The price of hubris: A disappointing contest offers one encouraging lesson
EXAMINED from close up, this has been a dismaying election. Too often the 2012 presidential campaign has thrown up large topics for debate—the role of government, the limits of welfare, or how to square globalisation with the American dream—only to argue about them in small ways. Too much stress has been laid on the candidates’ characters, life stories or personal good faith. Too little has been laid on the feasibility of their policies.
Record-breaking sums have been spent on torrents of negative advertising. In the race’s last days neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has hesitated to betray virtues that are supposed to define them. Mr Obama—who in 2004 enraptured a party convention by rejecting the division of America by race or ideology—has run an advertisement in the swing state of Ohio, accusing his rival of plotting to kill the car industry, closing with the horrid slogan: “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” Mr Romney is a convinced free-trader with expertise in turning round underperforming businesses. But in Ohio he has run an election-eve ad denouncing Fiat, owners of the Jeep brand, for presuming to increase that business by supplying Chinese buyers from a local production line, or, as his rustbelt-pandering spot puts it: “Obama…sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.”
Yet take a step back, and this small-minded, mean election points to a big, reassuring constant of American politics. Pitted against each other in contests turbocharged by partisanship and pots of money, politicians often overreach. Such partisan ferocity can pay dividends in election contests, notably by revving up the base in congressional or local districts whose boundaries can be gerrymandered to favour one side. But in time, and especially at the national level, overreach tends to be penalised. Encouragingly often the democratic system self-corrects. Time and again, the big landmarks and waypoints of this election have involved instances of each side going too far and paying a price.