If the stakes could not be bigger, why are the presidential candidates running such insubstantial campaigns?
On any given day, it seems like the debate is about whether President Obama thinks entrepreneurs built their own businesses or what year Mitt Romney gave up control of Bain Capital — instead of big solutions to fundamental problems like economic growth, energy or immigration.
"The gap between what we need and what we're getting is bigger than it has been at any point in my lifetime," says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration Cabinet official and now CEO of Foreign Policy magazine.
Rothkopf wants the president to talk more about the "grand bargain" he's willing to make with Republicans on the deficit, the tax code and entitlements.
"He's avoiding answering the big question, which is: How are you going to do better in the next four years than you've done in the past four years? How does he avoid the problems associated with the fiscal cliff? How does he stimulate growth?" says Rothkopf. "If we've got to create tens of millions of new jobs over the course of the next several years, how do we ensure that that happens and ensure it happens in a way that brings the greatest benefits to the most people in society? And the president simply isn't addressing those things, he's playing small ball just like Romney is."
The Obama team refutes this charge, saying it lays out the president's plan every day.
Romney, on the other hand, has made a conscious decision not to be more specific and he's candid about why. Romney says if he revealed more than broad promises to cut taxes and shrink the government the details would be used against him.
So instead of laying out his own governing vision, Romney has been trying to keep the focus on the president.
"The Romney campaign's theory of the race is the economy is bad, President Obama is not that popular," says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "If they keep their head down, if they're cautious, if they don't offend any independent voters, the natural break at the end will be against the relatively unpopular incumbent and a pretty weak economy and they'll win. It could happen that way."
Romney certainly thinks so. In an interview with CBS this month, he said his path to victory depended on a relentless focus on Obama's handling of the economy. "As long as I continue to speak about the economy, I'm going to win," he said.
But a small but influential chorus of conservative voices — including the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Kristol — are asking, what if he's wrong?
"As someone, you know, who hopes Romney wins, I just worry about that, because I do think history suggests that at the presidential level, it's hard to win by just playing not to lose," Kristol says. "People want to see the path you're going to take the country on. Reagan showed them that path in 1980. Bill Clinton showed that path in 1992. I don't think that Romney has yet showed them that path in 2012."
Still Time For A Grand Plan?
Republican strategist Ed Rogers says, relax, Romney has plenty of time.
"By any measure, the Romney campaign is in pretty strong shape. The fact that he's even marginally ahead or marginally behind in the polls for July right now speaks for itself," he says. "Romney's doing good, but does he need more plans and more specifics? Yes, he does. Would it be better to have them and offer some fresh perspective on some of the issues, some of the things he wants to do as president? Yeah, probably so. There's no hurry right now."
Wait until the fall, says Rogers, when more voters are tuned in. It remains to be seen whether the Romney campaign plans to release a bold policy agenda anytime. Romney has put out a 59-point economic plan.
But when he boils it down, it's with this flip applause line: "What would I do? People ask me, 'What would you do to get the economy going?' And I say, 'Well, look at what the president's done and do the opposite," Romney said while campaigning in Virginia in May.
Political analyst Stu Rothenberg points out that both candidates are doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
"That is, Romney is trying to make the election a referendum on unemployment and the administration's performance. And the president, since he doesn't have a great record on jobs and the economy, has to make the election about Romney," Rothenberg says. "The problem is that they're running the right kind of campaigns to win an election. They're not running the right kind of campaigns to govern after the election."
That means whoever wins the White House won't have a mandate to tackle the long list of difficult problems that will have to be addressed after November.
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