If the presidential campaign were a TV program, it would have been canceled by now. Viewers have clicked off, stupefied by a campaign that has one overriding issue, the economy, and virtually nothing else. What started out with such energy — a "Gong Show" of GOP debates, one unlikely and bizarre front-runner after another — has settled into a slog in which two "firsts," an African American and a Mormon, are proving the efficacy of the melting pot: They have both been reduced to gruel.
Over at the television networks, the ratings tell the tale. One network news executive says they're seeing viewers flee politics. There was a flash of interest around the time of the Republican debates but little since. When politics come up, the ratings show a real dip in viewership — presumably a rush to the bathroom or the kitchen. (Could this be a cause of the obesity epidemic?)
Why is this happening? Some of it no doubt is due to the traditional American antipathy toward politicians, government, and anything that lacks a goal post. We consider it a triumph of Jeffersonian democracy when 60 percent of us vote, but usually the figure is lower — 57 percent in 2008 and 37.8 percent in the last congressional elections. Even the mass movement that brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House and inaugurated the New Deal was the work of less than 60 percent of the electorate.
But other factors are at work this year. First and foremost is the paucity of really gripping issues. There is only one, the economy, and it will do what it wants. If it improves, Barack Obama will win; if it worsens, Mitt Romney will win. Just to add to the dreariness, the economy seems to reflect the candidates' personalities. It gets a little bit better and then a little bit worse and then maybe doesn't move at all. Housing goes up and then down and then nowhere. Things are better than they once were but worse than they used to be. The recession has receded, but the promised boom has gone bust. This is the nowhere economy — neither boom nor bust nor much good to anyone.
Romney, therefore, is content not to make waves. He steers clear of the arch-conservative positions he was forced to take in the primaries, revealing as little of himself as possible. He is content to let the lousy economy campaign for him. He emphasizes his bogus credentials as a jobs creator when what he was, of course, was a profit creator. He has vast expertise in the private sector, but so did Herbert Hoover and so didn't, among many others, Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, Clinton, both Roosevelts and — icon or not — Reagan. Giving speeches does not create jobs.
Adding to the general political languor are the personalities of both candidates. They are both withdrawn, withholding people, with little of the politician's desperate need for the company of others. Obama is a paradox: an exciting story, an unexciting man. His charisma, so evident on the stump, has a brief half-life. He somehow covers it, like the snuffer over a candle, and it casts no glow.
So this political season has become like sports — the domain of the fan. You can follow it on its dedicated cable channels — Fox News, MSNBC, etc. — which have become versions of fan radio. Rutgers University historian David Greenberg noted in a New Republic essay earlier this year the synergy between sports fandom and political fandom in which all opinions are valid and, of course, evanescent. Just as no one knows the long-term consequence of a wild pitch and whether it is worth discussing, no one knows the meaning of a single campaign gaffe. Everything's important for 24 hours.
For all the blather, there's not all that much the White House can do about the economy. It can nudge and it can tug, but the economy goes its own way. A jobs program would help, but Congress won't pass it. More deficit spending would help, but Congress won't allow it. The government is tied up in knots. It, too, waits for November.
This is a campaign of immense consequence and, paradoxically, torpor. It's as if it is being conducted by men who will not — or cannot — control events but are waiting for events to control them. They campaign dutifully but dully, going through the motions until Election Day. Maybe then they'll get the audience back. In the meantime, America has gone for a beer.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.