Wed, Oct 08, 2008 - Page 9 News List

This time issues count in presidential vote

By Michael Tomasky  /  THE GUARDIAN , WASHINGTON

Pssst. Don’t spread it around too much, because there’s still a month to go and I don’t want to jinx things — but substance is in this year. You, I know, think US presidential elections are always decided by silly or superficial or out-and-out false representations and aspersions. Former US vice president Al Gore sighed too much in a debate and wasn’t the sort of fellow you’d like to have a beer with. US President George W Bush never sighed once, as far as anyone could tell, and was the sort you’d like to have a beer with (even though he didn’t drink beer). Senator John Kerry seemed so French and effete. He windsurfed. And he didn’t save all those men during the Vietnam War.

Little glimmers of substance have usually shown through. In 2004, for instance, a still-significant percentage of US voters remained jittery about a second large-scale terrorist attack on US soil. Bush ran as the man who had prevented that from happening and argued that he was more trustworthy on this matter than Kerry. And former US president Bill Clinton withstood an intensive barrage of over-the-top attacks and stayed focused on the economy.

Superficialities and attacks, though, usually dominate. In fact, more than a few liberals have spent the last four years trying to persuade Democrats to be every bit as superficial and nasty as the Republicans are at election time. But this year, something feels different. Voters are actually paying closer attention to issues.

It is the result, no doubt, of the US being in terrible shape right now. It tends to focus the mind. The economy is terrible. The stock market is terrible. Indicators of general societal well-being, like healthcare and pensions, are terrible. Our standing in the world is terrible. The conditions in Afghanistan are terrible. The situation in Iraq is improved but was so terrible for so long that people just basically want out.

We are a country in decline. The decline is the result of the policies of the last eight years. No candidate for president can utter the sentence “we are a country in decline.” The US’ central myth about itself is that, unlike Rome or Austria-Hungary or an earlier Britain, we are impervious to time’s vicissitudes and will always be numero uno. People now are worried that underneath that bravado, maybe we won’t be.

And so, substance matters. The public responses to the financial meltdown and the first two debates make this evident.

When the Wall Street crisis hit, Senator John McCain erupted with lots of bluster about how he was going to crack down on the fatcats and the greed heads. He “suspended” his campaign to return to Washington to handle the problem. He called Senator Barack Obama green and a hypocrite. In other words, he was superficial and aggressive in precisely the way that usually works in presidential campaigns. But he lost the argument — polls before the Wall Street crisis showed him closing the gap with Obama on the question of who can better handle the economy. That gap is now wider than ever.

Obama, by contrast, stayed calm, didn’t attack McCain’s stunt and at press conferences listed the specific items he needed to see in the bail-out bill. He was talking with congressional leaders and the Treasury secretary about these substantive points. The distinction between the two was clear.

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