No-Go Areas on the Campaign Trail

There are vital areas of American public life that received next to no attention on the hustings of either side, for very persuasive — if entirely cynical — reasons

Dispatches US Politics
Strictly off-limits: Gun control is one of the issues that the presidential candidates refused to talk about.

Despite the billions of dollars spent in the American general election, despite the thousands of TV advertisements aired over the eight months or so of tough campaigning, despite the four and a half hours of debates that the candidates had in front of prime-time audiences numbering over 100 million, there were still many very important issues for the United States from which both candidates for president shied away. Far from being the cathartic purging of the nation’s mind and soul that this election was presented as in the popular consciousness, there are vital areas of American public life that received next to no attention on the hustings of either side, for very persuasive — if entirely cynical — reasons.

Take immigration: there are estimated to be more than 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US, which has a huge effect on the economy, both for good and ill. The Republican party’s official position is the farcical one of supporting what Mitt Romney in January called “self-deportation”, i.e. hoping the illegals will turn themselves in, although in some states the Republicans are far tougher, supporting non-consensual deportation.

One of the biggest issues in American politics over the past year has been Arizona’s use of police stop-and-search to crack down on illegals, yet a glance at the demographic make-up of several key swing states makes it immediately clear why neither side talked about the issue at the hustings. New Mexico is 46 per cent Hispanic by population, Arizona is 29.6 per cent, Nevada 26.5 per cent, Florida 22.5 per cent and Colorado 20.7 per cent. Together these states represent no fewer than 59 electoral votes, out of the 270 a candidate needs to win the White House.

Yet if the Republicans didn’t want to alienate Hispanics in these key states, why didn’t the Democrats bang the immigration drum on the other side, hoping to scare the Latino voters into their camp by summoning up the fear of deportation? The answer is that they feared that by so doing they might have driven the white voters in those five states into the hands of the Republicans. Consider that in Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech, a grand total of 195 words were dedicated to the immigration issue, out of a total of 6,000 words, or 3.25 per cent, concerning a massive issue that is threatening to bankrupt several of those states where the undocumented illegals live and work.

Similarly, education is a pressing issue, and although both candidates mouthed platitudes about its importance — as in the phrase “schools’n’hospitals” — they simply refused to enunciate what they would really do. There has been a huge, debilitating teachers’ strike in Chicago, yet both sides shied away from mentioning it. As America slips behind in the lower second division of the world’s league tables for maths, science and languages, the last serious reform of its education system was the No Child Left Behind Act of over a decade ago. The reason the Democrats avoid the issue is because although everyone knows that the key to reform is schools’ ability to sack bad teachers — which is presently next to impossible to do — the teachers’ unions pay hundreds of millions to the Democrats each year. Nor do the Republicans want to alienate such a powerful body of opinion-formers as the nation’s hundreds of thousands of teachers.

For all that the candidates discussed the overall size of America’s national debt — and Mitt Romney produced some eye-watering numbers in the first debate on October 3 — there were virtually no specifics offered by either side about exactly which spending programmes were going to be cut in order to reduce it. Romney actually tried to justify this massive lacuna in his argument by explaining that it would weaken his negotiating position as president if anyone knew in advance. The truth is that it would have weakened his electoral treasure chest, and boosted Obama’s, as soon as the special interest groups were informed of the budgets that the Republicans were intending to cut. 

Similarly, if President Obama had given so much as a whiff of which entitlement programmes he thought were sliceable — assuming he thought any were at all — it would have been a matter of moments before the relevant public sector unions started making the kind of criticisms that no politician likes to hear in an election year. “Obama and Romney will talk around the debt rather than about it,” predicted Chris Cillizza, the talented political analyst who writes the ultimate insiders’ blog, The Fix for the Washington Post, and he was right.

Despite the national debt at $15 trillion and rising, threatening to swamp the US budget in interest repayments by the end of the decade, neither candidate for president got into any kind of specifics about what they would do about it. Similarly, you’d have never guessed from this election that most economists are predicting that China’s GDP will have overtaken that of the US around 2020. Democrats didn’t want it mentioned in case Obama was blamed; Republicans didn’t want to look like protectionists.

With the shooting of Congresswoman  Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, a massacre in a Colorado cinema killing 12 people in July 2012, and the campaigns by Michael Bloomberg and Mayors Against Illegal Guns making headlines, the issue of gun control is another one that is being discussed everywhere in America, except on the hustings. Fifty-one per cent of Americans think their gun laws should be stricter, 39 per cent say they should remain as they are, while 7 per cent (mainly Appalachian hillbillies) believe that they should be made less strict, in a country where machine-gun ammunition can be ordered over the internet. Yet there was no way that the Democrats were about to adopt a position that the National Rifle Association could portray as weak or liberal to its members, who are widely represented in the rural swing states. Although the statistics suggest that around 48,000 American will be killed by guns during the next presidential term — i.e. 16 times the number who died on 9/11 — neither side thought it worth the risk of bringing it up much in the election. Stephen Barton, who was nearly killed in the Colorado shooting, made TV ads begging for the subject to be at least discussed in the domestic policy debate, but it wasn’t mentioned once.

Another pressing issue facing the US that was resolutely ignored by both parties was campaign finance reform, and once again for perfectly understandable, if cynical, political reasons. President Obama promised to accept public financing in the 2008 election, and made self-congratulatory speeches about “clean politics” and “clean money”, before promptly changing his mind the moment he realised he would be able to raise more money outside the federally mandated limits. 

Since the Supreme Court declared in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that corporations and unions had the right to free speech under the First Amendment, Political Action Committees (super Pacs) have spent billions on supporting some candidates and opposing others. The trade union movement spent a staggering $4.5 billion in this electoral cycle, mainly in support of Democrats, a figure that dwarfs the spending by billionaires on Republicans.

As 85 per cent of Democrats, 76 per cent of Republicans and 80 per cent of independents oppose the Citizens United decision, one might have thought it would rate a mention in the campaign, but both sides are too wedded to their union and super Pac support for that. As Cillizza once again accurately predicted, in his book The Gospel According to The Fix, “Both President Obama and Mitt Romney will decry the influence of outside groups in the 2012 election, but neither will do anything meaningful to prevent money from being spent by these groups to savage their opponents because they know there will be little (or no) price to pay from voters.” 

Can you imagine how many of those schools’n’hospitals could be built, equipped and staffed in perpetuity with the $6 billion that has been spent on the 2012 election? There has to be a cheaper way of delivering democracy in America without abridging the First Amendment, yet it’s not in the interest of either side to discuss what that might be, so although around four-fifths of voters want it investigated, it wasn’t during this election.

The 2012 presidential campaigns were undertaken with all the great razzmatazz and spectacle that makes American politics such a fascinating, enlivening and fun spectator sport. Yet we should not be diverted by the sheer rhetoric and energy of the race into thinking that the candidates engaged in a genuinely meaningful way on the real issues concerning the country’s future. 

These issues are discussed in the clubs and bars and by the office water-coolers across America, but not on the electoral stump. In this election neither party truly attempted to answer some of the most important ones that face the republic today.