I realize now that we were spoiled. For more than a decade, American elections have been Tom Wolfe affairs: bizarre, thrilling, odious—fun. It started in 1998, when the Republicans made the midterms a referendum on their bid to impeach Bill Clinton. That backfired when Americans rallied to the Democrats and when porn-magnate Larry Flynt’s offer of a million-dollar reward for any Republican caught violating his vows toppled the GOP leader of the House. Yes, that really happened. Then came 2000, which was stolen, kind of. In 2002, Republicans beat a triple amputee Vietnam veteran by comparing him to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In 2004, they figured out how to hate John Kerry more than Democrats hated George W. Bush, which was no small feat. By 2006, aided by an increasingly grotesque war in Iraq, Democrats finally broke the 9/11 spell. In 2008, America elected Barack Obama, a black man with a Muslim name who had just finished paying off his student loans. In 2010, the Tea Party decided that Obama was Kim Jong-il because he had pushed through a health-care law modeled on Mitt Romney’s. It was quite a run.
And now, quiet. Obama has become a cautious, constrained Washington Democrat; Bill Clinton without the demons. The Republicans have nominated Mitt Romney, the guy who made Rick Santorum seem colorful. Romney is delivering a Muzak version of the standard GOP refrain about unshackling capitalism and restoring belief in America. Barack Obama is warning of the Dickensian suffering that Romney’s “severe” conservatism will bring. Obama probably will win, since the GOP is an election or two away from retooling itself for a younger, browner, more female America. It’s going to be dull.
But that’s not such a bad thing. Think about what is making this election dull. For one thing, the fact that America has ended one war (Iraq), is retreating, albeit too slowly, from another (Afghanistan) and has, so far, avoided a third (Iran). The venom injected into American politics by the Bush administration’s “war on terror” has largely left the bloodstream. Romney can’t bash Obama for losing Afghanistan; he can’t call him soft on al Qaeda; he can’t even sound too warlike on Iran, because after a decade of ceaseless war, Americans are tired. Yes, the campaign would be more interesting if American warships were getting shelled in the Straits of Hormuz. But I’ll take boring any time.
The second reason the campaign is boring is because America is caught in a slow recovery from a deep recession. That’s not great, but neither is it Greece. Obama has stabilized the economy and revived it, inadequately. That may be less exciting than the Jimmy Stewart-style runs on banks that some predicted a couple of years back, but I’ll take it.
Finally, the campaign is boring because the culture war isn’t what it once was. There are those who detect a whiff of racial innuendo in Karl Rove and company’s latest ad linking Obama to Kanye West. But compared with the days of Willie Horton and “welfare queens,” it’s tame. This campaign will be dull because even with Karl Rove, Republican race-baiting isn’t what it was in the Lee Atwater days. Generational change, mass immigration, the repeal of welfare reform, the “mending” of affirmative action, and the decline in crime (which many whites wrongly believed was mostly committed by blacks) have all eased the racial tensions of the 1980s. I doubt Mitt Romney will even go as far as Newt “food stamp president” Gingrich did in the primaries, largely because in this political climate, such appeals are unlikely to work. Yet another reason we should be pleased this campaign is dull.
This campaign will be dull because even with Karl Rove, Republican race-baiting isn’t what it was in the Lee Atwater days.
In the last decade and a half, America has seen its share of crusades: a crusade to impeach a president, a crusade to remake the Middle East, a crusade to pass health-care reform, a crusade to repeal health-care reform. To some degree or another, each has led to disappointment. Maybe what Americans want today is calm—a nice quiet economic recovery untroubled by global upheavals and cultural hatreds. Boring? Sure, but they deserve it.