Given that the country is facing huge problems and still digging out from the worst financial crisis since the Depression, some might expect that the seemingly endless debates and breathless saturation of media coverage of it all would converge into a real discussion of our major problems. But only if they haven't been paying attention.
Though the country is sorely in need of solutions, and the public hungry for real debate, that's not what was served up in Iowa or New Hampshire -- either by the candidates or the vast pack of media covering their every word. What we got instead was a deluge of attack ads, largely financed by the super PACs allowed by the Citizens United decision.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 264 super PACs have been spawned for the 2012 race, and they've already spent almost half of the $32 million they've raised. In Iowa, nearly $13 million was spent by super PACs, with $4.6 million being spent on behalf of Mitt Romney.
And what was all that money spent on? According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, 45 percent of the ads were negative ads focused on Newt Gingrich. It's how the new politics works. Of course, negative ads have always existed, but now they can make up a huge portion of a candidate's messaging, and can be outsourced to shadowy outside groups. It's what allowed Mr. Romney to neutralize Mr. Gingrich while he traipsed around unctuously reciting lyrics to "America the Beautiful" and making corny jokes about "corn as an amber wave of grain."
The results show that negative advertising works -- if your definition of "works" is driving up an opponent's negatives while also driving up voters' cynicism, resignation, and despair about their political system.
Though the media portrayed the caucuses as a titanic struggle to see which candidate would channel the fury of Iowa Republicans who were desperate to unseat President Barack Obama, the facts tell a different story. Mr. Romney might have eked out a victory, but he did so with the lowest percentage of the vote of any Iowa winner since the caucuses began.
All told, the total number of Iowans who showed up was only 122,000, which translates into 19.9 percent of registered Republicans, down from 21.1 in 2008. To put those numbers in perspective, nearly twice as many -- 240,000 -- showed up at the Democratic caucuses in 2008. Perhaps that's because people have more on their minds than the HPV vaccine, contraception, which federal agencies to close down, the march of European Socialism, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, as brilliantly managed as they apparently were.
According to the latest stats, unemployment stands at 8.5 percent, down only 0.6 of a percentage point since August. The number of long-term unemployed barely changed at 5.6 million, which accounts for more than 42 percent of the jobless. The employment-population ratio was unchanged from the month before, at 58.5 percent. And almost half of all Americans can now be classified as either in poverty or low income.
Last week in The New York Times, Jason DeParle detailed five major studies that have recently shown the decline in economic mobility in the United States, which now lags most European countries and Canada. "It's becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries," said Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill. "I don't think you'll find too many people who will argue with that."
But neither will you find too many of the candidates talking about it. Former George Bush aide John Bridgeland, who helped found Opportunity Nation, professed himself "shocked" by America's standing relative to Europe and Canada. "Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality," he said. "But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility -- a lack of access to the American Dream."
Well, if they're feeling that need, they're doing a great job of resisting it. Sure, they talk about jobs, but mostly in a clownish contest for who can make the most outrageous claims about President Obama's European Kenyan Outsider Un-American Socialism. That might feed the anger of a small minority of Americans, but it does little to convince the majority that any of the candidates has a handle on the economic problems we're facing.
Perhaps this disconnect -- between what people are really concerned about and what the candidates and the media following them are talking about -- is contributing to the fact that, according to Gallup, for all of 2011, an average of only 17 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going.
And perhaps it's why Congress ended 2011 with an 11 percent approval rating, a record low. Or why only 27 percent say they think favorably about the Republican Party. The Democrats aren't much better at 32 percent.
What these numbers -- and those about voter turnout in Iowa -- show is that, yes, Americans are unhappy with the economy, and many are unhappy (for various reasons) with President Obama's response to the economy. But simply pointing that out isn't enough to convince voters a candidate can do any better. What voters want, and what the country needs, are solutions -- not another blizzard of cowardly, anonymously funded attack ads.