Neil Macdonald: America's point and screech election campaign

As American voters ponder whom to make the most powerful leader on Earth, they're being subjected to some of the most dumbed-down discourse in modern political history, Neil Macdonald writes.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are both hyper-talented, intelligent men. Surely, both must know they've descended to mouthing inanities.

I keep wondering — and I realize this might sound a bit naive — whether they couldn't simply agree to stop the foolishness and debate substantively from two perfectly defensible positions: A belief in limited government, versus a belief in a more interventionist government, but anchored on the recognition that there is a need for government and sensible public policy?

After all, even the supposedly louche Europeans, widely regarded here in the U.S. as running spoiled nanny states, are doing just that. Their debate is, admittedly, a bitter one, but they are at least wrestling with the question of what sort of societies they can afford. Just look at what happened in France and Greece over the weekend.

But here, as American voters ponder whom to make the most powerful leader on Earth, they're being treated like lemmings and subjected to some of the most dumbed-down discourse in modern political history.

A few examples:

Obama, milking the anniversary of the bin Laden killing, suggested last week that Mitt Romney wouldn't have had the guts to kill the man who killed so many innocent Americans on 9/11.

And they're off. Barack Obama officially launched his re-election campaign on the weekend. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

This from a president who had promised to rise above that kind of partisan bombast.

How does Obama know what Romney would do? He doesn't. He was just doing his Bill Maher imitation, and it sounded just as opportunistic and dull-witted as those Republicans who channel Rush Limbaugh.

Romney initially tried to take the high road, but he couldn't resist saying something just as low-rent: That any president would have ordered it, "even Jimmy Carter."

The Republican subtext here is that Carter was a pacifistic sap who never had the guts to start a war.

But as retired colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to Republican secretary of state Colin Powell has noted, Carter had the presidential courage to order a rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, only to have the military let him down with a spectacular display of incompetence in the Iranian desert.

What to tell the sheep

The list goes on. Defending his decision to delay the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, Obama claims to have been a pipeline-laying machine, having "added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some."

But the Washington Post, in a neatly done reality check, pointed out that most of this new pipe was to connect natural gas lines to residential homes — not exactly the grand industrial strategy Obama was bragging about.

Clearly facts have ceased to matter here, perhaps less than in any modern presidential campaign. And the strategy is obvious: Tell the sheep whatever you want, repeat it often, bet that most reporters are too lazy to call you on it, and you might gain a point or two in the opinion surveys.

The economy, which is dimly understood here at best, is particularly well-suited to this kind of deception.

As the former head of a successful investment firm, Romney has to know that a president has just about no control over monthly job numbers (or gasoline prices, another favourite subject for the opportunists in both parties).

Yet, last week, when more anemic than expected numbers came out, Romney pounced, eagerly laying the blame on Obama.

Romney declared America should be (and by implication would be, under a Romney administration) creating half a million jobs a month, a rate he surely knows has been attained only five times in 50 years.

The Republicans even managed to turn the plight of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident, into a partisan issue.

"A day of shame for the Obama administration," declared Romney, after U.S. diplomats, having spirited Chen into the embassy in Beijing, acceded to his wishes and drove him to a local hospital upon receiving Chinese assurances of his safety.

As though the U.S. has the ability to effectively adopt a Chinese citizen on Chinese soil who has not once asked for political asylum?

Mindless ideology

But the mindless-ideology award so far this campaign season goes to the battle in Indiana, where long-serving Republican Senator Richard Lugar was defeated in a nomination race on Tuesday by his party's right wing.

The man who took him down was Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party-backed state treasurer who fought the (successful, and now paid back) bailout of Chrysler all the way to the Supreme Court.

He lambasted Lugar for being just too darn bipartisan and had been running TV ads that featured Obama talking about "reaching out" to Lugar.

As the Washington Post's Dana Milbank acidly noted, the ads showed cartoons of Lugar and Obama dancing together under a rainbow, the symbol of the gay rights movement.

Lugar had voted for Obama's stimulus package and his two Supreme Court nominees. But the ads neglected to mention that Lugar's signature bipartisan achievement was a law helping limit loose nuclear weapons from the Soviet era.

That was what Obama was talking about with his reaching out comment. So in this campaign, reaching across the aisle to limit foreign nukes is a sin.

There has just been too much collegiality, Mourdock told the New York Times. It's time, he added with no evident irony, for some confrontation.

While Europe debates

It is difficult to watch the campaign season unfold without feeling it has become unmoored from reality.

As the eurozone heads toward possible disintegration and European economies slide deeper into crisis, with all the attendant consequences for American banks and Americans' savings, the presidential campaigns here avoid the subject almost entirely.

There is also precious little in the way of serious solutions being offered to deal with America's own deep fiscal problems, even though the American debt-to-GDP ratio is higher than the European average, and its big social programs are giant unfunded liabilities waiting to explode.

At least the Europeans are struggling to implement solutions, even if they are arguing bitterly about the options on the table.

American politicians have done precisely nothing, sensing, probably correctly, that no one here really wants government austerity, even the Tea Partiers who say hands off our Medicare.

Much easier to point and screech. You almost expect one of them to start ending speeches with "Na-na-na-na-boo-boo."

This does not befit two men of Obama's and Romney's calibre. But then, they are talking to an electorate that seems more interested in the size of Kim Kardashian's rear end — she supposedly has the best bum in the world, according to a poll in something called Zoo magazine — than policy options that might make everyone's life better.