if such ever exists) but will be viewed as illegitimate out of the gates by roughly half the electorate.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy says:

    There’s also the sad reality that neither candidate really knows what to do about the economy besides marginal proposals that appeal to the base. It’s hard to advocate for a bold proposal when one doesn’t have a clue as to how to “fix” this economy.

  2. Anderson says:

    But the other guy would be worse because of his bad policies.

    Reich wants Obama’s policies to be more different, but the difference is there.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Maybe with a global economy they know there isn’t much they can do about it. But they can’t say that of course.

  4. legion says:

    It’s not about “nothing”… no matter how bad you think things are now, they can always get worse – and the Republican Party is promising they’ll do everything they can to make that happen if they’re elected.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But Reich is right: the result will be a continuation of the status quo, in that the winner will not only lack a “mandate” to govern (if such ever exists) but will be viewed as illegitimate out of the gates by roughly half the electorate.

    And this differs from now, just exactly how?

  6. James Joyner says:


    And this differs from now, just exactly how?

    Which is why I term it “a continuation of the status quo.” Which, you would agree, is not a good thing, right? In that the status quo is a broken system?

  7. Tillman says:

    That one Russian political scientist’s calculation about how the US would break up into smaller countries is looking more plausible by the day, eh? Man, if only “compromise” wasn’t such a dirty word.

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, Romney did put forward a package that was so detailed (the “59-point plan”) he predictably was ridiculed for it, on both sides, and especially was chastised by the usual suspects in the liberal media and on the flip side of that coin by the frothing at the mouth brigades on conservative talk radio. Heads they win, tails you lose, if you’re a Republican.

    I’m not sure how Romney would be able to make it clearer that he wants more domestic energy production, less overall federal spending and a repeal of Obamacare. I guess he could staple that proposal to Reich’s forehead, but even then it might not sink in.

    Obama has made it abundantly clear that he wants another stimulus package. I guess Obama could hand deliver that proposal to Reich, et al., but is that really necessary? Obama also has made it abundantly clear that he wants fully to extend the Bush tax cuts for those earning less than $250k per year. Romney for his part wants fully to extend those tax breaks for everyone. Perhaps Reich would be satisifed if they took a blood oath?

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Romney’s “plan” was a series of campaign slogans and platitudes. Cut spending, cut taxes for high-income earners, free trade. What detail there was could be described as incoherent and even contradictory. That none of those things will assist in a recovery is beside the point, I suppose.