What the Presidential Candidates Aren’t Talking About

Right then, here’s how it goes: we’re now officially three quarters of the way through debate season. We’re less than three weeks away from the November 6th election. And team Obama, and team Romney, are talking up a storm. With — lets say — varying levels of specificity, both candidates have been eager to talk about jobs and growth and the economy; they’ve been on and on about taxes and debt and who exactly is responsible for the looming fiscal cliff; they’ve even wandered into talk of foreign policy (which is certainly brand new territory for Mitt). If talking expansively and bowling over geriatric debate moderators is the measure by which a presidential candidate is judged, they’ve both done a bang-up job. But take them out of their relatively narrow issue scope, and both candidates seem to go quiet as a clam.

What the Presidential Candidates Aren't Talking About
Adapted from a photo by Wiros — on Flickr

Just for kicks, I’ve compiled a list of pressing issues about which our otherwise loquacious presidential candidates have had little (if anything) to say:

  • Campaign Finance
  • Climate Change
  • Drone Strikes
  • Food Insecurity
  • Gun Violence
  • Poverty
  • Voter Suppression

I get it. The economy is important. Jobs are important. Both campaigns have made the calculation that if they are going to win an election in 2012, their best bet is to talk up the efforts of the last four years to save the middle class, to keep us from running full-speed into depression-land. Or to tear those efforts down.

But though folks (obviously) care a great deal about our current prosperity (or lack thereof), as the turn toward Libya and Syria in the past few weeks has shown us, it is not the only issue out there. It is not the only reason that folks are coming to the polls.

It turns out, for example, that gun violence is kind of a big deal this year. We’ve had several high profile shootings, perpetrated by folks with known mental problems, and by Right– (and Left-) wing fanatics. We had a sitting member of congress shot in the head within the span of recent memory (I often think that presidential campaigns underestimate how far back the electorate’s memory goes). And we have a Supreme Court that insists that gun restrictions imposed by cities, to curb urban violence, are tantamount to sacrilege. It is vital enough, to enough people, that debate moderator Candy Crowley allowed in a question about it last night. And yet — faced with obvious public interest in the topic, both candidates went goofy (to put it generously).

Romney’s response to the question — about keeping assault weapons out of the hands of criminals — was to suggest that we don’t need more legislation. Instead, he said, if (by gosh) we tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, our gun problem will be solved. Because married couples are more prosperous, and everybody knows it’s poverty and poverty alone that breeds bullets.

Obama’s response was only moderately less absurd. He went on at length about praying with the family of one of the Aurora shooting victims, and then suggested — in sort of a mumbly tone — that we might want to go to greater lengths to enforce gun laws that are already on the books.

But still, by comparison to poverty, to food insecurity, to drones, this is a positive torrent of detailed policy talk. One recent study concluded that 46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line — that’s more than one in six. Another concluded that more than 16 million children — that’s one in five — don’t have enough to eat. While a third makes the chilling point that drone strikes on civilian populations in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere are (at best) two percent effective at killing high-level terrorist targets, but have become the number one recruiting tool used by terrorist organizations to find fresh, militarized blood.* And yet — neither candidate has spoken one serious word about any of these issues at any of the debates, and if they talk about them elsewhere, it is not enough at length, nor enough in detail, to actually make the news. Both team Obama and team Romney seem to want to stay as far away from secret wars, civilian deaths, and hunger at home as they possibly can.

What the Presidential Candidates Aren't Talking About
Adapted from a photo by Marion Doss — on Flickr

Which, to me at least, is the most frustrating part of this whole (very long) campaign. I look at the Obama administration, and I think to myself: the president has been terrible on most of these issues. Why isn’t Romney pummelling him with them? And I think to myself: a Romney administration would be even worse. Why isn’t Obama staking Mitt to the desert floor?

And then I remember: the Romney campaign’s hands are tied by special interests groups — by the NRA, by Grover Norquist, by George W.’s neocon leftovers — such that he can’t hit Obama where he’s weakest without alienating his Right flank. And equally, the Obama campaign’s hands are tied by — well — all those same factors. The Democratic party seems so eager to get conservative voters to like them, so ready to buy into the Palin-esque rhetoric of “Real America,” that they’ve swung away from their bread-and-butter issues. They can’t walk back, can’t talk about poverty and peace, without exposing just how conservative they’ve already become.

The problem in this election — just like in the last one, and the one before — is that there isn’t a real choice. We have one party that’s espousing a Center-Right platform that lauds free markets, and panders to corporations and the financial sector. And we have another that does all those same things, while spinning wild conspiracy theories, prophesying about the End Times, and forcing the sensible candidates to make a big show (as Sarah puts it) of defending the not-crazy position.

If the best we can expect from our political candidates is that they’ll defend the not-crazy position — any not-crazy position, even if it’s a bad one — is it any wonder that things aren’t going the way we might hope?

It seems to me like the best way to ameliorate this problem is to make a ruckus — to pester our politicians on poverty, violence, climate change, and whatever else on Twitter and Facebook, in daily emails, on the phone, and in person. If team Obama and team Romney think we’re disengaged and vote only on party identification (if we vote at all), of course they’ll be unresponsive. If the two campaigns think we’re only concerned about a razor-thin subset of issues, of course they won’t talk about all the other ones that also really matter. Persistent pestering seems to me like the only way to force the candidates out of their comfort zones, to force them to broaden their issue scope. And if we don’t do it — who will?

The media? Not likely.

* One small addendum: apparently — according to reporting from NPR today — American drone strikes are also impeding polio vaccinations for children in rural Pakistan.