Pundits know two things about next month’s midterm elections. First, Republicans will likely take the Senate. Two, the elections stink. In a recent column, David Brooks declared, “The 2014 campaign has been the most boring and uncreative campaign I can remember.” Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza responded with a post titled, “David Brooks thinks 2014 is the ‘most boring’ campaign he can remember. It’s even worse than that.”
Brooks blames this dullness on the fact that Democrats and Republicans won’t change their minds. (“Polarization is deeply rooted in the economic conditions and personal values of the country.”) Cillizza blames it on the fact that both Democrats and Republicans can’t stand Washington. (“The American public are in a stage of disenchantment and anxiety that is historically unique.”) But the best answer I’ve seen comes from Ezra Klein, who argues that “elections are about stakes.” And the stakes in this one just don’t seem so high.
At a micro-level, after all, the 2014 elections have plenty of drama. In Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate has been fighting for his political life all year. In Kansas, an entrenched incumbent could lose to a little-known independent who won’t say which party he’ll caucus with. It’s even possible we won’t know who controls the Senate until December or January, when Louisiana and Georgia hold runoffs.
The dullness comes from this election’s lack of a compelling macro-theme. Yes, there are national refrains: Democrats in state after state call their Republican opponents heartless misogynists; Republicans call their Democratic opponents Obama clones. But there’s no big national issue on which voters feel that they can change the country’s course. It’s not that candidates today are more cynical or homogenized than in midterms past. It’s that the subjects they’re discussing cynically and homogenously don’t matter as much.
A look at the last four midterms makes the point. In November 1998, Bill Clinton’s impeachment hung in the balance. After proving initially wary of the issue, in the campaign’s final week the National Republican Congressional Committee launched an advertising campaign in 30 swing districts aimed at rallying the GOP base. One spot showed two mothers asking each other, “What did you tell your kids?” But the ads backfired. The people most energized by the specter of impeachment were Democrats, especially African Americans. (It was the 1998 impeachment struggle that launched Moveon.org—as in “move on to something more important than impeachment.”)
After expecting to win numerous House seats, the GOP ended up losing five. Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to resign. Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey declared that as a result of the election, “Any serious effort to remove President Clinton from office is effectively over.”
In 2002, the stakes were just as high. Roughly a month before Election Day, the House and Senate had voted to authorize President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. But because Bush had agreed to a last-ditch United Nations inspection effort, and because he was still seeking UN approval for military action, many still believed an invasion could be averted. The midterms were thus cast as a referendum on war.
Like 2014, 2002 had plenty of micro-drama. After voting against the war, progressive hero Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash a week before Election Day. In Georgia, Republicans ran ads featuring Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in an effort to depict Vietnam Veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland as soft on homeland security. But what made these local storylines nationally compelling was their connection to the still unresolved question of whether America would go to war.
By 2006, America was in the middle of another fierce debate about Iraq: Not whether to get in, but whether to get out. In a Washington Post poll two weeks before Election Day, a plurality of Americans called Iraq their top concern. And in exit polls, 55 percent of voters said they wanted some or all U.S. troops withdrawn. As in 2002, the dramatic local stories—Senator Joe Lieberman’s loss to an anti-war challenger in the Connecticut Democratic primary, ex-Marine Jim Webb’s defeat of potential presidential contender George Allen in Virginia—connected to this national debate in a way the key races this year do not. As it turned out, the victorious congressional Democrats did not force George W. Bush to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. But the prospect that they might gave the election its passion.
Finally, the 2010 midterms occurred in the wake of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression and the largest expansion of the American welfare state since the Great Society. And back then, far more than today, both these subjects seemed up for grabs. Many Republicans believed that by winning Congress in 2010 and then the presidency in 2012, they could repeal, or at least cripple, Obamacare. With the deficit skyrocketing, the nascent Tea Party warned that only by radically changing course could America avoid becoming Greece. The size and scope of federal intervention in the economy seemed to hang in the balance in a way it had not since the 1930s. All the dramatic races that year—Sharron Angle’s effort to unseat Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, Marco Rubio’s driving Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party in Florida, Rand Paul’s shocking victory in Kentucky—connected to that theme. I remember watching MSNBC on election night as liberal pundits speculated about whether the barbarians now at the gates would force a debt default that sent the global economy into meltdown. For conservatives, it was enthralling. For liberals, it was terrifying. It certainly wasn’t boring.
Today, these domestic-policy debates are more muted. Republicans still denounce Obamacare, but few still believe they can repeal it. Big partisan differences about the size of government remain, but with the deficit going down and Republicans no longer willing to go to the brink over the debt limit, the crisis atmosphere of 2010 has faded. Overseas, Americans worry about Ebola and ISIS, but those threats don’t divide them along partisan lines like Iraq. There’s little reason to believe that electing a Republican Senate would substantially change American policy toward either.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying next month’s elections don’t matter. They do. As Annie Lowrey has predicted, a Republican Senate—if elected—will work mightily to prevent President Obama from using his executive authority to implement a broad range of government regulation. But these potential fights are mostly too narrow and too technical to grab public attention. Americans just don’t believe that as much hinges on their vote as did in 1998, 2002, 2006, or 2010. For many pundits, that makes this election boring. For many ordinary Americans, I suspect, it’s something of a relief.