Expensive (more than $235 million spent by the major candidates alone). Disgusting (“knock” campaign advertising continues to dominate airwaves). Shameful (for the world’s oldest constitutional democracy that just won a protracted struggle with totalitarianism). Pick your own description of this year’s lamentable presidential campaign.
The lackluster Bush campaign was dominated by mud-slinging. The roller-coaster Clinton campaign was dominated by massive disinformation about the American economy. Clinton’s vulnerabilities sustained the mud-slinging. Bush’s inability to communicate the achievements and long-term benefits of limited government and enterprise economics allowed Clinton’s disinformation to go unchallenged.
As we await the verdict of the voters, let’s consider some lessons of this election cycle.
First, we learned something about debate formats. The format that seemed to work best was the “Jim Lehrer” format of the final debate. That was the single moderator acting as traffic cop, asking questions (including follow-ups) with a time limit on responses.
“Jim Lehrer” was much more substantive and hard-hitting than the “Meet the Press” format using a panel of journalists (you learn more about the journalists than the candidates). “Jim Lehrer” was also superior to the “Phil Donahue/Oprah Winfrey” questions-from-the-audience format (soft balls, set-ups and no follow-ups). And it was superior to the “food fight” format of the vice-presidential debate that featured a single moderator-referee (no focus, no discipline and no accountability).
Second, we learned voters will watch a 30-minute issues presentation. Ross Perot proved that several times over, as his “infomercials” garnered larger audiences than many prime time TV broadcasts.
Third, charts and graphs work well on TV and are useful ways to communicate complex ideas and clarify numerical data, as shown by Perot’s successful “infomercials.” TV has been around since the election of 1952. Why has it taken so long? Whatever the reason, we’ll soon see more use of graphics by political leaders at every level.
Fourth, citizens will turn out to vote when there are opportunities (84 open seats in Congress; compelling ballot issues dealing with term limits, abortion, gambling, gay rights), fear (concern about jobs and fear of foreign competition) and discontent (political careerism; unresponsive government).
Fifth, a jingoistic isolationist mood has developed in the U.S. It was fanned as Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown and Ross Perot stalked the President’s free trade policies. It was demonstrated by the way CNN’s “pulse on America” needle moved when Clinton and Perot fingered so-called “foreign lobbyists” and the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as U.S. job killers.
Sixth, voters want more control over political decisions that affect their lives and their pocketbooks. Term limits for career politicians, school choice amendments to empower parents and break the monopoly power of government schools and limits on taxes and spending are popping up everywhere with greater frequency. More attention is being given to “super majority” requirements for tax increases — where the enactment of new taxes would require a 60% or a two-thirds majority.
Seventh, voters are increasingly turning to women for political leadership. This trend will continue well beyond the “Year of the Woman.”
So, whatever the outcome of the election tonight, the process this year has been unusually instructive. We’ve learned some lessons that can serve us well in the future, if we listen.