An Election About Nothing

If you're wondering why I was writing about baseball yesterday instead of leaping into the debate over whether John McCain's decision to suspend his campaign and call for the delay of tomorrow night's debate was a bold act of leadership, a brilliant piece of political theater, or a pointless, vote-losing stunt, it's because the baseball season suddenly seems a lot more interesting than Presidential politics. McCain's gamble may be politically smart, or it may be politically stupid, but like almost everything that's happened in this campaign since the two candidates locked up their respective nominations, it's primarily interesting on a tactical level; its substantive import is close to nil. Both McCain and Obama are almost certain, at this point, to end up supporting whatever bailout compromise is hashed out in Congress, which means that we'll be able to add the current economic crisis to the list of issues where the two candidates have managed to avoid anything like a sustained argument about policy. It's the Russo-Georgian War all over again: McCain responds boldly/impulsively, Obama responds carefully/overcautiously, but they both end up saying roughly the same thing, and the pundit class goes back to obsessing about whatever shocking poll or web ad has been released that day.

Both campaigns have clearly decided that they have an interest in keeping this pattern going. From the McCain camp's point of view, substantive debate could be fatal to their candidate, since he isn't all that comfortable talking about the issues - the economy and health care chief among them - that voters claim to care the most about, and the Democrats are trusted more than the Republicans on most domestic policy questions anyway. If the election is going to be won, McCain and Co. have decided, it's going to be won on trench warfare and intangibles, not substance. From the Obama camp's point of view, meanwhile, the election is theirs to lose, so why take any chances when you can just meet McCain blow for blow and run out the clock until November?  With substance comes opportunity, but also risk - does Obama really want to talk about the costs of, say, the cap-and-trade program he officially supports? I think not! - and why would you take any risks at all when the Presidency is within your grasp?

So Barack Obama, who once claimed to embody sweeping, once-in-a-generation change, has ended up running a cautious, negative, and deeply generic Democratic campaign, while John McCain, who's supposedly all about honor and service and aching nobility, has offered a mix of snark, stunts, and manufactured controversies week in and week out. And the pundit class, deeply invested in the notion that the stakes in this election are stunningly, awesomely high, has responded to the fundamental dullness of the race itself with wild hyperventilation, unable to accept that this campaign just hasn't lived up to their round-the-clock hype - and that it may not even turn out to be the most important election of this decade, let alone of a generation or a lifetime.

All Presidential elections are important, of course, and they're usually important for reasons that nobody sees coming during the election itself. But given the evidence presented to date - the enormous constraints on American action abroad, a fiscal situation that more or less ensures that neither candidate's boldest ideas are likely to get off the ground, and the unimaginative, substance-averse politicking of the candidates themselves - there's good reason to think that the outcome of this election won't be nearly as transformational as many people seem to think. Partisans on both sides claim that we're staring into the abyss: If you listen to some conservatives, you'd think that John McCain and Sarah Palin are all that stands between turning over U.S. foreign policy to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright; if you listen to some Obamaphiles, you'd think that a vote for McCain is a vote for fascism, or theocracy, or the Putinization of America. But if you watch the candidates themselves, and listen to them, the stakes seem much, much lower.