Columnist Robert J. Samuelson recently described as one of our “fondest political myths” that elections allow us to collectively settle the “Big Issues.” Samuelson disputes that and suggests “The truth is that there’s often a bipartisan consensus to avoid the big issues because they involve unpopular choice and conflicts.”
Samuelson offers this opinion in the year 2008 – a year in which the upcoming presidential contest between Barrack Obama and John McCain has been characterized in almost daily newspaper headlines, op-ed columns, 24 hour/7days a week radio and television commentary and unlimited blogging on the Internet as “a different kind of election,” “a watershed election,” an “electoral realignment election,” etc. This opinion is also strangely confounded by the daily and at times alternating deification and denigration of the candidates in the Internet based on their perceived momentary embrace or rejection of various individuals’ or organizations’ positions on a “defining issue.”
Samuelson’s cynicism is in my opinion based on a demonstrably incorrect analysis of what is going on in our constitutional and representative democracy. There is certainly no bipartisan consensus to avoid big issues. The phrase “bipartisan consensus” implies that the leaders of The Republican Party and the Democratic Party sat down somewhere and agreed that together their candidates for President of The United States would “avoid the big issues.” That of course never took place and to say it did gives political cynicism, which needs no rhetorical enhancement and to dominate our view of politics, a new dimension.
No, what is taking place in 2008 notwithstanding the mantra of “Change” in which each candidate for President, his followers and imitators seek to cloak themselves, is that each candidate and his strategists have recognized that this election, like every national election, will be decided by voters who self-define themselves as being independent and in the “center” of our country’s political spectrum. What truly does “change” is what constitutes “the center.” It has changed and will change over time for many reasons including changes in demographics which encompass religion, immigration, age, shifting cultural and perhaps most importantly socio-economic factors. In the face of this political reality, the presidential candidates and for that matter all candidates for any political office which have a high enough profile for voters to notice them will naturally “spin” their positions on issues and in particular “Big Issues” to attract support from these “independent-centrist” voters.
In fact, if there is truly anything different in 2008 from particularly the last few national elections, it is that the voters even more clearly and emphatically more than in the past few elections have in every poll and focus group expressed that they do desire definition and action on the “Big Issues” and that they will reject any candidate whom they perceive won’t provide it. Periodically both presidential candidates are publicly reminded of that when they attempt not to avoid, but rather to generalize their position on these issues to both hold their base on the left and right respectively while attracting the center. Witness Barrack Obama in anticipation of his trip to Iraq and other strategic locations abroad stating a “newly nuanced” and “evolving” position on ending the War in Iraq based on “factors on the ground” and “consultation with his commanders” in the morning and then three hours later in the afternoon on that same day, reappearing to “clarify” that this does not represent “a material change in his previous position.” Similarly observe John McCain changing the focus and emphasis of his position on immigration to accommodate the position of the audience of the moment.
Let me take a moment here and exercise, if my readers will permit, a point of “Pundit Privilege” and offer a conditional defense of “Spin,” which is inevitably accused of being the root of all evil or at least ambiguity in political discourse. “Spin” by a candidate or those who are communicating with the media on his or her behalf is not to be automatically condemned if it is not dishonest, disingenuous or dissembling. If it accurately even if cleverly expresses an appropriate degree of nuance and/or complexity in the candidate’s policy or position on an issue which itself is not simply resolved – that is actually a good thing. If given the opportunity to intelligently choose a candidate, hopefully the voters will not put an undue premium on whether the candidate’s positions are expressed in words which do not exceed a single syllable, will not mistake simplicity for clarity, and will not be partial to sound bites over sound explanation.
What are the “Big Issues”? More importantly while we remain in the “Campaign Stage” of our Constitutional Representative Democracy, how should those “Big Issues” be framed and their positions explained by candidates? They’re future subjects for “The Pursuit of Justice.”