U.S. election campaign enters 'Dali phase'

American voters will for the next eight weeks enter an upside-down, bizarro world, where facts are what you want them to be and every utterance can mean something else.

Neil Macdonald's guide to 8 weeks in a bizarro world

We have now entered the Salvador Dali phase of this election campaign.

No melting pocket watches, perhaps, but certainly a dreamlike, otherworldly detachment.

Perhaps M.C. Escher’s Ascending and Descending is the more apt artistic metaphor, with its "Penrose stairs" illusion.

Up you go, down you go, without really going anywhere.

Unless they turn off their televisions, avoid the internet and suspend their newspaper subscriptions, American voters will for the next eight weeks enter an upside-down, bizarro world, where facts are what you want them to be and every utterance can mean something else.

Their own desires, misconceptions and fears will be reflected back on them, tailored to their demographics and neighbourhoods with the assistance of alchemists clutching poll numbers and focus group research.

Reality in these eight weeks, more than any other on the calendar, ceases to matter.

And the candidates have every reason to encourage that.

'I might be so-so, but the other guy is terrible'

As author and psychology professor Drew Westen explained in a Washington Post article this week, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have particularly compelling stories to tell about themselves, so their most effective option is telling nasty stories about each other.

Philippe Halsman's 1953 portait of surrealist artist Salvador Dali. (Philippe Halsman Archive/Associated Press )

In his rather uncompelling convention speech, Obama actually predicted two months of negative-ad saturation, insinuating of course that it’s all going to be Mitt Romney’s fault, and that he, Obama, would rather stick to the issues.

In the same speech, Obama unveiled all sorts of economic initiatives, and a responsible-sounding deficit target, without any explanation of how he intends to pay for it all, except that he’ll save money from not fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (financing them required borrowing, anyway).

In fact, this nation is headed toward a "fiscal cliff" at the end of this calendar year. You just wouldn’t know it from listening to the two guys running for the White House.

Obama won’t say how he’ll pay for his spending, and Romney won’t say exactly what he would cut.

That would give voters real information with which to decide.

Better to just distract them, and assure them America’s greatest years are ahead of it, etc., etc.

Romney, for example, would repeal "Obamacare" (which was modelled on a program he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts) as soon as he takes office, except, we are now discovering, for those parts that Americans seem to like. Those he would leave in place.

Believe me, I will, or will not, do this.

A cringy to the point of riveting voice vote

An even better example took place last week during the Democratic convention.

The party arrived in Charlotte with a platform that omitted the usual wording about Jerusalem being the eternal capital of Israel.

The explanation Democratic strategists gave reporters was that the official position of the Obama administration, like that of the George W. Bush administration and the Clinton administration, is that the status of Jerusalem is a matter for negotiation between the concerned parties. The Democrats wanted party policy to reflect Obama’s governing reality on a sensitive issue.

Sensible enough.

The American government, along with just about every other government on Earth, has never had an embassy in Jerusalem.

But then the uproar started, Republicans attacked, and President Obama issued orders that Jerusalem-as-capital go back in the platform, pronto.

The convention chairman, Antonio Villaraigosa, convened a session to accomplish that by voice vote. It was cringy to the point of riveting. He called for approval of the new wording three times. Each time, the nays equalled the yeas.

Finally, Villaraigosa declared what had already been loaded into his teleprompter before the vote was even called: That the vote had passed by a two-thirds vote.

In other words, the voting exercise was a sham, and the president ordered his party to take a position utterly at odds with his official policy.

He did that because telling people what they want to hear is what matters, and if they want to hear aspiration rather than reality, fine and dandy.

But the status of Jerusalem is trifling compared to the collective delusion of the imperial president.

Stewarding the unstewardable

In reality, a president’s power to significantly change the course of the economy is negligible. Too many forces worldwide are at play.

Furthermore, the president only gets to spend the money Congress gives him, and sometimes Congress imposes conditions on that, too.

(Congress, incidentally, would have to repeal Obamacare. Romney could only urge a repeal, if indeed he even wants to do that).

And yet Americans, this nation of stubborn individualists, expect a president to ensure they have good, secure jobs.

So, instead of just telling the truth, candidates for the top office buy in, bragging about "creating jobs" and attacking the other guy for "destroying jobs."

Challengers love to post Ronald Reagan’s question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

As though where you are now has nothing to do with the rise of China, India, Brazil and Russia, or Wall Street’s chicanery, or the euro crisis, or even, heaven forfend, your own job performance.

No, it’s all about the president’s "stewardship," whatever that means, of the biggest, most un-stewardable economy in human history.

'We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers,' U.S. President Barack Obama says in his inaugural address in Washington Jan. 20, 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters )

The Republicans cannot or they would have

Republicans, meanwhile, would put an end to abortions and gay marriage. Except they cannot, or they would have.

And they’d bring the God of Jesus back into the public square, except He doesn’t seem to have ever left. He was mentioned constantly from the stage in both Tampa and Charlotte.

He was originally out of the Democrats’ platform, but Obama (who in his inauguration speech called America "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus —and non-believers") ordered Him back in, too.

Out of all this, the choice will be made. At least power will change bloodlessly, if the president loses. That, perhaps, is America’s greatest contribution to civilization.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.