Most important issues went missing from presidential campaign

You know all that talk about how Superstorm Sandy will revivify efforts in Washington to address climate change? Write it down somewhere, because a few days or weeks from now it will be forgotten.

So will concerns about income inequality, and pledges to protect Social Security and Medicare from harm. They may be heading to the back burner after having only momentarily made it to the front.

These predictions are based on these issues’ weight in the recent presidential campaign, which is barely any weight at all. Both candidates tirelessly reminded us that this election was “important,” but the most important issues at stake for individual voters, for business and for the economy at large flitted by in their stump speeches and the three debates faster than you can say “attention span.”


As for Sandy somehow resetting the debate on climate change, you should be skeptical. Sometimes the bigger the event, the brighter the flare of aftermath and the faster the burnout. The word after 9/11 was that the attack would usher in a period of unprecedented domestic political comity; instead we got the most ruthlessly partisan politics in generations.

Nothing exemplifies the insipidness of the campaign and its news coverage more than the preoccupation with polls. Results in this cycle were so expertly analyzed that one might think that would have freed candidates and pundits to devote their attention to meaty issues. But no, the last weeks of the race were devoted to whether the pollsters were as good as they needed to be.

The same goes for the California election, where not one, but three tax initiatives got on the ballot without producing a dime’s worth of debate about the source of our state tax dysfunction: Proposition 13, and the way it has thrown our tax structure permanently out of whack while producing three decades of rising cynicism about state government.

As I write, the outcome of the presidential election remains unknown, but we can look back and think about what important concerns were left out.

Climate change is the gap yawning the most widely. It was barely mentioned until Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey last week. Although it made “climate change” a trending hash tag on Twitter, the treatment of the issue by both campaigns and much of the news media was largely theatrical.

Both campaigns focused on the immediate crisis, which is proper enough. President Obama pledged all the federal emergency assistance needed by the stricken communities, while Republican challenger Mitt Romney called for his supporters to attend his rallies bearing canned food and other goods (which happens to be exactly the type of contributions that relief agencies don’t need or want at a time like this).

Climate change didn’t come up once in the candidates’ three debates. Energy policy did, but as an economic, not an environmental, issue. The debaters competed with each other to express support for more oil and gas drilling; Obama also defended the government investments in renewable energy his administration has made, while Romney dismissed them.

As for the party platforms, we know they have as much influence on the campaigns as a bad review in the New Republic would have on the audience for an Adam Sandler movie. But even so, the Democrats’ treatment of climate change was mere lip service, a promise to “champion sustainable growth that includes the clean energy that creates green jobs and combats climate change.”

The Republicans’ approach was essentially to ridicule the Democrats for elevating climate change “to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression.” That also was the approach of their candidate, who in his convention speech mocked Obama for promising “to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” underscoring his words with a condescending bite of the lip. Yet climate change is an issue for national security and foreign policy, and for it to be AWOL from the debates this year, for the first time since 1988, is a dereliction to be blamed on both candidates and all three moderators.

What about income inequality, which Obama in his State of the Union address in January identified as “the defining issue of our time”? That made its appearance in this campaign chiefly through a couple of proxies: both candidates’ promises to protect the “middle class” from tax increases, and Obama’s pledge to raise the marginal tax rates on the wealthy.

Yet income inequality, on which the U.S. ranks worse than every other major industrialized country, is more than an artifact of income taxation. And it’s not just about Wall Street, as Obama’s stump speech would have it. Inequality is an outgrowth of basic industrial policy.

Reversing the trend means not only bringing manufacturing jobs back to these shores, which both candidates pledged to do, but ensuring that those jobs, and service jobs, pay a middle-class wage. It means safeguarding workers’ right to effective collective bargaining, which is under attack in every walk of life from schoolteaching to professional sports. It means reducing the dominance of financial engineering over industrial management in the corporate boardroom, because that’s what leads to the mind-set that the only stakeholder in business whose interests count is the shareholder.

Or maybe not: If Obama and Romney had battled each other over how really to ensure a level playing field for the working American, that would have been a campaign.

We don’t know very much about the future of U.S. fiscal policy, either, despite both candidates’ assurances that here, too, our household futures hang in the balance. Does the average voter know what the “fiscal cliff” means, much less the candidates’ plans to avert it? Romney pledged budget cuts and tax cuts, higher spending on the military, but smaller deficits, somehow without acts or figures to validate any of those four promises.

Obama’s quest for higher tax revenues from the wealthy leaves disquieting questions about his approach to a “grand bargain” that might avert the tax increases and budget slashing looming at the end of the year. Is he willing to use Medicare and Social Security as bargaining chips? Questions like those are among the factors preventing progressives from giving him their full-throated support.

There’s nothing wrong with a presidential campaign being part beauty pageant, in which the candidates are judged in part by how good — er, how “presidential"— they look and act in evening wear. But even the crassest one requires some display of talent and brains. This one may have been our longest such pageant ever, and yet we almost know less about what lies ahead in the next four years then we did when it started.

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.