Sometime last week my roommate and I were discussing our election fatigue--how tired we were of the endless parade of meaningless political stories dominating the news. Maybe, I wondered, because we're both only 21, we can't recall that the previous presidential elections in '04 and '00 were just as full of inanity.
Were we were too young to recognize it then? Did we not know that an election is an interminable popularity contest interrupted by the occasional gaffe made in a speech by the candidate, a candidate's staffer, or random supporter of that candidate? For variety, throw in the occasional rumor attributed to "the blogosphere" or "offensive" statement made by anybody.
I haven't turned cynical--I still think choices matter. You want to pick someone competent and hard-working, someone who can empathize with others and make decisions while handling conflicting opinions. Personality matters, not just because the president needs to "work well with others" to govern effectively, but because they are also a living, walking advertisement of our country, broadcasting a message to us and the world.
But I worry that the way campaigns operate and the way the media reports on them leads voters to:
a) make a decision based on factors that don't matter
b) misunderstand what the president actually does and what he directly affects
and c) fail to realize that differences between candidates aren't that significant in a practical context.
Especially with regards to that last point, it's always amusing to hear the country's-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket spiel each side claims will happen if the other is elected. In the event of something like a major crisis, chances are whoever's sitting in the Oval Office is going to respond in a similar way. And practicality, with regards to politics, media coverage, and just the weight of actually being president means that no one, despite their professed ideology, is going to do anything too radical. (Post-9/11 governmental excesses against the Constitution, one hopes, are the exception, and temporary at that.)
So for example, you can hold McCain's lack of economics expertise against him, but as president he just has to be able to understand his advisory council of PhD economists, his Treasury secretary, Ben Bernanke, or a good newspaper--and make decisions accordingly. You can criticize Obama for saying he would talk to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but if elected he wouldn't allow Iran to use nuclear weapons to threaten the safety of the U.S. or our allies.
Then again, who wants a sober, rational analysis of the candidates? Surely it's only a matter of time before Obama doesn't wear a Stars-and-Stripes lapel pin while giving a speech in France, and John McCain exiles another close surrogate whom 99.8% of voters couldn't pick out of a police lineup anyway.
...Ugh. Only about 15 or so weeks left to go!