All the top pundits in the talking head business say this presidential election was totally lame, riddled with "smallness," lacking "bigness," focused on petty complaints instead of big issues. What planet are they on? This election has been about the most basic question facing human society -- how to divide resources on a large scale -- and, if that weren't a big enough question, the race briefly centered on the problem of evil in a world created by a benevolent and omnipotent God. There are no bigger debates than that.
It's understandable why the "smallness" complaint is fashionable. You can pander to readers -- you're so smart! the candidates just didn't know how to talk to you! -- without sounding partisan. Look how viral the smallness is:
- "The 2012 election will be remembered by history for its smallness in a big, historic moment," Politico's Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen wrote Sunday.
- "The arguments were small... The playing field was small...Most of all, the leading actors were small..." Politico's John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin argued Tuesday.
- "The nearer this campaign has come to its end, the more devoid of substance it has become," Michael Gerson writes at The Washington Post.
- "Neither man ran a campaign worthy of himself, of the country, or of the scale of the challenges the country faces," New York's Jon Heilemann wrote this week.
- "In a better world, the campaign would have focused on rival ideas" for dealing with the economic slowdown and the national debt, The Washington Post's Robert J. Samuelson said. "It didn’t."
- "[W]ith what should be a big vision election, with all the economic questions America faces, we are seeing a small idea campaign," Joel Braunold wrote at Progressonline in June. He tweeted that he was "reupping" it on Tuesday, apparently because four months of election news did not change his argument. At least Politico had the decency to rewrite its June article, "The 2012 campaign is the smallest ever."
They are all wrong. There are general problems with the analysis: First, it's a curious decision to diagnose a lack of specificity with a word as nonspecific as "smallness." Second, the people who complain that this election is particularly lame never point to evidence that previous elections sustained an elevated, intellectual tone. Never! Because none exists. ("Rarely has a campaign seemed more like a circus and less like a grand national debate. Rarely have there been so many complaints, valid or not, about the process -- its length, its complexity, its smallness and its ability to eat up and spit out those who dare enter." -- The Miami Herald's Larry Eichel, October 4, 1987.)
But the idea that "smallness" plagues the 2012 campaign is especially ridiculous. The major issues of the campaign are not school uniforms (that was an actual thing in 1996). Mitt Romney and President Obama have both maintained that this election is a choice between two distinct views about how to steer the country. They aren't lying. The major points of dispute are access to health care and taxes and spending -- in other words, the division of scarce resources.
Take, for example, the moment Romney said that while he'd get rid of Obamacare, his plan would still cover pre-existing conditions. Romney's plan, a spokesman clarified, covers pre-existing conditions for those with continuous insurance coverage -- not people who've gone without insurance because they lost their job or something. You could say this was lying -- sorry, "smallness." But the comment sparked a detailed debate about why Obamacare has an individual mandate in the first place. If you force insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, they will go bankrupt, because people will wait until they were very sick to buy insurance. This is an important debate over how to spread risk across society! It's not small! The same principle is behind many of the things we take for granted as fundamental parts of our society. We all pay taxes to fund the fire department in case it's our house that goes up in flames.
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Then there's tax policy, which was a major part of the 2012 campaign. Obama campaigned on shifting the tax burden to wealthier people by letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the highest earners and limiting their tax deductions. The stated goals of Romney's tax plan were to cut tax rates, close loopholes so the government doesn't lose revenue, and not shift the tax burden to the middle class. But the Tax Policy Center ran the numbers and found it was impossible to do all three. Sure, that's a gotcha moment -- Obama was able to say Romney's plan didn't add up. But it also revealed an important debate about what our priorities should be. Which of Romney's goals should we do without?
Even something that's usually about empty symbolism, the selection of the vice presidential nominee, was not about meaningless geographic or personality balance. Romney picked Paul Ryan, author of a budget plan that calls for a massive change in the way we allocate resources over the next 30 years. Ryan's selection prompted a long and substantive discussion of this plan, which envisions cutting discretionary spending from 12.5 percent of GDP, as it is now, to 3.25 percent by 2050, without cutting defense spending. To cite just one example, the Boston Globe published a detailed examination of not just Ryan's goals, but the assumptions his plan makes, like that public debt would be 10 percent of GDP by 2050, when the Congressional Budget Office projects it will be 200 percent. Do you want to see charts? Because there are charts. And not just the Globe's charts!
What about the silly stuff? Like when a Democratic talking head said Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life? Even this was an important reflection of how our culture has changed. In 1992, when Hillary Clinton was asked why she had her own career, she said flippantly, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life." People freaked out. 2012 proved that while it's still not nice to take a shot at moms -- working or not -- it's the man-works-woman-stays-home lifestyle that's now on the defensive.
But forget all that. That money stuff is too earthly. You want bigness? Let's talk about the Heavens. Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock made national headlines when he said, "I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Yes, that's right, an American political candidate made, in the words of MSNBC's Chris Hayes, "a major theodicy gaffe." In the debate where he made the comment, and in the press conference semi-apologizing for it, we got to watch Mourdock struggle with something religious leaders have pondered for centuries: the problem of evil, and why a benevolent God would not stop evil, and why bad things happen to good people. Why would God be hands off during a rape, but jump in once the rapist sperm was in the victim's fallopian tubes? It's a troubling question. If you think it's one best left to religious leaders, then we're still talking about the fundamentals of self-governance: Where, exactly, to draw the line between church and state?
The pundits were given a whole bunch of opportunities to think big. Smallness may be in the eye of the beholder.