Campaign 2012 is underway. Mitt Romney has won the right to challenge President Barack Obama for the Oval Office. The next four years of American politics hangs in the balance. One might think that, by now, we would be able to have some concrete idea of what either man would do for those four years. But sadly, this has not yet happened to any great extent.
Where are the grand messages of the campaigns? Being held in reserve for the post-convention season, perhaps? That's at least an understandable answer, but ultimately not a very satisfying one. Neither Obama nor Romney has yet clearly articulated what their big ideas are for the next four years, and both of them are missing the chance to pound their message into the American psyche for the next two or three months.
Romney supporters -- what, exactly, is Mitt going to do if he gets into the White House? Kill Obamacare? Kill everything Obama's ever done? OK, after he's accomplished that, what is Mitt Romney going to do next? What grand plans does he have for health care once Obamacare is gone? Back to the pre-Obamacare status quo?
Beyond reactionary moves, what would Romney push for in Congress? He talks a lot about freeing up big business from onerous government regulations, but what else will he do for the economy than hand out tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans? What is Romney going to consider his top three objectives in Congress (that aren't merely a repeal of Obama legislation)? Can anyone answer these questions for me?
Obama supporters -- is the president any better? We knew what he wanted to tackle when he was running in 2008, but do we have any clue what he'd do in a second term? Other than "let's just continue our current policies"? Health care reform was Obama's signature legislation in his first term, but what will he push hardest for in his second? The only thing I've even heard him mention in the way of bold change is to promise he'll push immigration reform during the first year of his second term. This is exactly what he promised in 2008, but at least it is something concrete that Obama is expressing support for. What, other than immigration reform, will be on Barack's "to do" list come 2013?
The campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have already proven that they're up to speed on negative advertisements. Pointing out your opponents' weaknesses is a big part of campaigning in general, and it's going to be an even larger part of this campaign. But it simply can't be all there is. There's got to be some substance -- some positive and very concrete things the candidates stand for -- in order for voters to truly make an informed choice.
Both sides could argue that they have, indeed, laid out very complex plans for the future. Romney wrote a book with something like six or seven dozen policy ideas. I'm sure the Obama campaign has lots of white papers up on their campaign site as well. But these are about as effective (and about as meaningful) as the official party platform documents which will emerge from the national nominating conventions -- interesting reading for the hard-core party faithful, but not all that relevant to the voters at large.
Most voters simply will never read 70 different "planks" in either candidates' platform. They want to hear -- directly from the candidate -- a short laundry list of their top priorities. At the most, four or five "Big Ideas" (to put it another way). The completion of the following candidate statement: "If elected, I will spend all my political energy, from Day One, to achieve the following things which will offer real solutions for America's problems..." is what the voters are looking for, and what has yet to be clearly articulated by either campaign or candidate.
Just as quick examples, imagine how the campaigns would look today if Barack Obama started every speech off with: "If the American people elect me to a second term in office, I will spend every waking moment working to pass a constitutional amendment which will overturn the Citizens United decision and end the courts' treatment of corporations as people. The Bill of Rights was written for we the people and most decidedly not for 'we the corporations,' and I will dedicate my second term to righting this legalistic wrong. Who's with me?!?"
Contrariwise, imagine Mitt Romney beginning his speeches with: "If the American people elect me to the highest office in the land, I will repay the favor by using my political capital from my first day in office onwards to force Congress to fix our tax problems and our entitlement problems. I will lay down a simple outline, and I will demand that Congress act on it, or I will veto every single bill they lay on my desk until they do so. The only legislation which will be acceptable has to balance our budget in ten years' time, reform all entitlement programs so they don't run out of money, and simplify our tax code so that it takes the average American taxpayer two hours or less to fill out their income taxes. I will not sign any budget which does not accomplish these goals, and I will not sign any other legislation in the meantime. We can fix this problem, if Congress would only do their job. Who's with me?!?"
Don't get me wrong, here, I'm not suggesting actual campaign themes, just proving how easy it is to come up with them (on either side). Either of these would be seen as bold plans. They both fall into the category of Big Ideas. Which is precisely what both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seem to so far be lacking. Both candidates, and both campaigns, seem to be running awfully timid operations. "We certainly don't want to offend anybody" seems to be the rule of thumb. This is depressing, because it bodes for a long season of nothing but sharper and harder-hitting attacks against each other. When you don't have a Big Idea to run on, the only way to win is to tear down your opponent -- which is all that seems to be happening currently.
America deserves better. America, in my humble estimation, is searching for something better than this. Voters don't want to know just how badly the other guy will screw things up, they also would appreciate hearing what each candidate is putting on the top of their priorities list for the next four years. To both candidates, and to both campaigns, I offer some very simple advice.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant